BEING in Oklahoma!
Posted by Kinsley Suer | 30 September 2011
Noah Dunham's recent review of Oklahoma!
, which appeared in the Portland Mercury
, raised some interesting questions about the decision to cast all African-American actors in our production. Noah asked if this casting choice did "anything to help [audiences] see the tale in a new light." Ultimately, he felt that it was a "puzzling, even troubling choice." Rodney Hicks, who plays the charming cowboy "Curly" in our production, wrote a very thought-provoking and beautiful response to Noah's review and the questions that it raised. Before you read Rodney's response, below, feel free to check out the full Portland Mercury review here
. Rodney's response also appears in the comments section of the review on the Portland Mercury
What was your response after seeing Oklahoma!? We'd love to hear your thoughts.
By Rodney Hicks, “Curly” in Oklahoma!
Thank you for your thoughtful mentioning of race and the effect that casting a predominately African-American cast could possibly have on this new production of Oklahoma!. However, the fact that our director Chris Coleman decided to cast a predominately black cast is enough, in my opinion. The fact that the black cowboys and frontier women of the West during this historic period never get talked about or seen is enough.
On the first day of rehearsal my cast mates and I were relieved to find out that nothing in the original book or music was going to be altered, for the mere fact that we were an all African-American cast. We did however learn a great deal about our ancestors of that time through in-depth research, dialect work (speaking in Southern dialect vs. Midwestern, and the importance of that) and constant discussion during the entire rehearsal process through to production.
It seems, to me, that so many things in the show now ring with greater significance and truth, because I am portraying a black cowboy of that time period – not just a cowboy. The mere fact that I am a black cowboy already holds weight, significance and credibility. The stakes are inevitably higher from the moment “Curly” steps on stage in the silence, stands and breathes in the morning air, then sits to pour dirt out of his boot before settling down to open his mouth with the now optimistically pondering lyric, “There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow.” This continues through to the Act 2 line, “They are gon’ make a state out of this territory. They gon’ put it in the Union. The country’s a changin’; gotta change with it.”
It gives me chills to be able to speak such truth from that perspective, and it says so much about what it must have been like for the black settlers and cowboys of that time and the urgency of hope and promise they must have felt. There are many moments throughout the libretto that echo that sentiment, with each and every character in the show.
Before rehearsals began, like every theater piece I embark on I do a fair amount of research on the subject matter that I will soon inhabit. I spent the entire two months prior to rehearsals reading various books on black cowboys, black frontier men, Jim Crow laws, slavery and The Black Exodus of 1879, among others. Acres of Aspiration by Hannibal Johnson is a particularly special book which gave me the validation I needed to provide a thorough response to your piece. After reading it I then re-read the script to Oklahoma! and found many new textures and layers that I did not see or hear before. I was very pleased to find that on the first day that the creative team for Oklahoma! had done thorough research and more to validate everything that would be done and said in this particular production.
Acres of Aspiration “examines the life and legacy of some of America’s best known all-Black towns. Prominently in Kansas, then principally in Oklahoma, all-Black towns founded by Black seekers mushroomed in the post-Reconstruction era. Southern migrants formed their own frontier communities, largely self-sustaining. Black towns offered hope. Hope of full citizenship; hope of self-governance; and hope of full participation, through land ownership, in the American Dream.”
With that being said, these all-black towns were built so that blacks at the time would be free of the racism and laws that once restricted them in the South and other places, where they could live without any of the hardships that we have come to know as the “Black struggle” and they could simply focus on HOPE and a better life, much like their white counterparts.
The choice to keep the script intact and not put an agenda or statement of “race” on it, to me, seems like the harder and less obvious choice and ultimately logical and accurate for the time and place in which the piece takes place. It gives people a chance to see a story on stage that rarely gets told in theater: an African-American story about hope and love without the backdrop of racism or a political agenda as its antagonist.
I take great pride in the fact that we are doing something very special and ultimately important to who we are, not just as black people but who we all are as Americans and all of our contributions to the history of this great country. With the end result being we’re no different. That is what makes this new production of Oklahoma! to me seem fresh, timely and ultimately universal, where at its heart and center is the universal theme of community and love. What is problematic in that?
I leave with a quote from a woman who spoke at our first day of rehearsal:
“I have been called Nigger. I have been called Negro. I have been called Black. I have been called African-American. Now, I just want to BE.”
And that is what I feel we are doing: BEING.