From Show Boat to West Side Story: racialisms in the musical theatre canon.

In the run-up to Steven Spielberg’s now Oscar nominated film re-make of the musical, West Side Story (streaming on the Disney channel), a hubbub of concerned opinion pieces began to appear in the press and online media regarding the historically stereotyped portrayals of Puerto Ricans on stage and film. As an arts journalist, I began to experience a creeping feeling of having seen this movie before.

The debate around West Side Story is nothing new, it has followed the show since its inception as a stage musical in 1957. Despite the claims made by its newest adaptors that all of the old problems regarding ethnography (primarily rooted in the libretto and lyrics) had been addressed, a growing crescendo of criticism begged to differ.

One of the most insightful and pungent pieces that I came across, appeared in the New York Times by Carina del Valle Schorske, a writer and translator who describes herself as “living between San Juan, Puerto Rico, and New York City.” Writing in response to the 2020 Broadway revival directed by Ivo van Hove, in a piece entitled, “Let West Side Story and Its Stereotypes Die,” she quotes the Puerto Rican journalist and labor organizer, Jesús Colón, who reviewed the original Broadway opening for La Prensa, New York’s most widely circulated Spanish-language newspaper during that period. La Prensa had called on their readers to picket the premiere.

Colón described the show as “superficial and sentimental” and “always out of context with the real history, culture, and traditions of my people.” del Valle Schorske added that, “In subsequent decades, this tradition of protest and critique has only grown richer and more collectively exasperated.”

It has indeed.

In 1992, I covered a very similar story in Toronto when a newly adapted version of the 1927 musical, Show Boat, was about to open. As the story continued to unfold, I published several pieces on the controversy in a wide range of print media that also included one emerging online journal. If there is a moral here for independent arts journalists and freelancers, it is listen to your instincts and don’t wait for someone to give you an assignment. Be proactive and just start to engage. As this brief chronology attests, you may be surprised with the results.

The early 90s marked the beginning of online publishing and the popular break out of the “world wide web.” At the time, I subscribed to a theatre listerv (remember those?) that one day announced a new quarterly publication called, THEATRE.PERSPECTIVE.INTERNATIONAL which would be “completely assembled and delivered electronically.”

Online publishing had arrived. 

As a result of a short piece entitled, “Show Boat’s comin’ “ that was uploaded to TPI, I received an inquiry from TDR- The Drama Review whose editor at the time was the noted director and scholar, Richard Schechner, asking if I would be willing to flesh out the article with a deeper dive into the dramaturgy behind the subject and frame it for an academic readership. The result of that collaboration appears below.

The article was published in TDR in 1995. Since then it has been cited in several books and essays on the history of the American musical theatre and at one point popped up on the syllabus of an eminent musicologist at Harvard University as “required reading to be discussed in class.” So you never know. 

I should note that the current issue of TDR, which can be found here, contains a provocative excerpt from a new book by Sandra Ruiz entitled: Ricanness: Enduring Time in Anticolonial Performance which exemplifies the ongoing nature of this dialog and questions the “predominant reliance on normative historiography in postcolonial inquiry.”

And so the story continues to intersect from one generation to the next.

Show Boat: the revival, the racism

Author: Robin Breon

TDR Drama Review

MIT Press Journals (Cambridge, Mass.). 39.2 (Summer 1995): p 86.

For some reason, whenever Show Boat is treated to a major revival, there seems to be a prevailing attitude that the poor old thing is an antique from a former generation that requires plastic surgery to keep it young and fashionable.

–Miles Krueger (1977:199)

In the fall of 1992, when director Harold Prince and producer Garth Drabrinsky announced plans in Toronto for a “re-conceived” revival of Show Boat, they were unprepared for the debate that would follow. Canadian public opinion was aired in a catalytic dialog on the nature of art and culture in the marketplace, the impact of free trade, and the persistence of racism and anti-Semitism in North American society. The debate began when Black community organizations raised questions around ethnocultural representation in Show Boat, contending that the Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein II musical–based on Edna Ferber’s 1926 romantic novel about life on the Mississippi–historically has contained scenes that perpetuate racial stereotypes demeaning to Black life and culture. Community representatives requested an advance reading of the script. When Prince and Drabrinsky refused, picket lines were mounted in front of the Show Boat box office and a “Coalition to Stop Show Boat” was formed. The situation became so divisive that 20 (of 22) members of the United Way’s Black Development Committee resigned from the organization over the UW’s decision to support the production by way of a gala opening-night fundraising event. The controversy bitterly divided the Black and Jewish communities in Toronto, leaving charges of racism and anti-Semitism in its wake.

