You need two things when you do the musical Hairspray: a fat girl to play the lead character, Tracy Turnblad, and a bunch of African-American kids to play the African-American kids. It’s pretty much that simple.
But at a children’s theatre in Plano, Texas, they’re doing Hairspray without those things. The girl playing Tracy is wearing padding to puff up. Unlike Cyrano, where you can slap a big nose on and get away with it, Tracy Turnblad is supposed to be chubby to begin with. And there are no African American kids in the show. None. The roles of Seaweed, Mother Maybelle and all the other black Baltimoreans are being played by kids so white, they make the Cleavers look ethnic.
Plano Children’s Theatre is one of those so-called “acting academies” which is more or less “pay to play” outfit that charges parents $250 a pop for their kids to be on stage.
|This is how the production might normally look.|
Hairspray is a musical comedy based on an old John Waters movie. The show is performed frequently at high schools and community theaters around the US, after a successful Broadway run and series of national tours. The musical version was also remade back into a movie starring John Travolta and Nikki Blonsky as Tracy.
The premise of all of these Hairsprays is the same: A fat, funny teenage girl in 1960s Baltimore dreams of joining the cool kids on the “council” of a local afternoon TV dance show. She becomes an activist when she discovers that her black friends at high school aren’t allowed on the show except on “Negro Day.” How Tracy, Seaweed and their gang of dancing misfits integrate “The Corny Collins Show” is what Hairspray is about. The world gets integration and the larger girl gets the good-looking guy. It’s good, clean fun with a serious message about segregation, acceptance of differences and how things used to be in America… and apparently about how things still are at the corner of 15th Street and Custer Road in Plano, Texas.
At a recent matinee, witnesses reported a room full of proud parents, grandparents and others who didn’t seem to notice or mind that the little white boy playing Seaweed was singing the lyrics “the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice” as he gyrated in some awkward approximation of Hairspray‘s dirty-dancing to “race music.” Maybe they didn’t know Seaweed and his soul-singing sister, Little Inez, are supposed to be African-American. Maybe they didn’t care that Mother Maybelle, Seaweed’s mother, was being played by a white girl in a curly blond wig singing this: “They say that white has might and thin is in/ Well, that’s just bull ’cause ladies big is back/ And as for black, it’s beautiful!” Maybe.
|There are also no naturally big girls in Plano, TX (apparently)|
Darrell Rodenbaugh, president of PCT’s board of directors responded to questions regarding an all-white cast by saying, “Well, should we deny these kids the opportunity to do a fun show?” he said. “We’d paid for the rights to the show six months in advance. We couldn’t cancel it.”
Didn’t any black kids audition? No, said Rodenbaugh, it’s hard to recruit black kids to PCT because there apparently aren’t that many in Plano. (African-Americans make up less than 8 percent of the Plano, Texas, population of 259,841, according to the most recent census numbers.)
So why do a show with black characters in it if you know going in that you won’t have any black kids to play them? Rodenbaugh had several answers about how much the kids wanted to do Hairspray, how they weren’t going to bow to “political correctness” and how “the parents expect this.”
They expect to see white kids playing black characters? “Yes,” says Rodenbaugh, who has kids in the cast of Hairspray, one of them playing Little Inez. He said PCT also did the musical Once on This Island with an all-white cast.
Rodenbaugh said they might do To Kill a Mockingbird with an all-white cast or Othello or The Wiz. Apparently, he sees nothing offensive or amiss about having no black actors in a show about racial segregation. Doesn’t having an all-white cast ignore the core message of Hairspray - you know, the message about how the black kids weren’t allowed to be on a show with white kids until brave little Tracy took a stand?
Rodenbaugh goes on to say that each young member of the PCT Hairspray cast had been asked to write a “report” about what the plot was about. “They’re learning a good lesson in this show,” he said.
I’m sure they are. I’m just not sure it’s the right lesson.
Hairspray‘s director, Cassidy Crown, says PCT has to work with what they have and she did feel uncomfortable with the all-white cast. Apparently, she had hoped nobody would notice.
Hairspray‘s choreographer, Darius-Anthony Robinson, is a well-known Dallas-area professional choreographer. Robinson said when he went into rehearsals for PCT’s Hairspray, there were several black kids in the ensemble, but after a few days, they all dropped out for various reasons.
“At that point, I said we gotta figure out something else. I did say we needed to try to do something. Maybe do another show,” said Robinson. “But the more we tried to figure out stuff, the worse situation it put us in. I do believe that this is not a show you do without black kids in it.”
At Robinson’s urging, PCT management called the rights holders, Music Theatre International, and asked for special dispensation to do Hairspray with the all-white cast. MTI agreed, with the provision that they print the following statement in the program:
“… if the production of Hairspray you are about to see tonight features folks whose skin color doesn’t match the characters (not unlike how Edna has been traditionally played by a man), we ask that you use the timeless theatrical concept of `suspension of disbelief’ and allow yourself to witness the story and not the racial background (or gender) of the actors. Our show is, after all, about not judging books by their covers! If the direction and the actors are good (and they had better be!) you will still get the message loud and clear. And hopefully have a great time receiving it!”
– Signed Marc Shaiman (composer), Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan (book writers) and Scott Wittman (lyricist)”
|And these are the black characters! (Just kidding.)|
Brad Baker, chairman of the nearby Collin College theater division and director of its upcoming Hairspray, says his contract with MTI to produce the show is very specific about matters of size and race. Any instance of blackface makeup incurs a $13,000 fine from MTI.
MTI’s note to PCT mentions that there have been requests to allow blackface on white actors for Hairspray. They never allow it. And choreographer Robinson said he made sure “there wasn’t even a hint of tan makeup” on the white-for-black kids at PCT.
“The creators of the show were pretty adamant that it be a checkerboard cast,” says Brad Baker. “It’s about race, it’s about integration, it’s about social change. I think it disserves the story and the point of the play (to have an all-white cast).”
There’s another “edge of entitlement” to Hairspray, says Baker, and that’s in the casting of who plays Tracy Turnblad. Hairspray shows that “a fat girl can be the lead in a Broadway musical,” says Baker. “She can be the love interest and she can be the lead. There are numerous high schools producing this with their beautiful blond, thin cheerleader in the role, padded.” That, says Baker, is almost as bad as casting white kids in black roles.
PCT’s Tracy isn’t fat and she is padded. But compared to the other stuff, it seems perhaps only a minor misstep.
Robinson says he’s trying to make changes in the way they do things at PCT, but it’s sometimes a struggle. “The board wanted the kids to do Ragtime and I said absolutely not,” says Robinson.
Ragtime, based on the E.L. Doctorow novel, is a huge Ahrens/Flaherty musical about civil rights struggles in early 20th century America. One of the characters is black educator and civil rights hero Booker T. Washington.
“The board didn’t understand at first why I was objecting,” says Robinson. “They all just loved the music. I know. This is Plano.”
Readers — What do you think? Does the fact that PCT is a pay-to-play operation make this okay or is it pointless to perform the piece without what many would consider the essential elements? Post your comments below!