In a scene from "Ragtime," even the dyspeptic white grandfather is taken by the "strange new music" being played on the spinet by Coalhouse Walker Jr., the "Colored Man" who visits white, middle-class New Rochelle every Sunday to woo a servant girl.
"Do you know any coon songs?" Grandfather suddenly asks Coalhouse, no offense intended, in the show adapted from E.L. Doctorow's sweeping historical novel about three families set in turn-of-the-century America, which opened last Sunday at the Ford Center for the Performing Arts.
At the elderly man's remark, the elegant and urbane Coalhouse stops playing. "Sir, coon songs are for minstrel shows," he says with dignity and just a little reproof. "White entertainers sing them in blackface. This is called ragtime."
Tell it, Coalhouse.
The idealistic musician--particularly as played by Brian Stokes Mitchell and the show's other middle-class, educated African American characters, including the historical figure Booker T. Washington (Tommy Hollis)--are the powers that drive "Ragtime," lending the lavish epic musical much of its fun and gravitas.
The fun is in the saloon scenes, in which Coalhouse's friends prepare him for the courtship of his beloved Sarah; the gravitas appears in the political radicalization the group undergoes when Coalhouse is denied justice after being badly treated by white racists. The dignity and ambition of the African American characters that emerge in "Ragtime" are in direct contrast to the more familiar fare on Broadway for black actors in song-and-dance revues, in featured roles as sidekicks, and parallel, perhaps, only to the occasional starring ones in rare black dramas. And the empowered figures of "Ragtime" are not an isolated phenomenon on the stages of Broadway right now. This is a season unequaled in the visibility of black actors on the world's most prominent commercial stages.
Mitchell, who starred in an all-black version of the Cole Porter musical "Oh Kay!" before winning acclaim in "Jelly's Last Jam" and "Kiss of the Spider Woman," says: "Until really this season, the more typical Broadway show was of black people as dancers and singers, there to make audiences feel good and laugh. I'm not degrading that. The difference is that playing the clown or the best friend had been for a very long time the only kind of jobs available for black actors. But things are changing."
And how. Only three seasons ago, there were only two new Broadway shows, of 37 new productions, in which black actors played featured roles--"Angels in America: Perestroika" and "Carousel." But look at the landscape today: The two biggest hits of the season are "Ragtime" and "The Lion King," at the New Amsterdam. Disney's new musical is a stunningly joyous celebration of African culture expressed not only in the talent and beauty of a cast that is predominantly black but more centrally through the haunting African choral chants and the transformation of Rafiki (Tsidii le Loka) into a painted female griot storyteller, grunting and chanting in Zulu, Sesotho and Swahili.
Adding to the mix of new roles, even Neil Simon, for the first time in his nearly 40-year career, has written a meaty role for a black character, albeit a housekeeper-nanny, in his new (though not successful) comedy "Proposals." The role, played to critical praise by L. Scott Caldwell, stands in direct contrast to the stereotypical black nurse Simon wrote in 1972 for "The Sunshine Boys," a play also being seen on Broadway this season in a revival at the Lyceum Theatre.
Also continuing to provide key roles for black actors is George C. Wolfe's "Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk," in its third hit year at the Ambassador--not bad for a hip-hop, rap-tap show many insiders thought would never succeed on Broadway. Black characters predominate, as well, in "The Life" and "Rent"--as drag queens, prostitutes and junkies, to be sure, but also as MIT and Harvard grads, lawyers and landlords.
And colorblind casting has now become so accepted that Hinton Battle has replaced James Naughton as Billy Flynn in "Chicago" and Angela Bassett will star opposite Alec Baldwin in "Macbeth" later this year. George Merritt is playing Dr. Jekyll's Edwardian colleague in "Jekyll & Hyde," and Kimberly Hester is featured as the mistress of tycoon Benjamin Guggenheim in "Titanic, the Musical." That's not to mention the more traditional black roles that continue to appear in such revues as "Smokey Joe's Cafe" and "Streetcorner Symphony" as well as in musicals like "Miss Saigon" and "The Capeman."
