Theater: Beyond the Color Line


Meeting in convention in Boston early in July, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People heard from its leadership of a possible selective boycott of Hollywood movies, this because of what was termed the inadequate use of black talent in contemporary film. The criticism of the movie industry has merit. In July, in these pages, I wrote of the stage play Annie and mentioned that the movie version had then just appeared; I didn't mention the oddity within Annie, the movie, of portraying a huge New York City orphanage, packed to the rafters with scruffy little girls, of whom none was black. Could it be that no Negro child turned up for an audition as an extra in the film?

Whatever can and really should be said about the insufficient employment of black talent in the movies, rather a different story applies to the American theater. Along with the very recent Nine, the pinnacle of musical success in Gotham these days has been attained by Dreamgirls, which opened first in Boston, then took New York by storm, and will begin its peregrination across America in short order. Dreamgirls is the most notable but by no means the only tremendously successful theatrical offering dealing with blacks, starring blacks, and presenting an image of life from what might, without exaggeration or condescension, be called a black perspective.

Often people say that the audience for movies is representative of, if not the entire age spectrum, then certainly the entire class spectrum among younger Americans. Theater, on the other hand, is said to remain the province of more affluent and older people. To some extent this may well account for the fact that an overwhelmingly white audience for expensive theatrical presentations has no problem "relating" to shows about nonwhites, whereas the mass audience for movies remains very stratified.

The interest in the theater in black themes is at what may well be its height in modern times, and the acceptance of black performers by overwhelmingly white audiences is broad, deep, and, I think, genuine. The just-retired dean of American theater critics, Elliot Norton, who wrote most recently for the Boston Herald American, observed in his last week of a reviewing career that spanned more than a half century that "race is no barrier for Broadway's hits," pointing to Sophisticated Ladies and Harold and the Boys and Lena Horne's outstandingly popular one-woman show, as well as to Dreamgirls, to make his point.

Mr. Norton wrote: "In the theaters of Boston and New York, black writers and performers are winning the awards and the public favor that show their artistic maturity and commercial acuity. Shows by and starring blacks have moved well beyond the color line." What applies to Boston and New York applies as well to urban America in general. Norton believes, and his belief is shared by most of his critic brethren, that there is much reason to rejoice at this development.

Not everybody shares that viewpoint. Mr. Gerald Bordman, an excellent student of the musical theater, author of American Musical Theater: A Chronicle; Jerome Kern, His Life and Music; American Operetta: From H.M.S. Pinafore to Sweeney Todd; and this year, of Days to Be Happy, Years to Be Sad: The Life and Music of Vincent Youmans, complained recently on my radio program of what he termed the emphasis in current American theatrical ventures on the woes of "cripples, coloreds, and queers." That sounds harsher than Mr. Bordman meant, and he was quick to explain that he has nothing against any of those groups, whether alliteratively named or more politely described, but, rather, that he objects to the turn away in American theater from attention to the rich, the well-born (and he didn't add, as Hamilton did, the able, but that was implied).

Bordman gave dozens of examples: Bent: homosexuals under Nazism; West Side Waltz: aging spinsters and a freaky hippie girl; Mass Appeal: bisexuality in the clergy; A Chorus Line: guilt-ridden gays, upward-striving ethnics, pushy blacks; Children of a Lesser God: the deaf; Fifth of July: crippled homosexual; Dreamgirls: Motown black singers and their cynical boyfriends and managers; and on and on. Mr. Bordman has an encyclopedic knowledge of and a romantic attachment to what he considers the good old days of the American stage, and though the brief capsules attached to the shows mentioned just above are mine, not his, they convey the flavor of his evaluation of them.

He gives a reason for what he sees as this special emphasis on characterizations and situations that play to travails and tell of those who are not of the favored classes. His reason: left-wing critics, left-wing playwrights, left-wing musicians. And who knows? There may be something to his evaluation.

The question remaining, then, is this, Are the audiences also left-wing? If so—and I only put the question, not assenting to the implied answer—then are the movies and the theater destined for even further divorce? The question arises because the movies are increasingly "conservative" in theme, with some, like Conan the Barbarian, to some extent representing what might even be called a crypto-fascist orientation. At the same time the American theater, both in New York and in the regional road shows, gives no indication of veering much from its two mainstays, the tried-and-true hits in revival and the splashy newer material dwelling, as Bordman perhaps unkindly puts it, and Norton enthusiastically describes it, on those long left out of the American theatrical consciousness.

Contributing editor David Brudnoy is arts critic for WNEV-TV (CBS) and WRKO-AM (ABC) in Boston, and he hosts a nightly talk program on WRKO and writes on film for the Boston Herald American. His thrice-weekly newspaper column is syndicated nationally. Copyright © 1982 by David Brudnoy.