Facing The Music

A Revival Of 'Show Boat' Confronts The Production's Historical Racism.

THE SINGER PHILLIP Lamar Boykin could have used a show boat last weekend in Oklahoma City.

A flood flushed the traveling cast of Show Boat out of their hotel Sunday night, and moored them in a decrepit motel across the highway. Boykin, a bass-baritone whose deep tones carry over into his speaking voice, said the troupe would just keep rolling along.

"We're moving to a new hotel," he said crisply by telephone.

Boykin, who sings the knockout tune "Ol' Man River," will be in Tucson on Tuesday, April 18, with the rest of the 29-member cast to open a Show Boat revival at Centennial Hall. The American musical chestnut, chock-full of singing and dancing, stays in town a week, with performances every day through Easter Sunday, April 23. A nine-member band plays the music, which includes such Broadway classics as "Can't Help Lovin' That Man" and "Bill."

"It's my first time singing Joe," Boykin said. "I always wanted to do it. I hopped a bus, and auditioned for this show in March of last year. In September we started on the road, going all over Canada and the U.S."

Boykin's notices have been sterling.

"It's hard to image a voice stronger than that of Phillip Boykin, who sang the best rendition of 'Ol' Man River' that I can remember," wrote a Spokane critic. A Florida writer opined: "When Phillip Boykin sings, you know there's something larger than life upon the stage."

Boykin loves the music -- he even belted out a few bars over the phone -- but he readily acknowledges that the show has been denounced as racist. African-American groups picketed the show at its Toronto opening back in 1995, after Harold Prince plucked it out of a dusty drawer of theatrical history and refurbished it for contemporary audiences. Protesters thought the show was too drenched in offensive racial stereotypes ever to be wrung dry of them; Prince and his defenders argued that the play has much to teach us about our racial history. Critics tended to agree with the impresario; the show won five Tony Awards in 1995, including Best Musical Revival.

Prince picked and chose songs, scenes and lyrics from the seven different versions that have been produced, on both stage and screen, over the last 70 years. For instance, the blues lament "Mis'ry's Comin' Aroun'," dropped during the Depression as too depressing, has been restored.

"So many songs have been written for this show that it would take a day or two" to perform if a single production contained them all, Boykin said.

But even more interesting than the show's illustration of changes in musical taste, its changing fortunes through the 20th century make for a fascinating chronicle of American attitudes toward race. Edna Ferber set her original 1926 novel on a theatrical boat that traveled up and down the Mississippi in the late 1880s; the performers were white, the manual laborers black. ("There's little to defend" in the novel, wrote New Yorker theatre critic John Lahr a few years back, in reviewing the Prince revival.)

The musical version, with songs by Jerome Kern and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, opened in 1927 on Broadway. While it benefited from a new American interest in black culture -- Paul Robeson had had a successful run two years before in New York in The Emperor Jones -- it featured some frankly racist elements, including an opening song called "In Dahomey," whose gibberish lyrics spoofed an African language. That tune, needless to say, landed on Prince's cutting-room floor.

Boykin's character Joe is an African-American man who works the river, and he's sometimes been played in familiar Hollywood fashion of "big, dark and white-eyed," as Boykin puts it. The great Robeson himself, singer, actor and political activist, took on the part of Joe the next year in London, but he refused to sing the lyrics of "Ol' Man River" as written.

"Paul Robeson was someone who didn't just conform to the regular stereotyping of African-Americans," said Boykin. "He changed the lyrics several times as he got older." Lines about the monotony of hard work in the first version end with "Get a little drunk and you land in jail." Robeson changed the lyric to "Show a little grit and you land in jail," in just four words converting the song from a stereotype about black drunkenness to a protest against political oppression.

Hammerstein, the story goes, was not amused. "I suggest Paul write his own songs and leave mine alone," he said when the news rolled in from London.

The show's controversial miscegenation subplot is about a singer named Julie (Jean Michelle Grier), the daughter of a white father and black mother. She's light-skinned enough to "pass" as white; she marries a white man and takes a job singing on the show boat, the Cotton Blossom. A disappointed suitor discovers her secret and reports her to the sheriff. To keep from being jailed for her illegal marriage, Julie has to flee, and her life spirals downward.

In Boykin's view, the play gives a sympathetic accounting of this injustice.

"It happened to a perfectly decent, honorable woman," Boykin said, "and our ignorance led to it."

But in the early years at least producers' sympathies didn't go so far as to give the plum role to a black woman. In the 1950 movie, a sun-tanned Ava Gardner got the part, though the African-American singer Lena Horne desperately wanted it. In fact, until recently white actresses have routinely taken the part.

Boykin, a native of Greenville, S.C., who trained as an opera singer at the University of Hartford, argues that it's important for contemporary audiences, black and white alike, to be aware of historical racism. To ignore it, he said, is tantamount to forgetting the past.

"Whenever a show deals with race issues, it gives the audience sweaty palms," he said. "I agree with putting it on the stage and making the audience think about it. We see where we came from so we don't repeat it, though we still have a long way to go.

"The N-word is there. It's one of the first words in the show. So is 'colored folk.' It takes the audience a while to adjust. A lot of history would disappear if the show was put away forever. An artist must be true to an era. I'm happy with it."

Show Boat opens at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, April 18, at UA Centennial Hall. Shows continue at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; and 7:30 p.m. Sunday, April 19 through 23. There are 2 p.m. matinees on Saturday and Sunday. Tickets range from $28 to $40, with discounts available for children, students, UA employees and UApresents season subscribers. Call the Centennial Hall box office at 621-3341 for information and reservations. A service charge is assessed to phone orders.
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