Step Aside, Gray Lady: Ishmael Reed and Carla Blank’s Reckoning with Bigotry on Broadway

Ishmael Reed and Carla Blank’s Bigotry on Broadway is a collection of essays that presents a scathing indictment of the stark whiteness of the Great White Way, and the ways in which we have been conditioned to accept some of the more overtly sinister examples of marginalization from its history, show storylines, casting, and the momentum that continues to carry racism and oppression. 

The concrete foundation of Reed and Blank’s curation of these essays is their choice to include authors not normally at the forefront of theatrical criticism, especially writers of color who can intimately reflect on the shows most guilty of the problems we tend to overlook. The glitz of the lights and the ink of the same presses that promote the same ignorant ideas generation after generation make it easy to, after all. These essays and interviews are reflections on the familiar, stalwart, racist old shows such as South Pacific, Oklahoma!, and Madame Butterfly, and these are revisited alongside contemporary pieces, such as Hamilton, Book of Mormon, and Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. In every case, the authors of these pieces pop open the hood of the productions and examine how the engines of racism hum in these institutional and cultural cornerstones of the American Theatrical Canon.

As a Jewish actor, and a teacher of writing, literature, and theatre, the weight of what these critics discuss is of great importance and value to me. Where does my teaching of Shakespeare, whose Shylock remains one of the most indelible examples of the world’s reinforcement of tired antisemitic tropes, overlap with my performing as Proteus in a warm sunny park in front of a crowd on a summer’s evening? How do I grapple with bringing Motel the tailor to life in a regional production of Fiddler where I share the stage with only a small handful of other Jews while Sarah Silverman becomes the first person to call out generations of “Jewface” performances in Hollywood for the first time in 2021 alongside David Baddiel writing about our world’s acceptance of antisemitism as the natural order of the world? Are these even new concepts, or is the marginalization of all ‘others’ just a perennial issue that no one cares about? Perhaps the heaviest question of all, where does that leave us Jews as the unquestionable vanguard of the writers, producers, composers, and backbone of many of the shows on Broadway with such a history of problematic, stereotyped, vaudevillian caricatures in the majority of Broadway’s history? 

And these are just my personal questions—existing as a Native American, Asian American, or African American on the stage or in the audience is hardly something I could even begin to understand…. But in order to create change, it is imperative to listen and support one another.  

This is the cornerstone of much of Ishmael Reed’s work, especially Bigotry on Broadway

Several essays in the collection spoke directly to me, but the one that stood out to me was Jack Foley’s essay on Irving Berlin. Berlin is rightly portrayed as a bigoted songwriter whose seminal and successful output rode on a steam engine of sales. Berlin wrote in a disembodied voice of the other—his “White Christmas” was a dream in an

America dreamed by people who were considered outsiders—immigrants… (but) the I of the chorus is not the composer Irving Berlin: the I of the song is…‘a true blue American,’ a person who by definition does not carry the historical burden of being Jewish. The song is not only deeply about longing but about the possibility of assimilation as well. Many Jews were immensely successful in America but they were not quite—White.

It is through his work that we can see the tireless assimilation and catering to the entertainment and needs of his audience, and while he was a “sterling example of the American Dream…he was a Jew and a Jew – no matter what he wrote, no matter how much money he made – was never, even at Christmas, White.” Other authors in the collection give similar examination to understanding that the authors can be victims of their time and their surroundings while the industry and the tastes of the “White” audiences’ pocketbooks practically guaranteed that their entertainment victimizes others. Look no further than Nancy Mercado’s essay on West Side Story, which examines the origins of a play with white actors in brownface, “created during the McCarthy era and years before Gay Liberation by four White queer Jewish men in the early 1950s: Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein, Jerome Robbins, and Stephen Sondheim… ‘the musical’s origin story is one of displaced ethnicity.’” The history of how we arrived here, the bigoted framework that is the foundation of our country notwithstanding, gets complicated very quickly. It is never excused, but understandable within the time of their gestation. Today? That is a different story.

Of course, times were different and the idea of what was once acceptable entertainment is leaning more and more toward inclusivity and adaptation. Soraya Nadia McDonald notes in her essay on Oklahoma! how Broadway can’t seem to avoid “delivering a rose-tinted view of history that centers on happy White people… a classic example of willful erasure and ahistorical mythmaking.” Perhaps one of the most enthralling elements of this collection—and the artists entering the industry as a whole post-Black Lives Matter—is the degree to which contemporary revivals can subvert and challenge the pieces most guilty of opening the wounds of racial and cultural stereotypes. David Yearsley says it best in observing that “selective seeing and hearing might help explain why operas and musicals can often insulate themselves from changes in the political weather…an instructive form of built-in nostalgia, recollections not just of the musical itself but of a past that never existed.” The challenge many producers and directors are coming to terms with is rewriting this past to be one that has existed, not because of tolerance, but because of reality. Authenticity. Truth in the face of what Lonely Christopher rightly identifies as our “obsession with optics over ethics.” 

My only notable criticism of the collection is Claire J. Harris’ “The Book Of Mormon is Racist – Why Isn’t Anyone Talking About It?” While she presents the ways in which the play is in fact racist, it appears as though Harris has a fundamental misunderstanding of the piece as a whole. She touches upon it when friends and colleagues asked if she has ever seen South Park, creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s most recognizable and career-spanning creation. Harris admits she has not, and if she were to, she might immediately see how their sociopolitical and pop culture satire is consistently taken to the extreme (see also: Cannibal! The Musical, Team America: World Police, and Orgazmo, another piece with prominent Mormons navigating acting in the pornography industry). What Harris fails to recognize is, as a story told through the eyes and experience of bumbling and idiotic proselytizing colonizers, it is through this lens that we see the country of Africa as a backward, primitive continent in need of salvation. It is in no way meant to be objective. This, in effect, turns the mirror on the predominantly white audience and our history of ignorance. Insulting our sensibilities and stereotypes of the Africans is the definitive purpose of this work of satire from two of our modern masters of the craft. Yes, it is racist, precisely because we are racist. 

It is important to note that the essays in this collection do not present anything new. They have been debated, discussed, and dissected in many ways in the press and online. Heck, in 2019, Reed himself staged a successful off-Broadway show that forced Lin-Manuel Miranda to face off against the true history of the founding fathers à la A Christmas Carol in The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda, and it is only one of many works of art to break down Miranda’s romanticization of what Lonely Christopher rightly called the Founding Fathers: “human garbage responsible for a plethora of atrocities.” But the fact that these voices are presented and magnified by Reed and Blank, along with their respective publications that aren’t even in the same universe as the mainstream reviewers in the Times and New Yorker, is a feat that reads like a beautifully curated pro-justice, anti-institutional racism mixtape in the stage arts that one would not normally encounter.

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Garrett Zecker is a writer, actor, and teacher of writing, literature, and theatre. He holds an MA in English from Fitchburg State University and an MFA in Fiction from the Mountainview MFA. His fiction and nonfiction work has been featured in many publications, most recently Parhelion, Black Dandy, Porridge, and The New Guard. He is the co-founder of Quabbin Quills, a nonprofit foundation focused on literary publications, free writers workshops, and high school scholarships for writers in Central and Western Massachusetts. Learn more about Garrett at GarrettZecker.com and follow him on Twitter at @mrzecker

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