Saturday, February 1, 2014

Oh, the Negro and the Hebrew Should Be Friends! A Study of Dual Guilt, Persecution, and 11 o’ clock Numbers

DISCLAIMER: If you’re overly sensitive, this post may touch on borderline racism, so I apologize in advance.  But then again, everyone’s a little bit racist!

I was listening to XM Broadway Radio in my car the other day and before treating my eager ears to Norm Lewis nailing “Bess, You Is My Woman Now”, Seth Rudetsky (I think it was Seth) mentioned how the most soulful, memorable musical numbers sung by powerful black characters (i.e. “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going”, “I Know Where I’ve Been”, “Ol’ Man River”) are often written by old, white, Jewish men. I found this observation fascinating. It also raised a few questions:

1) How are Jews so good at writing these songs?
2) With all the persecution and hardship they have in common, why aren’t African Americans and Jews better buddies?
3) Why aren’t black people writing these songs themselves?

As a white, Jewish female, I may be biased in this study. But I’m throwing it out into the universe anyway!

1) How are Jews so good at writing these songs?
What the frak do old, white, Jewish men know about spirituals and gospel numbers?  It’s truly amazing how you get a bunch of very talented songwriters who grew up with klezmer-flavored music and Yiddish-speaking parents, yet they crank out stuff like this!

"Okay, how does this sound? '...Fish are jumpin' and the cotton is high.'"
If you were lucky enough to catch WHYY’s piece on the Jewish legacy in musical theatre, it touches on how the great early 20th century Jewish composers of the time (Berlin, the Gershwins, Hammerstein) would draw on segments of their own culture’s music and develop it into songs for musical theatre. The program also mentioned how both turn-of-the-century Jewish klezmer music and African American spirituals/folk hymns tended to be in a minor key. Songs in minor tend to have a sadder, more melancholy tone than songs written in a major key. This musical familiarity between the two made an easy transition from ‘da Blues to ‘da stage.

2) With all the persecution and hardship they have in common, why aren’t African Americans and Jews better buddies?
Pre-turn-of-the-century Jewish and African American songwriters also shared a very mutual antagonist, which clearly seeped into their cultural music: oppression, discrimination, and woe.  Who carries their ancestors’ hardships on their backs and wears it as a badge of pride better than the Jews and African Americans? You would think with the amount of slavery, persecution, culture, and misery Jews and African Americans have racked up throughout the last few centuries (not counting the extra couple thousand years the Jews have accrued), they’d have a very strong, common bond.  Instead, they seem deadlocked in a Who’s-The-Bigger-Victim pissing contest. The lack of Jewish and African American camaraderie arguably roots from several schools of thought: Ignorance, Self-importance, politics, excessive use of the race card, and flat-out racism.  Or is the thought of a mutual respect between such large groups extremely naïve? I mean, are there really any cultural partnerships like that? Or are all the world’s ethnic/racial/religious groups just locked in a collective passive-aggressive dislikefest (some less passive than others)?

"Okay, let's get Father Flanigan and walk into a bar. It'll be hilarious!"
3) Why aren’t black people writing these songs themselves?
Even if they don’t get along on an everyday basis, you’d think they’d be bosom buddies in the entertainment industry.  I get it. Broadway is primarily a white, upper-middle-class people’s game. Always has been.  The majority of African Americans would most likely rather play in oncoming traffic than sit through a musical (and pay top dollar to do it). But why is this? African Americans have made monumental contributions in entertainment, art, literature, and music.  It’s not like they don’t have a reputation for producing brilliant art. The talent’s there.  Why not bring it to the stage, where it’s truly appreciated? But now we’re back to the white people’s game.  I’ll admit it’s not historically easy to attract black theatregoers.  In recent all-or-mainly-black cast productions performed on Broadway, African American audiences were typically drawn to the star power tied to the shows (The Wiz, Oprah heavily endorsing The Color Purple, P-Diddy-or-whatever-his-name-is-now in Raisin in the Sun, James Earl Jones in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, etc.). The shows without big star power typically had less of a turnout from the black community (Passing Strange). I personally frown on most mainstream stars invading Broadway (like Disney Channel kids and American Idol runner ups and former boy band members). But if that’s what brings a more diverse crowd, I say give ‘em what they want. If that’s what brings people to the theatres and potentially inspires them to create similar work, bring it on. And if you really want to get integrated, who says typically-white characters can’t be black?  Belle was black for a while when Toni Braxton had her stint on Broadway and people loved her! I’d be very interested to see the general reaction to a black Cinderella or Galinda or Phantom

The early 20th century saw a slew of successful and popular all-black productions, propelled by the Harlem Renaissance. Minstrel shows and blackface stereotypes were rejected in favor of serious, home-hitting subject matter that appealed to both black and white audiences (when they were integrated, which was a revolutionary concept, only beginning to see the light of day). African Americans used art to prove their humanity and demand for equality when it was widely denied them. The Harlem Renaissance not only led to more opportunities for blacks in white mainstream circles, but also developed a sense of ethnic pride and identity.  The explosion of culture lifted African Americans at the time to a higher, respected status.

I say we should bring that mentality and identity back. And I don’t mean Kanye or whoever rapping about the joys of being an overpaid, overdrugged, oversexed gangsta.  Even though that’s obviously what sells today, I can’t imagine that it is the only profitable subject matter in the current black music style. Look at Will Smith! While other rappers were rapping about shooting people and gangs and inflating their already astronomically-entitled egos, he rapped about how his caring mother sent him tolive away from the hard streets ofWest Philadelphia.

My point is “Thug Life” is just that: Thug Life.  They know what sells and what attracts the masses. But they’re obviously better than that.  And while I’m at it, that goes for the white people too! Some people have talent and some people have a talent for entertaining. Don’t settle for a pair of tits or a boy band haircut singing a mindless-though-catchy pop tune!  Let talent live and breathe outside the singing competition shows!  …Sorry, I digress. African Americans used to be a driving force for good in our country’s culture and on our stages.  In comparison, it’s just pandering amusement and shock value now.  I don’t see why they can’t be a force on Broadway again. I would have given my *insert sexual appendage here* to see the all-black cast rendition of Hello Dolly! (headed by Pearl Bailey).

I think musical theatre is the greatest means of creative expression in the world.  So why is it such a whitewashed institution? You see a “person of color” on or behind the scenes here and there. You see an ethnically-charged show here and there.  But why, in a community that is so outgoing and inclusive and open to diversity, is race still a hurdle?  I highly doubt Broadway is turning black artists away; I just wonder how many are showing up.  Maybe things would change if we could get Jay-Z to be in a musical…

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