Broadway seasons, of course, are cyclical and this year's contributions are not a guarantee that future years will be as rosy for black actors, but there's no question that hit shows like "Rent," "Ragtime," "Lion King" and "Noise/Funk" will continue to employ many blacks for years to come, both on Broadway and in touring productions, just as the acclaimed revival of "Show Boat" already continues to do on the road.
"I think it's a great time to be an African American performer," says Barry Moss of Moss-Hughes in New York, the talent agency that cast "The Life," "Titanic" and "Jekyll & Hyde." "If you're talented, you're going to work. We're actually having a difficult time filling all the roles that must be played by blacks, like those in 'The Life.' The role of Queenie, for example, demands a brilliant actress with fire who can sing. A lot of actors who can do that are already in 'Lion King,' 'Ragtime' and [touring productions of] 'Show Boat.' "
However, someone who is not claiming victory for his fellow blacks yet is Wolfe, who as producer of the Public Theater and director of such shows as "Jelly's Last Jam" and "Noise/Funk" has done more than anyone else in New York to advance opportunities for actors of color.
"There has been this proliferation of roles, but it's no breakthrough," he says. "The commercial theater, which is always 20 years behind the rest of the country, is simply catching up. I can't jump up and down about that. There are African Americans in every single aspect of America--why not in the commercial theater too?"
Yet the landscape is changing. Few people would have expected Disney, otherwise perceived as a primarily Eurocentric white-bread institution, to be at the forefront of bringing commercial theater up to date by becoming a major employer of black performers. Of the 48 roles in "Lion King," 85% are played by African or African American actors. They are also mostly very positive images, sumptuously dressed in the fabrics, colors and music of Africa. In fact, when "The Lion King" opened in Minneapolis, critic Dwight Hobbes, who is black, praised director Julie Taymor for her "cultural integrity and authenticity."
"She did not treat the African setting as an exotic backdrop," Hobbes wrote, "but recognized the cultural wealth in which the fable is immersed. Here, from the unlikeliest of sources, is a largely black musical whose simple yet profound story is told through singing, dancing and acting that does not trivialize black dignity but reinforces it."
Taymor says that this respect and reverence for African culture was preeminent as she worked with her collaborators, many of whom are black or African-born. Her choice of the African leitmotif, on which she was totally supported by the Disney producers, was drawn not so much from the animated feature but from "Rhythm of the Pride Lands," a concept album based on the contributions to the film's score by Mark Mancina, Hans Zimmer and Lebo M, a South African composer who is at the nucleus of the seven African singers who are pivotally important to what Taymor calls the "soul and sound" of the Broadway production. As much as possible, the director says, every international production of "The Lion King" to be done in the future will be cast with a majority of African and African American actors.
"I wouldn't do it with an all-white cast," she says. "What I think is truly remarkable is that here you have a predominantly nonwhite company in a show that is not about race for whites in the audience and all about race for black audiences. This is a picture of America which I believe is new and fresh and is almost a relief. It's incredibly freeing."
The older African American actors in "Lion King" can see how much things have changed in recent times. Samuel E. Wright, who has received some of the best notices of his career as the regal Mufasa, says, "When I first came to the theater 25 years ago and auditioned for a revival of 'On the Town,' I was told, 'We aren't looking for Negroes.' So there's indeed been an evolution, almost a resolution, when it comes to work for black actors."
In "Ragtime," the black actors, who make up almost half of the cast of 44, were active participants in the way they were to be presented through the long gestation period the musical underwent from workshop to full production.
"There was a lot of dialogue between the creative team and the actors, which made the show better," says Terrence McNally, who wrote the book, acknowledging that this was the first time he had written major roles for black actors. "They'd say, 'We wouldn't say it that way,' and that was fine. It was very important to them that a solid-citizen aspect of black life be presented."
It is an aspect borne out in the production's costumes, designed by Santo Loquasto--natty dark three-piece suits and long dresses of black silk.
"We wanted to make the point that black middle-class respectability didn't begin with 'The Bill Cosby Show' or the NAACP," McNally says.