By the time opening night rolled around (in October 1993) some of the most powerful theatre critics in the United States had been persuaded to travel to the newly built North York Centre for the Arts  (located in a suburb north of Toronto) to pass judgment on the production. In an unprecedented display of unanimity, critics from the U.S. and Canada waxed ecstatic over the $6.5 million dollar revival. The African Canadian community was chastened by many of these same critics for raising a hand against this American icon. Like cannon (canon?) fire aimed at the Black community, the reviews of Show Boat burst onto full-page advertisements in the local Toronto press and beyond. The following excerpts appeared in the Toronto Star, on 23 October 1993, by way of three consecutive full-page advertisements:

“A Seismic Event in the American Musical Theatre […]. This version finally restores the work of its authors’ original intentions in every theatrical and musical particular” –Frank Rich, The New York Times

“A Broadway musical that has it all! Larger-than-life performances, lush costumes, magnificent sets and technical wizardry galore! WOW!” –H.J. Kirchoff, Globe and Mail

“Impressive and stirring presentation!” –Richard Christiansen, The Chicago Tribune

“Resplendent and powerful!” –Jeremy Gerard, Daily Variety

“A grand new show!” –David Patrick Stearns, USA Today

“Brilliant and marvelous!” –Michael Kuchwara, Associated Press

“Superb and scintillating!” –John Lahr, The New Yorker

But slowly, within this apparent wall of critical approbation, cracks began to appear. If one reads the reviews carefully, these same critics also express some apprehension; some nagging doubts persist after all of the superlatives have been snatched up by the publicists for ticket sales promotions. Frank Rich goes on to call the production “bland” adding that “what is missing from this show is emotional punch” (1993:B1). Referring to Edna Ferber’s novel, John Lahr opines: “Certainly there’s little to defend in (the) gushing best-seller on which the musical is based. Ferber writes like a teenager on diet pills. […] Her novel […] does include some unconscionable racial caricatures” (1993:124). And in the most unequivocal endorsement of the concerns raised by the Black community in Toronto, William A. Henry III of Time magazine states flatly: “The 1927 musical is racist” (1993:77).

Show Boat and Social History: Racing the Stage

The controversy surrounding Show Boat and its portrayal of stereotypical Black characters is not new. It goes back to the musical’s opening some 66 years ago. Unlike most American musicals, the libretto for Show Boat does not really exist as a set piece. It has been changed considerably over the years–particularly for its 1936 and 1959 film versions–and many of the changes have been due to what was considered racially offensive at the time. Like any catalyst, this current controversy has also become a lightning rod for ancillary issues.

Central to this discussion are the secondary Black roles and the marginal Black story line in Show Boat. And the concerns being raised about the production, far from being a “nefarious misconception” (to quote a phrase from Drabinsky’s speech to the Empire Club in Toronto), are quite timely and appropriate, being firmly grounded in current literary theory and other areas of scholarship.

The current revival is being presented as having finally restored “the work of its authors’ original intentions in every theatrical and musical particular.” In other words, Oscar Hammerstein II and Jerome Kern would have been pleased. We’ll never know about that. What we do know is that Harold Prince was given tremendous license by the Hammerstein estate to make whatever changes he felt were necessary. This was underscored by Prince in a public acknowledgment to William Hammerstein on opening night. Most of his changes, as expected, had to do with how to handle the caricatured and stereotypical Black presence in the musical. Whether Prince admits it publicly to the Black community or not, these changes also validated their concerns: there is offensive material in Show Boat dating back to its inception in 1927.

Gone in Prince’s production is the entire prelude and opening act 2, scene 1, which featured the Black chorus as part of the Midway Plaisance of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair in a musical sequence called “In Dahomey,” a parody with primitive gibberish lyrics intended to sound “African.” However spurious the lyrics may be, the song’s World’s Fair context is based on fact. The Dahomey Village was part of the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition, one of a series of “ethnological displays” which reinforced the scientific racism of the period. It was purposely constructed to portray, in the words of the chief anthropologist, “the Midway provided visitors with ethnological, scientific sanction for the American view of the nonwhite world as barbaric and childlike and gave a scientific basis to the racial blueprint for building a utopia” (Rydell 1984:40). Frederick Douglass and Ida Wells, longtime advocates of Black political and economic rights, led demonstrations and wrote an essay entitled “The Reason Why the Colored American Is Not in the World’s Columbian Exposition” to protest this institutionalized discrimination (1983). 

In light of this, the parts of the score that have survived cuts are not without some irony. For example, there is Queenie’s ballyhoo number in the first act in which she upbraids Cap’n Andy for not knowing how to get the “colored folks” to buy tickets to the show. She then proceeds to rally Black patronage for Cap’n Andy’s forlorn little melodrama.

