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In Like a Lion

A surge in big roles for African Americans on Broadway--and the success of those plays--could signal a change for actors so often relegated in the past to play pals and entertainers.

January 25, 1998|Patrick Pacheco | Patrick Pacheco is a regular contributor to Calender from New York

NEW YORK — In a scene from "Ragtime," even the dyspeptic white grandfather is taken by the "strange new music" being played on the spinet by Coalhouse Walker Jr., the "Colored Man" who visits white, middle-class New Rochelle every Sunday to woo a servant girl.

"Do you know any coon songs?" Grandfather suddenly asks Coalhouse, no offense intended, in the show adapted from E.L. Doctorow's sweeping historical novel about three families set in turn-of-the-century America, which opened last Sunday at the Ford Center for the Performing Arts.

At the elderly man's remark, the elegant and urbane Coalhouse stops playing. "Sir, coon songs are for minstrel shows," he says with dignity and just a little reproof. "White entertainers sing them in blackface. This is called ragtime."

Tell it, Coalhouse.

The idealistic musician--particularly as played by Brian Stokes Mitchell and the show's other middle-class, educated African American characters, including the historical figure Booker T. Washington (Tommy Hollis)--are the powers that drive "Ragtime," lending the lavish epic musical much of its fun and gravitas.

The fun is in the saloon scenes, in which Coalhouse's friends prepare him for the courtship of his beloved Sarah; the gravitas appears in the political radicalization the group undergoes when Coalhouse is denied justice after being badly treated by white racists. The dignity and ambition of the African American characters that emerge in "Ragtime" are in direct contrast to the more familiar fare on Broadway for black actors in song-and-dance revues, in featured roles as sidekicks, and parallel, perhaps, only to the occasional starring ones in rare black dramas. And the empowered figures of "Ragtime" are not an isolated phenomenon on the stages of Broadway right now. This is a season unequaled in the visibility of black actors on the world's most prominent commercial stages.

Mitchell, who starred in an all-black version of the Cole Porter musical "Oh Kay!" before winning acclaim in "Jelly's Last Jam" and "Kiss of the Spider Woman," says: "Until really this season, the more typical Broadway show was of black people as dancers and singers, there to make audiences feel good and laugh. I'm not degrading that. The difference is that playing the clown or the best friend had been for a very long time the only kind of jobs available for black actors. But things are changing."

And how. Only three seasons ago, there were only two new Broadway shows, of 37 new productions, in which black actors played featured roles--"Angels in America: Perestroika" and "Carousel." But look at the landscape today: The two biggest hits of the season are "Ragtime" and "The Lion King," at the New Amsterdam. Disney's new musical is a stunningly joyous celebration of African culture expressed not only in the talent and beauty of a cast that is predominantly black but more centrally through the haunting African choral chants and the transformation of Rafiki (Tsidii le Loka) into a painted female griot storyteller, grunting and chanting in Zulu, Sesotho and Swahili.

Adding to the mix of new roles, even Neil Simon, for the first time in his nearly 40-year career, has written a meaty role for a black character, albeit a housekeeper-nanny, in his new (though not successful) comedy "Proposals." The role, played to critical praise by L. Scott Caldwell, stands in direct contrast to the stereotypical black nurse Simon wrote in 1972 for "The Sunshine Boys," a play also being seen on Broadway this season in a revival at the Lyceum Theatre.

Also continuing to provide key roles for black actors is George C. Wolfe's "Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk," in its third hit year at the Ambassador--not bad for a hip-hop, rap-tap show many insiders thought would never succeed on Broadway. Black characters predominate, as well, in "The Life" and "Rent"--as drag queens, prostitutes and junkies, to be sure, but also as MIT and Harvard grads, lawyers and landlords.

And colorblind casting has now become so accepted that Hinton Battle has replaced James Naughton as Billy Flynn in "Chicago" and Angela Bassett will star opposite Alec Baldwin in "Macbeth" later this year. George Merritt is playing Dr. Jekyll's Edwardian colleague in "Jekyll & Hyde," and Kimberly Hester is featured as the mistress of tycoon Benjamin Guggenheim in "Titanic, the Musical." That's not to mention the more traditional black roles that continue to appear in such revues as "Smokey Joe's Cafe" and "Streetcorner Symphony" as well as in musicals like "Miss Saigon" and "The Capeman."

Broadway seasons, of course, are cyclical and this year's contributions are not a guarantee that future years will be as rosy for black actors, but there's no question that hit shows like "Rent," "Ragtime," "Lion King" and "Noise/Funk" will continue to employ many blacks for years to come, both on Broadway and in touring productions, just as the acclaimed revival of "Show Boat" already continues to do on the road.

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