The vision goes further: Coalhouse is not only talented and rich, he is also powerful--not just when he is on an outing with Sarah in his Model-T Ford but also later when he and his band of revolutionary radicals bring the city of New York to its knees in a dramatic climax at the Morgan Library.
And he is not the only dynamic black character in "Ragtime." Acting as a voice of reason in the political firestorm is Booker T. Washington, the educator and scientist, who brings his considerable dignity to the story. For blacks who have long become used to seeing major white characters brought in to help minorities reach their goals, this has been particularly gratifying.
"Every race looks for role models," says Hollis, who plays Washington and who has appeared in many August Wilson dramas. "But Broadway is about money, not about the racial climate in this country. The first play I ever saw that made me want to stay in New York and pursue acting was [Wilson's] 'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom.' It moved me so much. I feel that way about 'Ragtime.' It's talking about a truth in our history, a big black-and-white thing together. We can see how misunderstood we are about each other's culture and how one wrong thing can lead to another wrong thing until we're at a horrible place."
Still, because these shows, with the exception of "Noise/Funk," were written by whites, some argue that they do not represent true pictures of the black experience. "Noise/Funk" producer-writer Wolfe argues that the "cultural truths are not exactly truthful" to the African American experience. Indeed, he is the rare black in his role on the Broadway scene, and he attributes the paucity of black writers and creators to lack of risk-taking on the part of the "small, insular" elite who run commercial New York theater.
"I can't tell you how many people in the commercial theater begged me, advised me passionately with all good intentions, to never bring 'Noise/Funk' uptown to Broadway," Wolfe says of the exuberant, angry, Tony-winning musical about the African American experience that he created with Savion Glover at downtown's Public Theater. Wolfe says he was told that "nobody was going to come and see a show that had an all-black cast and had some edge."
At least, not in a musical. Wilson's edgy dramas, of course, have succeeded on Broadway with all-black casts playing to multiracial audiences. Still, Wilson is at the heart of a debate about black actors' participation in theater controlled by whites; he opposes nontraditional casting and advocates separate African American companies.
Speaking to these issues, Hollis says, "I respect August to have his opinion but he's a playwright, not an actor looking for a job. No matter what role I'm playing, I'm an African American. It's undeniable what my culture is."
Merritt, who plays Dr. Jekyll's lawyer friend, agrees. "I appreciate August's perspective but it stretches me as an actor if I can play all types of roles."
Indeed, the opportunity to play all types of roles was hard won. Wolfe says that commercial considerations were the excuses for resistance to and controversy over the nontraditional casting in the mid-1980s, when the trend began to move somewhat more frequently from nonprofit theaters, like the Public, to uptown venues. Although Joseph Papp had produced an interracial "Two Gentleman of Verona" in 1971 on Broadway, such casting was still considered a gimmick when Cicely Tyson was announced as the star of "The Corn Is Green" in the early 1980s.
"Audiences were available to it," says Wolfe, "but critics, producers and writers are sometimes so rigid and literal in approaching what is about imagination. They couldn't see beyond, 'How can she be playing his sister, if she's black and he's white?' Only when they saw that people weren't running screaming out of the theater did they come around. It's a wearing-down process until you get to the point where you simply get the best possible actor for the role. We still have a long way to go, but we're getting there."
Willie Boston, who runs the New York City Office of Equal Opportunity for Actors' Equity, the stage actors' union, maintains that the growing acceptance of nontraditional casting is the result of the topic having been "debated, discussed and analyzed ad nauseam." He describes as "groundbreaking" Nicholas Hytner's 1993 revival of Rodgers & Hammerstein's "Carousel," which featured an interracial cast, including Audra McDonald, who won a Tony award for her Carrie Pipperidge. McDonald also subsequently won a Tony for another role that was racially nonspecific in "Master Class," and created the role of Sarah in "Ragtime" in Toronto before bringing it to New York.
" 'Carousel' was a big hit and terribly important in helping to make nontraditional casting more acceptable," Boston says. "I think producers are also understanding that audience demographics are changing, and in order to be more competitive, what is onstage should reflect the audience you want to appeal to."