A song that did not survive Harold Prince’s cuts is Queenie’s musical admonishment to her mate, Joe (Micheal Bell), entitled “Hey Feller.” This in fact further diminishes the role of Queenie (played by Gretha Boston), but one cannot have it both ways. The song was cut because of what is perhaps the most striking revision in Show Boat, the rehabilitation of Joe (we never do know his last name). In a drama, as opposed to a literary form such as the novel which allows for straight exposition, we often know characters by what other people say about them. In Joe’s case, we earlier learn from Queenie that her partner is a “shiftless, good for nuthin” roustabout who smells of gin, rather than the noble stevedore crowned “philosopher king” of this “re-conceived” version. Interestingly, Rich suggested that “Hey Feller” be reinserted into the show.

Would the producers build up Queenie’s role at the risk of tarnishing Joe’s newly refurbished character? Not likely.

Queenie and Joe represent a more or less defined set of Negro caricatures that had been established by white writers in silent films beginning in the 1920s. In his book, On the Real Side: Laughing, Lying and Signifying–the Underground Tradition of African-American Humor that Transformed American Culture, from Slaveryto Richard Pryor, Mel Watkins discusses these stereotypes which included “obsequious Toms, [and] ill fated, inevitably tragic mulattoes [who] were not usually truly comic characters”:

The primary burden of soliciting laughter was left to a more irreverent or slothful servant breed: the hallowed, robust black mammy, who was either drolly independent or assertively outspoken; and the inept, ever present coon, who alternately amused by his shuffling, dim-witted incompetence or by his clever shirking of any and all responsibility. (1994:196)

In an interview in Theatrum magazine, Lonette McKee, who plays the role of Julie, addressed the controversy surrounding the production, stating: “As Black people we need more choices. I don’t just want to see myself portrayed in the 18th century when we were in slavery or when we were coming out of slavery. I think we need more choices–maybe that should be the protesters’ point” (in Boyd and Hood 1993:23).

It is a point well taken and, in essence, it does form part of the protest. The history of the American musical, like any other American institution including schools, churches, bars, etc., is a history of segregation. Where are the Black roles in Oklahoma, Annie Get Your Gun, ‘Lil Abner, Bye Bye Birdie, Guys and Dolls, The Music Man, to name a few? More recent blockbusters such as Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserable, and Evita exhibit the same limitation. And we are not only talking about onstage roles, but backstage as well: stage managers, understudies, grips, set designers, choreographers, costume designers, lighting designers, road companies; the whole enterprise has historically offered very limited choices for non-white performers and technicians.

In fact, the roles of Julie and Queenie, as representative of African American women, are very good examples of the point McKee is articulating. In the original 1927 production Queenie was played by Tess Gardella, a white woman in blackface makeup. Gardella was famous during that period for her signature blackface “mammy” character, “Aunt Jemima,” appearing in numerous print and radio commercials. Not only was the character of Queenie a racial stereotype, but she was played by a white actor in blackface. Nowhere on record can it be found that the producers found anything pejorative about this portrayal. In fact, as Watkins argues, it would seem that just the opposite is true.

It remains a tribute to Oscar Hammerstein’s creative genius and sense of theatricality that he saw in the character of Julie a chance to broaden and expand upon Ferber’s novel. Hammerstein saw the role of Julie as pivotal and elevated her in a crucial way into the musical’s story line. In the novel, Julie and Magnolia pass almost as ships in the night at Hetty Chilson’s boarding house where last we see Julie retiring up a flight of stairs. Inventively, Hammerstein brings Julie naturally back into the story as a singer in the cabaret who selflessly gives her spot in the show over to Magnolia, unbeknownst to “Nollie.” It is a poignant moment that substantially improves upon the novel. It also allows Julie to sing another song, “Bill,” one of two numbers in the show with lyrics not written by Hammerstein (the lyrics are by P.G. Wodehouse).

But the creator giveth and he taketh away. Hammerstein improved and strengthened the role almost assuredly because he wanted to attract a star quality white actor to play Julie. Canadian Helen Morgan (who originated the role on Broadway in 1927) recreated it for the 1935 film version with Paul Robeson. A reworking of the story line for another rendering in 1950 saw Ava Gardner in the role. In her autobiography, Ava: My Story (1990), Gardner suggests that Lena Horne—who desperately wanted to play the role–would have been a better choice but the studios wanted a box office star. The casting was not surprising. In countless revivals of Show Boat by summer-stock and straw-hat circuits around North America, the role of Julie has been the domain of white actors. Although, as Gardner said, Lena Horne “was really born for this part,” history was not on her side. 

