Broadway on Race: Still More Likely to Comfort Than Confront

I had attended the two shows — a Broadway musical and an Off Broadway play — on successive nights in early winter, and my head was spinning hard. It was as if in the lobby of each theater, I had been handed a different set of custom-made spectacles with which to view the evening’s entertainment.

That first metaphoric pair of glasses rendered me more or less colorblind for a contented few hours. The second heightened the differences between black and white in such high, irreconcilable contrast that my eyes felt both unscaled and scalded long before the end.

Both “The Prom,” currently at the Longacre Theater on Broadway, and “Slave Play,” which was staged at the New York Theater Workshop in the East Village, are on their own terms thorough successes. And they are so unlike in their form and aspiration that normally I wouldn’t think of comparing them.

But seeing them in such proximity, I couldn’t help trying to merge them in my mind, and wondering what would happen if the leading adult lovers in “The Prom” — who seem headed for a very happy life together, in the tradition of old-style musicals — attended the sex therapy workshop for interracial couples portrayed in “Slave Play.” My guess is that this intersection of worlds would surely end it tears, if not blows.

[A Radical Moment in American Theater and Beyond]

“The Prom” follows what happens when a group of fading New York showbiz pros, looking for some positive press, descend upon a middle-American high school. Their goal is to help a lesbian student fulfill her dream of taking her girlfriend to that hoariest and most sacred of teenage social rituals, the prom.

Yes, homophobia apparently still runs rife in this Indiana town. Racism, on the other hand, would appear to be no problem. The gay-baiting popular crowd comes in all, easily mixed colors here. And when the Broadway diva Dee Dee (Beth Leavel), who is white, falls for the school principal, Mr. Hawkins (Michael Potts), who is black, the only obstacle to their future bliss would seem to be her outsize ego.

The interracial couples in Jeremy O. Harris’s “Slave Play,” a dazzling mix of satire and psychodrama, know that their partnerships are in trouble, and that the roots of that trouble are centuries-deep. That’s why they’ve entered a therapy program that has them acting out slave-master scenarios from the pre-Civil War era.

“The Prom” concludes in a rousing, singing rainbow of inclusivity, in which even the most tenacious homophobes have learned the error of their ways. “Slave Play” ends in a devastating dialogue in which a black wife and a white husband realize that they will probably never be able to relate to each other outside of the onerous, razor-edged context of American racial history.

I know, I know. Musicals, hardly a realistic genre to begin with, always require a certain suspension of disbelief. Yet the differences between “The Prom” and “Slave Play” point to a greater disparity in the approaches to race as practiced on and off Broadway.

[How These Black Playwrights Are Challenging American Theater]

I can’t remember a more electrifying run of new, innovative plays during my 25-year tenure as a New York theater critic than the heady spate of works by African-American playwrights that have opened Off Broadway during the past two seasons, and present the gap between the races in this country as tragically unbridgeable.

In contrast, the high-ticket productions on Broadway more often than not aim to cosset.

Yes, Broadway’s institutional theaters did present worthy works from playwrights of color, including Tarell Alvin McCraney’s inspirational “Choir Boy” and Young Jean Lee’s deliberately abrasive “Straight White Men.”

But this season also saw the production of “American Son,” a schematic, movie-of-the-week-style drama by Christopher Demos-Brown (for the record, a white man). In that work, an estranged black wife (Kerry Washington) and white husband (Steven Pasquale) confront their cultural differences while waiting in a South Florida police station to hear news about their missing son.

Currently running — and likely to be with us for a long time — is Aaron Sorkin’s smash-hit adaptation of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Harper Lee’s beloved 1960 novel about doing the right thing in the segregated South of the early 1930s. There’s no way that this courtroom drama, centered on a black man on trial for a rape he did not commit, couldn’t be about race.

Yet when I saw Bartlett Sher’s production — at a matinee with an almost entirely white audience, mostly middle-aged or older — it felt like ingeniously rearranged comfort food for people who had loved the book in their youths and had grown up to be, in their own eyes, right-thinking liberals.

The white bigots portrayed here came across as so sneeringly ignorant and dastardly that there was no chance that anyone watching the show might identify with them. And as played by the excellent Jeff Daniels with just enough glimmers of conflict to make him human, the wise and stoical defense lawyer Atticus Finch embodied the promise of a future beyond prejudice. (In Mr. Sorkin’s version, Atticus is challenged, a bit too cutely, by his wise and stoical African-American housekeeper, played by LaTanya Richardson Jackson.)

Many of the theatergoers who rose to their feet at the end of the matinee I saw were both smiling and crying. You suspected that this gratifying emotional response was in part based in the affirmation of their inner Atticuses.

I should say that, as a boy who grew up in a North Carolina college community where “Mockingbird” was a sort of bible, I felt a tender nostalgia for innocence lost as I watched Mr. Sorkin’s play. And I shall always love the utopia of classic feel-good musicals, in which it is possible to pretend that a talent for song and dance can always overcome that which divides us.

But I would feel undernourished, intellectually and morally, if I weren’t also able to be challenged — and possibly shamed — by a work like “Slave Play,” or like Suzan-Lori Parks’s “White Noise,” currently Off Broadway at the Public Theater.

The script for “White Noise,” a portrait of two interracial couples who have reached a dangerous crossroads, includes a prefatory quote from James Baldwin, who wrote: “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

At a time when a brave new school of dramatists is living up to this dictum, with a depth and breadth that the American stage hasn’t seen in years, audiences who stick exclusively to Broadway are denying themselves the chance to explore Baldwin’s demand to see clearly — along with the most powerful and relevant theater being written today.

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