While Equity, along with the nonprofit New York-based Nontraditional Casting Project, which spun off a committee of the actors' union, sponsors meetings to drive the point home to theater marketing directors, the fact remains that blacks make up only 3% of Broadway's audience. (According to the last survey of Actors' Equity members in 1992, black actors also made up about 3% of the union, double the previous tally in 1982. Should acting opportunities continue to open up for blacks, Boston says, that number should increase substantially by the time the union's census is taken again in 2002.)
Today, at least among some casting directors, nontraditional casting is not only accepted, but advisable. "If we don't have a wide diversity of ethnic representation, we feel that we've failed," says Moss. "Of course, if your play is about race prejudice, that's different. But most musical theater, particularly, is escapist, heightened reality."
And that extends not only to blacks, but also to Asians and Latinos. Moss notes that he recently cast B.D. Wong, the Asian American actor who won a Tony for "M. Butterfly," as Charlie Chaplin in a new musical, "Limelight." "If people come up to me and say, 'Look, Chaplin wasn't Asian,' I tell them, 'Well, he didn't sing and dance either.' "
While some theater casting directors argue that film and TV are "too literal" as mediums to support nontraditional casting, others believe that the movie industry is more daring than Broadway in choice of subject matter and opportunities for black writers and directors.
Actor Merritt agrees: "In terms of black writers and directors being able to realize their vision and stories, and even in terms of romantic scenes involving blacks and whites, I think that movies have been a lot more adventurous lately. Television too has made progress. I do think that what we do out here [in New York] can have an impact on L.A., and L.A. can have an impact on us."
Hester, who plays Mademoiselle Aubert, Benjamin Guggenheim's French mistress in "Titanic," says she hopes that the repeated exposure of actors of color on Broadway will help blacks get more film work in the future.
"I'm very encouraged when I see Wesley Snipes and Denzel Washington in roles that are nonspecific in terms of color. We should be seen as human beings first."
Progress for blacks on Broadway is also coming from some unexpected sources. Some black actors say that the variety of high-profile theater roles becoming available to them now has begun to make them less squeamish about playing roles that otherwise would be shunned as too stereotypical--like playing prostitutes in "The Life" or the black maid in Simon's "Proposals," which closed earlier this month after a short run on Broadway.
Caldwell, who played nanny Clemma, says that she once vowed never to play a maid or other such roles, because she had grown up in the South, ashamed that her own mother worked as a domestic. Working as a member of the Negro Ensemble Company in New York, she kept her promise to herself until 18 months ago, when her agent sent her the script of "Proposals," whose narrator is a warm if forbidding housekeeper, who is also a mother figure to the young Jewish woman in her charge as well as to a loose collection of characters that included a former lover who abandoned her.
"I'd never had a negative opinion about white writers writing black characters," she says. "The issue is whether the writer has a willingness and ability to tell the truth, and 'Proposals' had the ring of truth about it."
In any case, the play, which premiered to mixed reviews at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles last summer before opening in October on Broadway, had one of the shortest runs of a Simon play ever. Caldwell attributes the failure to the elegiac mood of the piece--a daughter trying to come to terms with an estranged mother, a dying man gathering those he loves around him for one final summer--but she says she is proud of her work in the play.
"I made it my mission that this would be about integrity," she said. "I wanted to show people, like myself, who had a strong response to seeing blacks play maids, that it could be done with dignity and responsibility. We didn't have to do it 'as is.' And I wanted to do it as a tribute to my mother, for ever having been ashamed of her work. She did that, so I could do this."
Caldwell says that she heard that some blacks walked out on the show, people "who were so tired of seeing black people so in love with white people," but she says she found the relationship between Clemma and the girl Josie both moving and believable. "It's not a stretch that two people, one Jewish, one black, could love each other in that way. It wasn't about race. It was about feeling."
Perhaps, Caldwell added, echoing the opinions of many of her colleagues, the more that black actors have opportunities onstage to create a whole spectrum of characters, the more possible it might be for society at large to see the person and the talent and not just color.