One of my first outings while recovering from a little stroke has been to the New London Theatre in Drury Lane to see the splendid revival of Show Boat, the 1927 musical of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II. Show Boat not only contains some of Kern’s finest songs (‘Ol’ Man River’ and ‘Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man’, for example), but is remarkable as the first American musical to combine light entertainment with a dramatic story and to deal with serious themes — gambling, alcoholism and racism.
It was based on a novel about life on one of the floating theatres (‘show boats’) that travelled along the Mississippi in the late 19th century and put on variety shows for townspeople on its banks. The boat would be home both for the cast, who were always white, and for the crew, who would be black. Show Boat’s plot turned on the law against mixed-race marriages, then enforced in many Southern states (and that remained on some statutes until as late as 1967 when it was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court), and a ban on black people as stage performers. Everything in the story flows from the violation of the two leading players of both these laws. It also highlighted the continuing suffering and discrimination endured by blacks after the abolition of slavery imposed on the South with the North’s victory in the Civil War.
Much praise has deservedly been bestowed on the production by Daniel Evans brought to London from the Sheffield Crucible Theatre. It is thrilling, with a specially memorable rendition of ‘Ol’ Man River’ by Emmanuel Kojo as Joe, the dock worker. In an interview in the theatre programme, Evans is asked what makes Show Boat seem relevant nearly 90 years after its first performance. ‘At the core of Show Boat there is an exploration of freedom — and freedom is closely related to equality,’ he replies. ‘And nearly 50 years after the civil rights era, we are still fighting for equality and freedom in many parts of the world. The Black Lives Matter campaign is still a powerful and necessary force for change.’
Black Lives Matter is an activist movement founded three years ago among African Americans to protest against the killings of black people by American police officers and broader issues of brutality and discrimination against blacks within the United States criminal justice system. But the organisation goes even further, stating on its website that ‘Black Lives Matter affirms the lives of black queer and trans folks, disabled folks, black undocumented folks, folks with records, women and all black lives along the gender spectrum.’ Evans, who has described having suffered in his youth for being gay on account of the Welsh macho culture that surrounded him, may feel particular sympathy with its aims.
In his interview in the programme, Evans says that a wonderful moment for him is at the end of Act 1 of Show Boat when the white performers and the black workers dance together, ‘euphoric in its defiance of social convention’. Funnily enough, I was present in America less than two decades ago when another convention was broken against blacks and whites dancing together. This was in Nashville at the Swan Ball, the most lavish and most revered social event of the American South. This is an annual charity ball to raise money for a city art collection, of which the New York Times has written: ‘It is hard to overstate what the Swan Ball means to Nashville society.’
The New York Times had sent a reporter on this occasion because black people were for the first time being invited to the event, which had hitherto been exclusive to the richest and grandest white families of the city. ‘Diversity Makes a Debut at High-Society Party,’ said the newspaper’s headline. Ninety black people had turned up, whose invitations had been followed up by telephone calls urging them to come. They were a small proportion of the 900 guests altogether, but were enough to be a noticeable presence; and it was good of them to come, as attendance cost $500 per person and required male guests to wear white tie and tails.
The black guests received a lot of polite attention, but some of the whites nevertheless questioned the wisdom of this calculated integration. A 90-year-old former American ambassador told the New York Times: ‘I’m not exactly sold on it. I’m not against it, but I just don’t see any particular point in it. With only a few of them [blacks] here, I think they would feel they’re at the wrong place. I’d feel at the wrong place at their parties.’ Maybe Daniel Evans is right that Show Boat still has some lessons to teach.