PCS Blog

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's website.
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.
Comments (11)

Thank you so much for sharing your experience, Dorothy. We’re excited to be presenting this play in a new way, one that is grounded in such unique and interesting history. Thank you for joining us!

  • Kinsley Suer
  • 06 Oct 11 06:03

I attended the the afternoon show on October 2 and truly enjoyed seeing an all black cast.As a Black parent I also was once accused of casting a racist play. I am a mother of three children who was forced to send her two older children out of their neighborhood and bussed to an all White school.The principal ,staff and students called my children Blackies, N-words which caused the Black students to use physical force to stop name calling. My remedy was to write and produce a Black history play which cast all the black bussed students. The night of the play the Principal sent word to me via his secetrary that I had to put some white students in the play.My response was the play does not call for any white students to portray black people.After the play the teachers were more willing to help the Black students and the name calling did stop,along with the fights..The teachers told me they noticed a proudness in the Black students. When you and others are aware of your history then you know where you are going.This was the first time the school had Black parents to participate in any school activity -they showed up despite a blazer game and pouring down rain to see their children perform.
I knew of the black cowboys and Black towns.Now Portland communities of all races will know and   embrace our part in history. Thanks for bringing attention to our Black cowboys.

  • DorothyHhadley
  • Portland
  • 05 Oct 11 11:45

Rodney- I really want to thank you for posting a response to the review. Not only do I think that this is a discussion worth having, but your thoughtful insights on your own experience as a performer in “Oklahoma!” are extremely valuable in a conversation such as this.

I have to agree with you and PCS blog commenter Anne Adams (from Portland Monthly) that the opportunity to see a play with an all African American cast “without the backdrop of racism or political agenda as its antagonist” has been rare in American theater.
The choice to let the performers of Oklahoma! simply “BE” is not only a progressive way to present the musical, but also a valid take on how color-blind casting is implemented on today’s stage. I now find myself wishing I had thought to explore this argument in the original review—it brings me to questions that I think might be at the very heart of our discussion. Are we as audience members meant to view “Oklahoma!” through a colorblind lens, or are we to see it through the historical perspective of a black town in the South at the turn of the century? Or both? Neither?

I think my discomfort—and what I ultimately found troubling about the production—was that textually and aesthetically (from directorial and design perspectives) the show lacked a tone of realism that would have grounded it in the history that the setting was based on. As you have pointed out, PCS’ and your own research have been extensive and I was hoping to see some of that research seep into the fabric of the play, especially in regards to that specific time in African American history. What would this town actually look like? Feel like? Smell like?
Perhaps I’m being a greedy audience member. Maybe that’s asking too much of a production that first and foremost was an energizing and uplifting night at the theater. Please note that I don’t want, in any way, for these comments to overshadow the fact that I found the performances in “Oklahoma!” wonderful and the play to be a fine production. I can’t help but pick at motivations, though. Especially when they are based on history, and when that history is one that involves America’s treatment of race and culture. Which I think we can both agree is a topic worth discussing and pondering through the theater and other forms of artistic expression.

Also - to keep the discussion going further, I’d like to point you and anyone else who is following the convo to check out Barry Johnson’s review over at Oregon Arts Watch (http://www.orartswatch.org/theater-review-happy-trails-to-center-stages-oklahoma) and also a Mercury Blogtown thread that is currently underway: http://blogtown.portlandmercury.com/BlogtownPDX/archives/2011/10/05/theater-fight-the-black-cowboys-of-oklahoma

Thank you so much for sharing this Eileen. We’re so proud and excited about this production, and it’s great to see that our patrons are, too!

  • Kinsley Suer
  • 05 Oct 11 07:05

Greetings, all. I applaud PCS’s all-black casting of Oklahoma! It’s all in this letter that is in today’s (10/5) Oregonian.

Those who accuse Portland Center Stage of racist casting
for the all-black production of Oklahoma! (History in Black
and White/Sunday Living/Oct. 2) are off their mark.

A play, especially a musical, reflects the times in which it is
set, and elements such as ethnicity have great power to help
us walk paths others have traveled. Without changing the story
but introducing an all-black cast to the audience, this production
of Oklahoma! raises awareness of African Americans’ roles in
carving out an expanding nation. The production is not an effort
to exclude whites, but, rather, to involve the audience in a
relatively unknown chapter in America’s black history.

