In today’s Wall Street Journal “Sightings” column I report on an on-stage culture clash that I witnessed last week in St. Louis. Here’s an excerpt.
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Culture War II, in which “woke” progressives are now pitting themselves against old-fashioned liberals, came to St. Louis on Friday. The battleground was the Muny, a century-old outdoor theater that produces Broadway musicals every summer, and the casus belli was—unlikely as it may sound—an anti-slavery ballet.
The Muny opened its centennial season last week with a major event, the first revival anywhere of “Jerome Robbins’ Broadway,” the 1989 revue in which the master of musical-comedy choreography put together an evening’s worth of his celebrated production numbers. None was more memorable than “The Small House of Uncle Thomas,” the ballet from “The King and I” in which the enslaved wives of the tyrannical King of Siam turn “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” into an impeccably liberal-minded song-and-dance number that pointedly hints at the resemblance between their degraded condition and that of the black slaves who worked on plantations in the American South….
Laura Jacobs, who reviewed “Jerome Robbins’ Broadway” for the Journal, singled out “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” as “the most beautiful of the numbers” in the show. But that’s not how a group of out-of-town American theater artists felt when they saw it on Friday. Jeremy D. Goodwin, who interviewed them afterwards, reported on St. Louis Public Radio’s website that the 15 artists, who were in town for a conference, were offended by what they took to be examples of cultural insensitivity in the production, the most noteworthy of which was the casting of a white actor, Sarah Bowden, as Tuptim, the slave-wife who narrates “The Small House of Uncle Thomas.” “Looking at that work was painful for us,” said Leilani Chan, artistic director of Los Angeles’ TeAda Productions. “We were just shocked.”
How did they respond? One might reasonably have expected them to request a meeting with Mike Isaacson, the Muny’s artistic director and executive producer, to discuss their grievances. But acccording to Mr. Goodwin, the group had already been tipped about the “yellowface” casting (to use the now-common term for casting whites in Asian roles) of Tuptim. Hence they were inclined instead to immediate action, and when “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” got underway, they rose to their feet and started shouting “No yellowface!” and booing in unison before being escorted out of the theater by Muny staffers….
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Read the whole thing here.
The trailer for the Muny’s revival of Jerome Robbins’ Broadway: