Show Boat boldly exposes racial disparities during Jim Crow era

MIKE McGEE | 4/29/2016, 6:06 p.m.
Show Boat examines through comedy and drama the complexities of love and family – not new territory for musical theater ...
Scene from Show Boat Karen Almond

The Dallas Examiner

Show Boat examines through comedy and drama the complexities of love and family – not new territory for musical theater – while adding the element of racial disparity within the Deep South and the cities in the North during the period between the Civil War and the Great Depression.

The hit 1927 musical play by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II, based upon the novel by Edna Ferber, took the stage at the Winspear Opera House, where it has unfurled in an epic, song-filled collaboration between The Dallas Opera and The Dallas Black Dance Theater.

While the show is still as entertaining as ever, it remains equally thought-provoking as well in dealing with the subjects the show’s creators explored almost 90 years ago.

The show begins at the Natchez levee on the Mississippi River in the late 1880s as the paddle-wheel vessel the Cotton Blossom pulls up to shore to provide live entertainment for the locals. Onstage, the boat is being moored and unloaded by various Black stevedores who sing the show’s opening lines:

Here we all work on

de Mississippi

Here we all work while

de White folks play,

Loadin’ up boots wid

de bales of cotton,

Gettin’ no rest till

de Judgement Day.

Meanwhile, the mostly White locals gather around to hear the sales pitch about the evening’s entertainment from Capt. Andy Hawks (Lara Teeter), skipper of the Blossom, with humorously plaintive punctuations by his wife Parthy Ann (Mary-Pat Green).

In turn, we meet their musically inclined daughter Magnolia (Andriana Chuchman) and Gaylord Ravenal, the traveling gambler she falls in love with (Michael Todd Simpson).

Others aboard the ship include the Black dockworker Joe (Morris Robinson), his wife Queenie (Angela Renee’ Simpson), mixed-race actress Julie La Verne (Alyson Cambridge) and her White husband Steve Baker (David Matranga).

There are flirtations and confessions throughout Act 1, but a dramatic highlight for many fans of the show occurs during Scene 4. Julie has been passing for White, but news has gotten to the local sheriff (Dan Burkharth) that her mother was Black. A married mixed-race couple was in violation of the Jim Crow miscegenation laws of Mississippi at that time so Julie and her husband are about to go to jail.

In a bid to avoid that fate, Steve pulls a knife and cuts Julie’s finger, swallowing some of her blood as it runs.

Steve is now legally Black under the infamous “one drop” rule regarding African American blood and what classifies a person as Black under such racially charged laws, so the couple are indeed lawfully married. This vexes the sheriff, but he informs the captain that they are now no longer able to perform in the Blossom’s show since state law also forbids performers of different races appearing on stage together.

Matranga and Cambridge do a great job in the scene as they convey both a dedication to one another as well as the more subtextual mocking of the laws banning mixed-race marriages. Despite the decades of distance from its original staging, the defiant, desperate action remains a touching moment in a larger dramatic scene.