Similarly, when the white actor Jonathan Pryce was cast in the role of the Engineer in the New York production of Miss Saigon, a furor erupted from Asian American actors who challenged the choice. Playwright David Henry Wang and actor B.D. Wong were among the protesters likening the use of prosthetics to slant the actor’s eyes as akin to blackface; they argued that an Asian actor should be given the opportunity.

Casting the role of Julie goes to the heart of the plight of minority casting in general and in particular the inappropriateness of whites playing light-skinned Black roles. Ava Gardner (Show Boat), Jean Crain (Pinky), Susan Kohner (Imitation of Life), Susan Douglas (Lost Boundaries), Elizabeth Taylor (Raintree County), Ingrid Bergman (Saratoga Trunk): these casting choices represented the norm in the film industry while genuine light-skinned Blacks found themselves unemployable— pronounced wrong for white roles because they were Black, and wrong for Black roles because they did not “read Black” for the camera or from the stage. McKee is the first Black woman to play the role of Julie in a professional North American production of Show Boat, dating back to when she won the part in a 1983 Houston Grand Opera revival which played briefly on Broadway.

Although it is true that productions such as Show Boat and Porgy and Bess have offered work to many Black artists over the years, it is also true, as Marlene Nourbese Philip points out in her book Showing Grit: Showboating North of the 44th Parallel, that “continuing stereotypical representation qualified this benefit considerably” (1993:44). The fact that McKee, who is an extremely talented actor as well as a vocalist, finds herself still playing the same role ten years later in her career lends credence to Philip’s assertion that the choice and breadth of opportunities for McKee and many others are still severely curtailed.

The Black Presence In and Around Show Boat

Many white writers, critics, historians, and others naturally feel that history revolves around and is driven by them, the dominant cultural force within society. So it is not surprising that the former theatre critic for the New York Times would begin his review with the sweeping assertion that: “Without Show Boat there would have been no Porgy and Bess, no Oklahoma, no West Side Story” (Rich 1993:B1). If that is true, then it is equally true that without the explosion of African American art and culture known as the Harlem Renaissance there would have been no Show Boat. The entrepreneurs of mainstream American culture knew that 1927 was the right time for exploiting Black talent on Broadway.

A full decade earlier Three Plays for a Negro Theatre opened at the Garden Theatre which James Weldon Johnson, in his book Black Manhattan, called “the date of the most important single event in the entire history of the Negro in the American theatre” (1967:106). In addition, a wholly Black musical entitled Shuffle Along had been a smash hit in 1921. The success of Paul Robeson’s revival of The Emperor Jones in 1925, the 1926 Pulitzer Prize–winning play In Abraham’s Bosom (by Paul Green featuring Rose McClendon and Frank Wilson), and the Theatre Guild’s production of the dramatic play Porgy, which also opened in 1927, all augured well for Show Boat. Talented Black artists, writers, and actors were impinging on the mainstream and could no longer be denied; savvy producers were actively looking for vehicles to exploit this talent. 

Broadway producer Florenz Ziegfeld found his in Show Boat. The production opened on 27 December 1927 and was a progressive piece of theatre for the period, taking as it did a serious theme that integrated song and choreography to advance the story line. All these factors contributed to the success of the musical, offering economic opportunities for black artists, but not without critical scrutiny. One of the most vexing aspects of the controversy surrounding the current revival of Show Boat is the supercilious dismissal by LivEnt (Live Entertainment Corporation of Canada, Drabrinsky’s production company) concerning the validity–historical and otherwise–of the issues being voiced by the Black community.

One of the first challenges came from none other than the prominent African American singer, scholar and political activist, Paul Robeson. After Show Boat‘s successful opening in New York, Ziegfeld approached Robeson to play the minor role of Joe (a “roustabout” who worked on the Cotton Blossom) in the London production which opened the following year. He would only have to sing one song, “Ol’ Man River,” which ran through the show in three separate refrains. It was symptomatic of the times that a major black star like Robeson could find only a minor role (he was paid $600 a week) to display his talents. He was nonetheless happy for the work and although the critics were mixed, the public–the white public, that is–made the show a smash hit. In fact, Robeson became the star of the show and “Ol’ Man River” was the “showstopper” every night, in a lavish production featuring a company of 160 actors, singers, and dancers.

