At Plano Children's Theatre, They've Shampooed All the Black Kids out of Hairspray

You need two things when you do the musical Hairspray: a fat girl to play the lead character, Tracy Turnblad, and a bunch of African-American kids to play the African-American kids. There are about a dozen roles for young black performers in this show, plus one for a big black lady who closes out the first act with the showstopper "Big, Blonde and Beautiful."

So out at Plano Children's Theatre right now, they're doing Hairspray without those things. The girl playing Tracy is wearing padding to puff up. (This isn't a role like Cyrano where you can slap a big nose on a pretty face and get away with it. Tracy is supposed to be chubbo to start with.) And there are no black kiddos in the show. None. The roles of Seaweed, Mother Maybelle and all the other black Baltimoreans are being played by kids so white they make the Cleavers look ethnic.

Somebody tipped me off via email to this all-teen production, which runs through February 12. I don't normally review shows at PCT, one of those pay-for-play outfits that charges parents $250 a pop for their kids to be on the stage. PCT styles itself as an academy. Their motto is "developing characters."

I went to the Saturday, January 28, matinee of PCT's Hairspray, bought a $10 ticket and watched the show. Or most of it. I left after my intermission interviews with people on the staff. I'd seen enough by then. My emotional/ethical elevator had already pushed the button for the floor marked "High Dudgeon."

Hairspray is a musical comedy based on an old John Waters movie. The show is done all the time at high schools and community theaters around here. There are five more local productions in the works right now, including one at the drama department at Plano's Collin College that opens March 1. You may also have seen the movie version of the musical, which stars John Travolta in drag as Tracy's mother, Edna.

The premise of all of these Hairsprays is the same: A fat, funny teenage girl in 1960s Baltimore dreams of joining the cool kids on the "council" of a local afternoon TV dance show. She becomes a political activist when she discovers that her black friends at high school aren't allowed on the show except on "Negro day." How Tracy, Seaweed and their gang of dancing misfits integrate "The Corny Collins Show" is what Hairspray is about. The fat girl also gets the good-looking guy as her boyfriend. Good, clean fun with a serious message about segregation, acceptance of differences and how things used to be in America.

And how they still are at the corner of Custer Road and 15th Street in Plano, in the dreary strip mall/office park where Plano Children's Theatre sits.

The matinee I attended was full of proud parents, grandparents and others who didn't seem to notice or mind that the little white boy playing Seaweed was singing the lyrics "the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice" as he gyrated in some awkward approximation of Hairspray's dirty-dancing to "race music." Maybe they didn't know Seaweed and his soul-singing sister, Little Inez, are supposed to be African-American. Maybe they didn't care that Mother Maybelle, Seaweed's mother, was being played by a white girl in a curly blond wig singing this: "They say that white has might and thin is in/ Well, that's just bull 'cause ladies big is back/ And as for black, it's beautiful!"

At intermission, I spoke to Darrell Rodenbaugh, president of PCT's board of directors. My question was "Why do you have white kids playing black characters?"

"Well, should we deny these kids the opportunity to do a fun show?" he said. "We'd paid for the rights to the show six months in advance. We couldn't cancel it."

Didn't any black kids audition? No, said Rodenbaugh, it's hard to recruit black kids to PCT because there aren't that many in Plano. (African-Americans make up less than 8 percent of the Plano, Texas, population of 259,841, according to the most recent census numbers.)

So why do a show with black characters in it if you know going in that you won't have any black kids to play them? Rodenbaugh had several answers about how much the kids wanted to do Hairspray, how they weren't going to bow to "political correctness" and how "the parents expect this."

They expect to see white kids playing black characters? "Yes," said Rodenbaugh, who has kids in the cast of Hairspray, one of them playing Little Inez. He said PCT also did the musical Once on This Island with an all-white cast. (It's an Ahrens and Flaherty show that's basically Romeo and Juliet set in the French Antilles. It's usually cast along racial lines, with black actors playing the peasants and Anglos playing the upper classes. There is a version of the show that removes references to skin color and makes the story about class differences. I don't know if PCT did the latter.)

