I remember seeing Roger’s and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma as a young girl and loving the dancing music, twirling skirts, and memorable lyrics set in the turn-of-the-century Oklahoma territory. So I went to last night’s showing at Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre expecting a light-hearted romp through prairie lands and happy endings. It wasn’t long into Act I that I realized this performance would be anything but.
The show was impeccably done, and the talent of the performers was clearly evident. The leads sang beautifully, the girls’ skirts were every bit as frilly and swishy as I remembered, and the dancers’ powerful moves were jaw-dropping. In case you aren’t familiar with the plot, Oklahoma’s storyline centers around the heroine Laurey and her boyish suitor Curly. Curly woos Laurey. Laurey flirts and flutters away. And the audience anticipates that true love will win out in the end. Enter the villainous hired hand, Jud, who desires Laurey even though her heart belongs to Curly. A familiar, albeit rather thin, boy-gets-girl plot-line. Now, picture Jud cast as an African-American actor and Laurey as a white woman.
All of a sudden, Jud’s unrequited love and unwelcome advances toward Laurey take on a different layer of meaning. A scene where Curly jokingly suggests Jud hang himself with a thick rope becomes sinister with the tragic reality of lynchings. Jud’s heart-wrenching desire for “something real” echoes with the history of stolen opportunity and grave injustice. And a surreal dream sequence between Laurey and Jud disturbingly references the stereotypes of a white woman endangered by the appetites and violence of a black man.
Whilst listening to the merits of Kansas City, I leaned over to my husband and said, “I don’t remember this musical tackling racism.” At first, I thought this had to do with the colorblindness that comes naturally to children. I couldn’t have been more than ten years old when I had last seen it. Maybe I had never picked up on the familiar racial stereotypes or perhaps that sort of racism was tolerated back in the 40s when Oklahoma first was written.
As the play went on, though, it became clear that the casting was intentionally bringing to light issues of race, something that I later learned had people walking out during opening night’s intermission. Other theatre-goers were calling the play racist. I disagree. It was a controversial interpretation, sure, and definitely a bold one. But I think casting a play in familiar and horrible stereotypes reveals a component of our own latent racism. I remember a time in college where I found myself to be one of two white women in a crowded high school gymnasium of black athletes. I would have never called myself racist, and, in fact had grown up sporting “Love is Colorblind” t-shirts along with the rest of my generation. But sitting on that gym bleacher, I was markedly uncomfortable. And I realized it was wholly because of skin color and fears/lies/prejudice I had absorbed along the way. The setting only clarified my sight, and as hard as it was to face my own hidden prejudices at the time, it helped me consider them and begin to change.
I think Donald Byrd’s interpretation of Oklahoma does the same thing. For me, the brilliance of this performance is the contrast of the familiar and whimsical lyrics set against the underlying racial tensions. It is the stark contrast of the lives of the hero and the villain, for Jud certainly is villainous, but the complexity of his loneliness and despair is heightened by the unspoken but immediate nod to America’s history of racial oppression. Add to that the impossibly cavalier way in which his death is dealt with. Jud falls on his own knife after attacking Curly on Laurey and Curly’s wedding night.
“Why did this have to happen to us?” Laurey sings, rightly anguished over the violent scene. But, in that moment, her myopic focus feels almost laughable. Laurey’s self-absorption made me aware that Oklahoma was doing for me the same thing that high school basketball game had done so long ago. Somehow the way the main characters pass right by a man’s death into concern for how the heroes will get their happy ending left me with unresolved emotions toward Jud’s evil. The absolute silence regarding his death poignantly speaks to how frequently our history has only told half the story. This is heightened even more when Curly and Laurey hop into their fringed buggy crooning about the beauty of the morning. “Everything is going my way,” they say, all recognition of Jud’s pathetic life impossibly forgotten.
The play left me cheering wildly for the outstanding performance by the cast and crew. And it left me internally unsettled. In a good way. Jud’s story haunted me but not because of the lines he was given in Oklahoma. It was more his untold story, one that hinted at the centuries where voices like his were silenced, where the complex stew of oppression and violence engendered more violence, and the unfairness of a world where, for some people, things just never go their way. Though we culturally may have progressed enough to be outraged at the thought of racial stereotypes flaunted on the stage, the fact is that oppression and prejudice are alive and well throughout the world. And I don’t think I’m alone in being blinded by my own happiness – by the way things generally go my way – so that I am callous and indifferent to the hardships of others outside my immediate world. I have no easy conclusion here. I’m still a bit unsettled by the performance, and it’s given me much to think about and, hopefully, direction for change.
So, to all those who worked to make this year’s production of Oklahoma so amazing: Thank You.