However, Black people have not been historically supportive of the production. I looked hard to find a black face in any of the 1850 seats of the North York Arts Centre’s main stage theatre during an October 1993 performance–I found only one. In his exhaustive biography of Robeson, Martin Duberman quoted J.A. Rogers, the European correspondent for the New York Amsterdam News (the largest Black circulation newspaper in the U.S.), who interviewed “fully some thirty Negroes of intelligence or self-respect” who expressed “their disapprobation of the play.” The reporter also wrote he “heard many harsh things said against Robeson for lending his talent and popularity toward making it a success.” “‘If anyone were to call him a ‘nigger’,'” Rogers quoted one informant as saying, “‘he’d be the first to get offended, and there he is singing ‘nigger, nigger’ before all those white people.'” Rogers also criticized the character of Joe as simply another instance of the “lazy, good-natured, lolling darky” stereotype “that exists more in white men’s fancy than in reality” (in Duberman 1988:604–05). Robeson, perhaps the most eloquent and outspoken advocate of racial equality in his time, was sensitive to the criticisms from the Black press and unilaterally began to change some of Hammerstein’s lyrics.

African American history has focused on identity, from W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk ([1903] 1970) to James Baldwin’s Nobody Knows My Name (1963). The basis for the separate identity of the gens de couleur evolving as it did out of slavery, taking on various color-coded, racial taxonomies and pejorative connotations, finally coming to rest with “Black” and the currently preferred “African American,” is perhaps not central to the debate about Show Boat, but it certainly is not a frivolous sidebar either.

In a wholly reductive attempt to distill the present controversy surrounding Show Boat into a soundbite, much has been written about the “N” word in the media and in press releases from Drabinsky’s office. Drabinsky would have us believe that he deliberated mightily on this topic. He told the Toronto press that Harry Belafonte urged him to keep the word “nigger” (which appeared in the original libretto) for the sake of “authenticity.” Former Lieutenant Governor Lincoln Alexander, Ontario’s first Black lieutenant governor, said he should take it out. Finally Drabinsky and Prince decided on “colored folks” as the historically preferable nomenclature (Slinger 1993:A4).

According to Duberman, Robeson did perform the lyrics as written, singing “Niggers all work on de Mississippi” but by the 1930s he had changed niggers to “darkies” and then, by the 1935 film, had substituted “There’s an ol’ man called the Mississippi; that’s the ol’ man I don’t like to be.” He also changed “I’m tired of livin’ and scared of dyin'” to “I must keep fightin’ until I’m dyin’.” Robeson also disliked the stereotypical image signaled in the line “You get a little drunk and you land in jail” and changed it to “You show a little spunk…” which received tremendous applause in New York and dead silence in London. He later learned that to the English “spunk” means semen, so he promptly changed the line again to “grit.”

Hammerstein responded by saying, “As the author of these words, I have no intention of changing them or permitting anyone else to change them. I further suggest that Paul write his own songs and leave mine alone” (1988:605). But Robeson continued to sing his own version, and as an outspoken antifascist of the period, proceeded to electrify audiences who responded with standing ovations to his revised, more militant version. Indeed, some of Robeson’s revisions have survived and can be heard in the current production, re-inserted into the show by Prince. Sadly, there is no credit given to Robeson in the program notes.

The Semiotics of Show Boat

The photographs accompanying the reviews in the New York Times (Rich 1993), Time magazine (Henry 1993), and elsewhere, were telling. The photos show an ebullient Cap’n Andy (Robert Morse) standing next to his daughter Magnolia (Rebecca Luker) and her groom, Gay Ravenal (Mark Jacoby) on their wedding day. They are flanked by Ellie and Frank (Dorothy Stanley and Joel Blum). On the inside page of the Times review is yet another close up of Cap’n Andy and Magnolia.

There it is: the joys, the triumphs, the sorrows, and the tribulations of this white family as they work their way up and down the Mississippi–and even to Chicago and back–at the turn of the century. All the principals live happily-ever-after, including granddaughter Kim who takes center stage in the show’s final tableau, presumably on her way to a dazzling career on the American stage.

The late William A. Henry III of Time magazine reviewed the production and must have been struck by this reflexive imagery when he expanded on his reasons for considering the musical racist: “The real problem is that the show follows the wrong story. It assumes that Black people are inherently less interesting than whites” (Henry 1993:77). Indeed, Henry’s insight crystallizes a point taken up in more detail by Philip in her book:

Show Boat is not intended for Black people; it never was. Its intended audience has always been a white one. One year after the Yonge Street riots, what are some of the messages that Show Boat is bringing to white audiences in Toronto? The first message is linked to Blacks not being the intended audience and that is that Blacks are ciphers, having no meaning except and in so far as they embellish and further the interests of whites. (1993:54)

The idea of Blacks as ciphers–anonymous players if you will, occupying the margins–was signaled early on in the print advertisements for Show Boat. “Show Boat‘s comin’,” said the earliest ads in most of Metro Toronto’s major newspapers. The revival, to be mounted by LivEnt, would open the brand new North York Centre for the Arts–a $51 million facility with three elaborate theatres and a 5,000-square-foot art gallery, making it one of the largest arts complexes in North America.