Rodenbaugh said they might do To Kill a Mockingbird with an all-white cast or Othello or The Wiz (three shows I mentioned to him that feature African-Americans either in prominent roles or as a majority of the cast). He said he saw nothing offensive or amiss about having no black actors in a show about racial segregation. I had to ask: Doesn't having an all-white cast ignore the core message of Hairspray - you know, the message about how the black kids weren't allowed to be on a show with white kids until brave little Tracy took a stand?

Rodenbaugh told me each young member of the PCT Hairspray cast had been asked to write a "report" about what the plot was about. "They're learning a good lesson in this show," he said.

I'm sure they are. I'm just not sure it's the right lesson.

Hairspray's director, Cassidy Crown, caught up with me in the parking lot. She kept saying PCT has to work with what they have and she did feel uncomfortable with the all-white cast. I got the impression she had hoped nobody would notice.

Later, I spoke by phone with Hairspray's choreographer Darius-Anthony Robinson, an African-American who's well known in the DFW professional musical theater community. He's currently working in Casa Manana's upcoming production of Rent. Robinson said when he went into rehearsals for PCT's Hairspray, there were several black kids in the ensemble, but after a few days, they all dropped out for various reasons.

"At that point, I said we gotta figure out something else. I did say we needed to try to do something. Maybe do another show," said Robinson. "But the more we tried to figure out stuff, the worse situation it put us in. I do believe that this is not a show you do without (African-American) kids in it."

At Robinson's urging, PCT management called the rights holders, Musical Theatre International, and asked for special dispensation to do Hairspray with the all-white cast. MTI agreed, with the provision that they print the following statement in the program:

"... if the production of Hairspray you are about to see tonight features folks whose skin color doesn't match the characters (not unlike how Edna has been traditionally played by a man), we ask that you use the timeless theatrical concept of `suspension of disbelief' and allow yourself to witness the story and not the racial background (or gender) of the actors. Our show is, after all, about not judging books by their covers! If the direction and the actors are good (and they had better be!) you will still get the message loud and clear. And hopefully have a great time receiving it!" -- Signed Marc Shaiman (composer), Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan (book writers) and Scott Wittman (lyricist).

To PCT's credit, they did cast a boy as Edna Turnblad. As for the requirement by Hairspray's creative team that the direction and actors be good, well, I won't go into details about PCT's performance and production values. I will say that PCT's season sponsors are the City of Plano, City of McKinney, Texas Commission on the Arts and UPS and that if each kid had to front $250 to be in this thing, and there are 34 kids listed as cast members in the program, that adds up to $8400 from students alone. And there's about $8.40 worth of scenery, costumes and lighting going on. They use recorded music. Some of the kids sing and dance OK. Most don't. One stood upstage and picked her nose a lot.

Brad Baker, chairman of the Collin College theater division and director of its upcoming Hairspray, says his contract with MTI to produce the show is very specific about matters of size and race. Any instance of blackface makeup incurs a $13,000 fine from MTI.

MTI's note to PCT mentions that there have been requests to allow blackface on white actors for Hairspray. They never allow it. And choreographer Robinson said he made sure "there wasn't even a hint of tan makeup" on the white-for-black kids at PCT.

"The creators of the show were pretty adamant that it be a checkerboard cast," says Brad Baker. "It's about race, it's about integration, it's about social change. I think it disserves the story and the point of the play (to have an all-white cast)." There's another "edge of entitlement" to Hairspray, says Baker, and that's in the casting of who plays Tracy Turnblad. Hairspray shows that "a fat girl can be the lead in a Broadway musical," says Baker. "She can be the love interest and she can be the lead. There are numerous high schools producing this with their beautiful blond, thin cheerleader in the role, padded." That, says Baker, is almost as bad as casting white kids in black roles.

PCT's Tracy isn't fat and she is padded. But compared to the other stuff, it seems a minor misstep.

Robinson, who's the in-house dance instructor at Plano Children's Theatre, says he's trying to make changes in the way they do things there, but it's sometimes a struggle. "The board wanted the kids to do Ragtime and I said absolutely not," says Robinson.

Ragtime, based on the E.L. Doctorow novel, is a huge Ahrens/Flaherty musical about civil rights struggles in early 20th century America. One of the characters is black educator and civil rights hero Booker T. Washington.

"The board didn't understand at first why I was objecting," says Robinson. "They all just loved the music. I know. This is Plano."

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