In addition, if some are bothered by the thought of an all-
black production of a traditionally white musical-drama, let’s
remember that little more than a generation ago American theatre was
pretty much a white game. White actors were once hired
to portray people of color in blackface. Open casting (hiring actors
regardless of race or ethnicity) was barely practiced before the
late 1980s. And only with plays such as South Pacific did American
musical theatre begin to expand its cultural awareness and address racism.

Theatre’s attitude towards race is evolving and Oklahoma! is OK.

Eileen Kerry Kovac

  • Eileen
  • Tigard
  • 05 Oct 11 06:07

Let me qualify my review. I am not a huge musical fan, nor one of touring productions of popular plays or musicals.  When I received a surprise invitation to this production of Oklahoma!;  I entered Portland CenterStage the for the first time with a completely open mind and I had no idea as too the cast being all black.  I sat in the balcony last row corner seat.  I enjoyed the songs.  This production is well cast.  Cast members are all extremely talented.  Everyone can really sing.  They sets are well done and draw attention to the players rather than the set.  I found the Choreography, at times, to be a bit ‘cheesy’.  I kept expecting to hear “Old Man River” at any moment.  The direction should be more toward the historical black values of the times rather than black actor’s in white roles.  As a patron, I should enjoy the show for what it is rather than the fact that the actors skins are black.  The voices of cast are all exceptional and the acting was good and at times lent believability to the setting.  The drawbacks…I had quite possibly the worst seat in the house and at times had trouble hearing.  That being said I enjoyed the show.

  • Victor
  • Portland, Or
  • 02 Oct 11 01:08

It is such a pleasure to be able to see theater that is created by such clearly deeply-committed, passionate, and intelligent people.  Every time I see a performance at PCS, I know I can trust that the decisions about the plays are made in the best and most considerate ways.  I love that Chris Coleman chose to make the cast of Oklahoma an all black cast allowing so many more people to work than perhaps often get to in our very white city. I love that Rodney Hicks’ response to the review is so thoughtful, thorough, and right on. And I love that I get a chance to imagine this play that I adore in a new way: a way that shows me a part of American history I didn’t know before.  What an inspired thing to do!

  • Julia Nusbaum
  • Portland
  • 01 Oct 11 04:52

Karen: Read the first paragraph at the beginning.  The review is linked and PCS Blog encouraged readers to check it out.

  • Reynolds Potter
  • Portland
  • 01 Oct 11 04:26

I have yet to catch this production, but I agree with Rodney: It’s a relief when black actors are afforded the chance to portray the normal gamut of universal human emotion, outside the context of a struggle against racially-motivated oppression. While hammering away at that topic has brought gradual enlightenment, empathy and change, it’s also created an unfortunate Pavlovian reaction in many theater audiences: See a black person, brace yourself for racially charged themes.

I admit I had that response myself a few months ago, when I caught Broadway’s Mary Poppins, complete with a black villain that Ms. Poppins locks in a cage. When a period drama features mixed ethnicities, you naturally weigh the action against your perception of the race/class issues of that time and place. So in that context, the actor’s race “stuck out” to me, and the implications of empire and exploitation bothered me. Similarly if Oklahoma were a mixed-race production, audiences should be put on guard for era-appropriate Southern tension. But this production sounds like a good chance for audiences to shrug off their preconceptions and embrace the obvious: Black actors are just actors. Black people are just people. Why SHOULD a black Oklahoma be “a new Oklahoma!?” No good reason.

Thanks, Mr. Hicks, for your thoughtful response to the *Portland Mercury* review by Mr. Dunham.  Evidently this critic wanted a different musical - something other than the “universal themes” that “just about anyone can relate to.”  Continuing to quote Dunham: “Race simply isn’t a topic found in the original ....”  Really?  All white all the time?  At least until now when Portland Center Stage & Chris Coleman changed the color, the skin tone, the pigmentation.  No need to “tackle” the topic of race and then wrestle with it.  As Mr. Hicks writes, letting the actors just “BE.”  More than enough.

  • Reynolds Potter
  • Portland
  • 01 Oct 11 12:19

Why no link to the review?

  • Karen
  • Portland OR
  • 01 Oct 11 12:20

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