Radio ads featured the sonant imprimatur of James Earl Jones assuring listeners that Show Boat “signified a profound turning point in the history of the American musical.” Print ads began with headlines reading “America’s most beloved musical,” a broad claim that presumably meant that it must be right up there for Canadians as well.

One striking quarter-page ad featured a portrait-like drawing of a smiling Black man sitting on a wharf, pleasantly enjoying a bit of afternoon sun. There might have been a mint julep somewhere out of sight next to the chair on which he so comfortably sat, with a rowboat wafting down the river in the background. This idyllic picture was framed in 19th-century ornament showing a few cotton blossoms, a banjo, a fiddle, and at the top of the frame, two flags–the flag of the Confederate Army (the Stars and Bars) hung next to the American flag (the Stars and Stripes)–giving an almost antebellum quality to a scene that was in fact post-Reconstruction 1890s.

Someone must have noticed that the Confederate flag carries a significant message to the Black community because in subsequent ads both flags bore the stars and stripes. But for the general public and the black community in particular, not intimately familiar with the history of the American musical, the signals were already given out: “A musical featuring Black people and perhaps dealing with the Civil War.” People wanted to know more about it.

A week later the same newspaper space with the same size ad gave an exclusive “Casting Update.” Gone was the smiling Negro and prominent in the ad was the news that Robert Morse would star as Captain Andy with Elaine Stritch as his wife Parthy. Further we were assured that “Mark Jacoby is Ravenal” and “Rebecca Luker is Magnolia.” But who was that anonymous Black man featured so prominently in the early ads? Could that be the actor who would play the role of Joe, the part originally made famous by Robeson? No name, no address; a cipher who quickly disappeared when the real stars were announced–the really important people, the white folks.

Radio advertisements also tried to associate it with the cultural heritage of African Americans with numerous spots, again with voice-over by James Earl Jones–that mentioned the music of jazz composers Jelly Roll Morton, Joe “King” Oliver, and Louis Armstrong. Although outside music is interpolated into the score of Show Boat, none of it was written by these composers.

If the purpose of advertising is to arouse curiosity and interest, then the early ads were successful. People wanted more information. The Black community especially wanted to know the identity of this man who loomed so large on the pages of the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star where Black people seldom figure so prominently either in the editorial or advertising sections. And so people went to sources immediately available to them. The first source was the public library where Edna Ferber’s novel was read by leaders within the Black community. One school board official promptly labeled the book “a kind of hate literature” (Slinger 1993:A4).

The novel deals with three generations of the Hawkes family from Captain Andy and his spouse, the feisty Parthy Ann Hawkes, to daughter Magnolia to granddaughter Kim, all of whose lives revolve around a showboat cruising up and down the Mississippi in the late 19th century. The book (which was a best-seller in 1926) is a sentimental tale of life on the Mississippi with a slightly feminist point of view. The core of the story contains elements of sympathy around the question of racial injustice but unfortunately abounds with romantic notions and gross portrayals of African American life and folkways. Although LivEnt quickly issued press releases distancing the musical from any portions of the novel “which may be considered objectionable by 1993 standards,” the book remained a part of the debate.

The other information-outlet immediately accessible was the local video store where Show Boat exists in two film versions. The 1936 rendering (with Paul Robeson and Hattie McDaniel as Joe and Queenie) features a minstrel sequence entitled “Gallavantin’ Around.” Miles Krueger, in his 1977 book Show Boat: The Story of a Classic American Musical, describes this degrading piece of minstrelsy uncritically as “a giddy coon song with Irene Dunne (Magnolia), who appears in blackface and a bushy, kinky wig, gleefully rolling her eyes and accompanying herself on a banjo” which “startled and delighted 1936 audiences” (1977:131). The 1951 remake has Ava Gardner (tanned as though she might have just returned from a nice Caribbean holiday) in the featured role of Julie, the mixed-race entertainer who is put off the Cotton Blossom when her miscegenetic marriage is discovered by a Mississippi sheriff.

Show Boat‘s excess baggage was becoming more palpable to Toronto’s Black community and fears were raised that long-buried racial stereotypes might be resurrected. Requests to review the script were relayed to LivEnt by members of the Black community. These requests were immediately rebuffed by LivEnt: “This [request] is considered to be nothing less than an attempt at censorship and an abrogation of the right of free speech” (Live Entertainment Corporation of Canada 1993).

