Show Boat, Race Relations and the N-Word at the Dallas Opera

The well-heeled crowd at Winspear Opera House this Friday is going to get the chance to be offended by Dallas Opera’s production of Show Boat. The first-ever opening night audience on Broadway 90 years ago may have had a little jolt at seeing an all-black chorus, including women, onstage as the curtain went up, but apparently had little trouble accepting the opening lines, “Niggers all work on the Mississippi; Niggers all work while the white folks play..."

This Friday, the audience in Dallas instead will hear, “Colored folks work on the Mississippi; Colored folks work while the white folks play ...”

There are, obviously, plenty of good reasons to avoid the word “nigger” in the opening moments of an opera production in a world charged with racial tensions. And there are plenty of arguments for sticking with the author’s original intent, in a world that values historical accuracy and frank discussion of unpleasant truths. And there’s even the whole question of whether the term “colored folks” is much less offensive than “nigger.”

But the performers, director and opera officials are standing by their choices. “I had no concerns about participating,” says Nycole Ray, artistic director of Dallas Black Dance Theatre, who provided dancers from the group to support the production. “What is presented in Show Boat is real history. There are negative stereotypes, but it’s something that was there, as part of the culture, and people need to know this and realize it.”

 Show Boat is a product of its era. The show began its life on the Broadway stage, as a commercial venture, in 1927. Playwright and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein (later of “Rogers and”) and his pre-Rogers collaborator, Jerome Kern, convinced the leading Broadway producer of the 1920s, Florenz Ziegfield, to let them push the envelope on the standard “boy meets girl” formula to make a show out of that year’s best selling novel, Edna Ferber’s Show Boat.

With profit-focused Ziegfield looking on nervously, Kern and Hammerstein came up with a show that, while preserving the tried-and-true boy-meets-girl strategy of every previous Broadway show, dealt, like Ferber’s novel, with themes of racial identity, discrimination, gender roles, economic inequality, generational conflict, the emergence of consumer society and addiction. (Ferber had included hints of homosexuality and references to prostitution in the novel, but Kern and Hammerstein weren’t quite ready to push the Broadway audience that far in 1927.) 

The Dallas Opera had not yet produced a Broadway musical until Show Boat.  The current production, including sets and costumes, was originally produced for Chicago Lyric Opera under director Francesca Zambello. Although the onsite direction for the show in Dallas is handled by E. Loren Meeker, Zambello’s conception is the guiding force.
While the initial appearance of “nigger” in the opening chorus was eliminated, the Dallas Opera has opted to continue stage director Zambello’s practice of keeping with the original script, where two of the white characters use the word — in one case, almost immediately after the opening chorus, in the first scene.

Soprano Alyson Cambridge, who plays the doomed, mixed-race character Julie, says she appeared recently in a different production in Louisville with Kentucky Opera, in which the word “nigger” was entirely omitted from the script. While she of course supports the practice of the current production in Dallas, Cambridge says that, ultimately, in her opinion, the original use of the word "nigger" should be restored entirely, including in the opening chorus.

“I relate to Julie,” Cambridge says of the role, vouching for the authenticity of what Julie represents. “My mother is white and my father is black. I haven’t experienced the pain of ‘passing’ that someone like Julie would have experienced in those days. But I know what it is to be a bi-racial woman in 2016, and I know the experience of inadvertently ‘passing’ without intending to.”

The very idea of miscegenation laws forbidding interracial marriage, a key element in the plot, may seem bizarre to anyone who grew up after the Supreme Court ruling on Loving v. Virginia in 1967. But for anyone who remembers pre-civil rights America, the subplot of mixed-race Julie and her unsuccessful efforts to remain in a marriage with a white man rings painfully and profoundly true.

Less easy to swallow is the authenticity of two of the central characters, the African American cook Queenie and her husband Joe. Queenie is the epitome of the Aunt Jemima stereotype, ruling the roost in the kitchen, while Joe is described as lazy and unfocused. “I considered for months before taking the role, based on the stereotypes,” says bass Morris Robinson, who sings the role of Joe.

But the song “Ol' Man River,” which is both one of the great bass arias of all time as well as an iconic piece of American culture, finally lured Robinson. He adopted the somewhat revised text as sung by the great African American actor, singer and activist Paul Robeson, which Robinson says gives “Ol' Man River” the character of “a protest song, with the river as a representation of the dream Joe can’t achieve.”

“Morris and I could have let the stereotypes take over,” says soprano Andel Renée Simpson, who plays the role of Queenie, “But we didn’t.”

Simpson explains, in support of her take on the script, that it’s clear that Queenie and Joe are the people who keep the show boat running smoothly, and that Queenie’s kitchen is the heart of life on the Cotton Blossom.

There can be little doubt that Ferber, Kern and Hammerstein recognized discrimination for what it was. And there can be little doubt that they simply practiced the vernacular of their day when they put racial slurs in the mouths of their characters.

In choosing to employ the word “nigger” from the original text in some instances and bowdlerize it in others, Dallas Opera has chosen a middle ground, bound to annoy those who want a historically accurate text on one hand and those who prefer not to hear the word “nigger” in an operatic venue on the other.

Whether or not an audience member chooses to view certain aspects of Show Boat as part of the historical record or to see those aspects as a reinforcement of outdated stereotypes will depend on the individual. What is certain is that, almost a century later, Show Boat continues to entertain, to inform in unexpected ways, and to force audience members to think, in the midst of beautiful music and spectacle, about the intertwined hopes and failures of America.

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