‘Oklahoma!’ casting is PC reaction to Seattle’s racist past

Kyle Scatliffe as the farm hand Jud Fry in “Oklahoma!” (courtesy 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle)

Still New To Seattle, I attended the opening night of “Oklahoma!” at the 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle. Now theater criticism is really not my forte. But I was quite thrown by the injection without any context or meaning whatsoever of a bizarre racial yet color-blind element to the local production of this classic 1943 Rodgers and Hammerstein collaboration. I am referring to the casting of black actor Kyle Scatliffe in the role of Jud, the farm hand heavy who vies with the hero Curly for the affection of Laurey as all the rural folk dance about singing fluff like, “You’re doin’ fine, Oklahoma!”

I say color-blind because the show ignores the racial angle in word and song, which, given the fact that Curly and Laurey are very white, made for some pretty strange stuff onstage. In the celebrated “Poor Jud is dead” scene, for instance, Curly, who wants Jud to go away so he can marry Laurey, uses a rope to make a noose. As written by Oscar Hammerstein, the idea was a playful and not very serious suggestion of suicide followed by a glorious mock funeral. But in the presence of a black man, the interplay came across more as a solicitation for a lynching.

Now, if the goal was to get a debate going (with the hope of, maybe, selling tickets), the 5th Avenue Theatre certainly has succeeded. It’s not every day you see a controversy over “Oklahoma!” Misha Berson’s Seattle Times review, which pointed out the racial disconnect, called the show “provocative.” She was being very, very kind. In a town that embraces “Seattle Nice,” her review has drawn an unusually large 17 online comments–many withering in their language. You can find another 18 below an article at MyNorthwest.com entitled, “Is ‘Oklahoma!’ racist?” (The author, Tom Tangney, really didn’t answer that question, but many of his commentators sure did!) A clearly delighted David Armstrong, the theater’s boss, has rushed to, uh, make hay of this farm-musical controversy, scheduling discussions before upcoming performances.

One of those 17 comments on The Times’ review was from Berson herself. She said she was told that the casting of Jud was both an “equal opportunity” move–her words–as well as “a deliberate commentary on the cultural/racial climate of the period.”

I see something else, and I’ll be blunt: a politically correct overreaction on the part of the production to the outrageously racist past of Seattle. The Oklahoma of 1906 (when the musical was set) had nothing on the Emerald City of a much later era. What really ought to be discussed is racist behavior in Seattle, not in Oklahoma.

How racist? Journey with me to a University of Washington web site entitled Segregated Seattle. “For most of its history Seattle was a segregated city, as committed to white supremacy as any location in America,” the home page declares. Particularly effective was the use in deeds of racial covenants to keep blacks and, often, other minorities (including Jews) out of huge swatches of town. One of the many posted covenants, which are now unenforceable, is for a house in Magnolia next door to mine, which means there’s probably a similar restriction in my own chain of title, too.

Seattle fancies itself a “green” town. But for me, the best evidence of Seattle’s historic character concerning this hue can be found in a national travel guide that was published regularly for three decades. It was known as the Green Book.

Its fuller title tells you a lot more: The Negro Motorist Green Book.

It was an annual guide to segregated America, telling traveling blacks where they could find lodging, food, gas and other services without being hassled on account of their race. As its preface said for many years, “It has been our idea to give the Negro traveler information that will keep him from running into difficulties, embarrassments and to make his trips more enjoyable.”  Victor H. Green, a New York postal worker, started the series in 1936.

Such guidance was needed for a long time in Seattle. The 1949 edition of the Green Book is online. The message was pretty clear: Watch where you go. In Seattle, even then a substantial city of 465,000, fewer than 60 establishments were listed.

Most of the facilities were clustered in a 24-block area of what is now called the International District (f/k/a Chinatown), along Jackson Street, Maynard Street, Main Street and Yesler Way. A handful were found along East Madison Street at the northern edge of the Central District, the heart of Seattle’s black population.

The Green Book listed seven drug stores–but not a single one named Bartell Drugs, which then and now had many pharmacies sprinkled across Seattle. With one exception, the 11 beauty parlors and barber shops were on Jackson, Maynard and East Madison. The same was largely true of the 20 restaurants, taverns and night clubs. Needed gas? The Green Book identified just three service stations, all on East Madison.

The nine hotels included none of the better ones.  The roster contained the Y.W.C.A.–not the main facility at Seneca Street and Fifth Avenue (as it turns out, just a block from the 5th Avenue Theatre staging “Oklahoma!”), but instead a satellite facility on a street I can’t find on a map but which probably was in the Central District. Laments the Y.W.C.A. today on its website, “Social mores of the day prevailed in the downtown building, where African-American women could not rent a hotel room and where they could swim in the pool only on Saturday afternoons–before it was drained and cleaned.”

The Green Book disappeared after passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed discrimination in public accommodations. This was an outcome the 1949 Green Book edition welcomed: “It will be a great day for us to suspend this publication for then we can go wherever we please, and without embarrassment.”

What has become of all the listed local places? Yesterday, I drove around the International District with a downloaded Green Book and that map. I could find none of the entries still in business exactly as they were, although one, the Atlas Hotel at 420 Maynard Street, is now the Atlas Apartments. A number of buildings have been torn down and turned into parking lots. All in all, it’s a pretty seedy part of town; I can only imagine what it looked like during the era of the Green Book.

At 507 Jackson Street, what was Bishop’s drug store is now a Chinese deli. At 614 Jackson Street, Ruth Whiteside’s beauty school (why this was listed in a travel guide is beyond me) is now a tattoo parlor, offering, I suppose, a different kind of beauty. Glenarvons beauty parlor at 657 Jackson Street is now a flower store. The only liquor store in the book, Jackson’s, at 707 Jackson Street, is a nondescript building with no obvious current use attached to a gas station.

Okay. Rather than this misdirected brouhaha over “Oklahoma!, if the 5th Avenue Theatre really wants to deal with racial issues in a tuneful context, stage something like “Show Boat.” That’s the much-lauded 1927 musical about racial prejudice and lost love, with Hammerstein writing the book and Jerome Kern the memorable music (including “Ol’ Man River”). The show is so enduring and universal in meaning that in 1989 the Houston Grand Opera took it to the Cairo Opera House in Egypt (I happened to be in that audience, too).

Here’s another idea.  Last year, an Atlanta theater group staged the world premiere of “The Green Book,” a play by Calvin Alexander Ramsey about a group of travelers who use the Green Book to find lodging. The play is set in Missouri.

Put on “The Green Book” in Seattle. But borrow a famous gimmick from Gilbert and Sullivan’s 1885 comic opera “The Mikado.” The character Ko-Ko sings a “little list” of society offenders who would not be missed if executed. She invokes the names of current local luminaries satirically written into the lyrics by whoever is staging the show. It’s always very funny.

I guarantee you that insertion of a line like “Mommy, why can’t we go into that nice Bartell’s?” would bring down the house. And maybe help start the correct discussion in Seattle.

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‘Oklahoma!’ casting is PC reaction to Seattle’s racist past — 10 Comments

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