Profit and Product Negates the Public Artistic Process

In retrospect, for a publicly built facility such as the North York Centre for the Arts to issue such a statement seems arrogant in the extreme. There were already several precedents that might have served as guideposts for avoiding confrontation.

The Royal Ontario Museum had just gone through a long and painful dialog with the Black community when the ethnographic focus of their controversial exhibit, “Into the Heart of Africa” was called into question. When community representatives, after being invited to a preview of the exhibit and asked for their opinions, suggested extensive modifications, the museum stated that they would not allow the community to “censor” the exhibit. By the time museological critique finally began to legitimize what had previously been characterized in the press as “unsophisticated” community rabble-rousing, the damage had been done.

Paradoxically, later that same year when Coca-Cola, the corporate sponsor of an exhibit on the social history of Santa Claus, demanded changes that would limit the image of old St. Nick to Norman Rockwell’s Coke advertisements for the Saturday Evening Post, the museum readily agreed, saying nary a word about censorship to its powerful corporate sponsor.

Another example occurred in 1989 when the Jewish community raised very principled concerns over the Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s planned production of The Merchant of Venice. The Festival responded by meeting with representatives of the Canadian Jewish Congress in an effort to facilitate discussion rather than confrontation. Central to this meeting was an examination of Shakespeare’s script and the directorial concept employed in the mounting of this new production. Several excisions were agreed upon, and there was no public recrimination from the Stratford Festival attacking the Jewish community on the issues of censorship or free speech. The demands made by the Jewish community were not treated as aberrant, anti-Christian, or antidemocratic. They were reasonable queries from an ethnocultural group that has experienced the same kind of caricaturing and stereotyping in literature and drama as has the Black community.

In the U.S., a similar situation arose when the late George Houston Bass decided to mount a workshop production of the fabled 1930 play Mule Bone (A Comedy of Negro Life) by Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston. Bass was presented with the challenge of melding 1920s sensibilities with those of audiences in the 1990s. Negative stereotypes and racial caricatures were a possibility even when producing a play by two such celebrated figures of the Harlem Renaissance. The care with which this project went forward, with the eventual collaboration of Lincoln Center and a broad cross-section of African American artists and scholars, could serve as another model for those who would integrate the works of the past into the present.

The dispute surrounding Show Boat took on wider dimensions when the publisher of Share, a newspaper that serves the Caribbean community in Toronto, lamented the Jewishness of the musical’s creators and its current producers. The Canadian Jewish Congress angrily responded that Jewishness was irrelevant. Tensions continued to flare as journalists fanned the flames with a rash of columns, opinion pieces, and editorials, some in support of the Black community’s concerns and some against.

Get on Board: The Political Economy of Show Boat

There is also no doubt that the Black community’s protest in Toronto gave a barometric reading on the broader issue of free trade. The Free Trade Agreement (a bilateral agreement between Canada and the U.S.) was a fiercely fought issue in the federal election campaign of 1988, even before the negotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) last year, which also involved Mexico.

The cultural sector remains a very vulnerable part of the Canadian economy. It has been a long journey from the early days of U.S. “bus and truck” touring companies, which for many years dominated the performing arts scene, to the establishment of first-class Canadian companies in dance, opera, and theatre which now occupy their own venues. Add to this regional theatres such as the Stratford Shakespeare Festival and the Shaw Festival along with a vibrant professional network of smaller companies, and you have the basis for an artistic infrastructure that has grown by leaps and bounds over the past 20 years into a healthy mix of publicly subsidized and privately run arts organizations.

LivEnt, in a consciously made-for-the-U.S.-market production, cast all of the leading roles as well as most of the chorus and the “swings” (understudies) with Americans. This was possible because of the relationship established at the time Prince was searching for a new “try-out” town. A financial cushion to mount new projects became necessary when his organization, New Musicals, folded at the State University of New York at Purchase in 1990. In Garth Drabinsky he found a producer with deep pockets and, in the depressed Canadian economy, a 35 percent discount on production costs resulting from the relative strength of the U.S. dollar. The resulting insult to Canadian talent was compounded by the fact that this production was the inaugural event of the North York Centre for the Arts, a magnificent facility built by Canadian taxpayer dollars.

“Nowhere but English speaking Canada could something like this have occurred,” said documentary filmmaker and performer Almeta Speakes at a conference of the Canadian Theatre Critics Association:

It would have been unthinkable in Quebec or in Europe to have opened a brand new facility with an old chestnut of an American musical. There they would have done something original–even if it did not enjoy an afterlife–and certainly not one so calculated as a Broadway opening. (1994)

Speaking at the same conference, Jim Biros, Communications Officer for Canadian Actor’s Equity, noted that although there are a number of legitimate concerns, his organization was not protesting too loudly. The relationship with Actor’s Equity in the United States has been good over the years and many Canadian actors continue to have opportunities to work in the States, so “a border war restricting the free flow of artists on both sides is not seen to be in anyone’s best interests” (Biros 1994).

The irony here (as evidenced by Britain’s Royal National Theatre revival of Carousel in 1992 which was reworked for a 1994 Broadway opening) is that, as production costs continue to rise–making it increasingly prohibitive to mount large-scale musicals in New York–the work is now being contracted out and developed off-shore; eventually the product is recycled back to Broadway in order to serve the tourist trade. Tommy, Big River, Damn Yankees, and Kiss of the Spiderwoman have all followed this route.

The Pedagogical Value of Show Boat

The marketing for this commercial product is many faceted. One aggressive part of the campaign is aimed at the secondary school system in Ontario and New York State. Mainly as a result of the protest emanating from the Black community, Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., chair of the Afro-American Studies Program at Harvard University, has been hired to write the study guide that would accompany visits by school groups.

Several boards of education in Ontario, although not advocating a boycott of the production, are encouraging secondary principals not to use Show Boat as a curriculum activity. Patrick Case, Director of Race Relations and Equal Opportunity for the Toronto Board of Education states: “As a curriculum experience in the area of African American history, we feel that Show Boat has little pedagogical value” (1994).

The social history in Show Boat is really a fiction. It is, as one of the songs says so eloquently, “only make believe.” This is the reprise worth remembering. Doubtless though, much of the overwhelmingly white audience that pays the $75.00 for a ticket to see this re-conceived version of the musical will leave the theatre humming “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” and wondering what all the fuss was about. Show Boat will fit their sentimental notions of a far distant past quite nicely and even make a stab at a social comment or two.

New York and After

The Toronto press was quick to point out that local productions of the musical continue to play in the U.S. with little or no controversy, so why all the commotion? The Toronto Star went to the lengths of sending a reporter to Akron, Ohio, where Show Boat was playing with little fanfare and no protests. The same was true when the show opened in New York.

Does this diminish the seriousness of the debate that raged in Toronto? To my mind, not a bit. The value of theatre as cultural artifact and the method employed in its restoration are still at issue here. In overhauling this old vessel with several coats of paint and not a little bit of varnish, the producers may have shined it up and covered the blemishes, but at what cost?

It is easier to ask at what profit? As Show Boat opened on Broadway, already bolstered by critical success, and later docks in venues across the U.S., Europe, and Australia, LivEnt Chief Executive Garth Drabinsky boasts it could gross up to $1 billion.

In its wake is a divided community that will not heal easily. The restoration of this particular cultural artifact has been undertaken at the expense of the dignity of the local Black community. Attempts to salve the wounds through a benefit concert by the cast with proceeds slated to go to the Ontario Black History Society were rejected when the membership of the OBHS refused the money and would not support the event.

The controversy surrounding Show Boat in Toronto raises many intersecting questions, including issues of ethnocultural representation in literature and drama; the complexities of racism and anti-Semitism in a multicultural society; and the very nature of art itself–who produces it, for what purpose, and for what audience? 

In her monograph, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison describes what motivated her to write it: “I was interested, as I had been for a long time, in the way black people ignite critical moments of discovery or change or emphasis in literature not written by them […]” (1993:viii). Morrison investigates the “Africanist” presence in the fiction of Poe, Melville, Cather, and Hemingway in a dramatic reappraisal of a literary tradition built upon an equation that championed freedom and independence while relying on enslavement and oppression as the inescapable legacy of racialism. She states that: “The contemplation of this black presence is central to any understanding of our national literature and should not be permitted to hover at the margins of the literary imagination.”

And so it is in this drama, that the marginal black characters in Show Boat have assumed center stage.


(1.) Portions of this article have appeared previously in Canadian Theatre Review and Toronto Review of Contemporary Writing Abroad.

(2.) As of January 1995, the official name of the Centre has been changed to the Ford Centre for the Performing Arts, and the name of the theatre in the complex altered to the Apotex Theatre after major corporate sponsorship was secured from Ford Motor Company and Apotex (a pharmaceutical company).

(3.)The Empire Club is a conservative stronghold located in Toronto. Drabinsky’s speech was part of a series entitled “Issues of the Day.”

(4.) A full account can be found in Robert W. Rydell’s excellent work, All the World’s a Fair (1984).


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