Rounding up Center Stage’s “Oklahoma!”: The collected reviews

Brianna Horne and Rodney Hicks as Laurey and Curly in "Oklahoma!" at Portland Center Stage/Patrick Weishampel

Now that all of the reviews are in and a tempest in the OregonLive teapot has arisen over its African-American setting, it’s time  to do a little summarizing about Portland Center Stage’s “Oklahoma!”  By the way, tickets are still selling briskly, and the musical’s final attendance numbers will likely move it into the company’s top three all-time with “Cabaret” and “West Side Story,” just so you know how ticket buyers are voting.

The critics agree that the production as a production is quite good. The only discouraging word (sorry, Western songs are now spinning through my head) came from Noah Dunham at the Mercury, who suggested that director Chris Coleman’s production hadn’t addressed the likelihood that African Americans at the time  had discrimination on their minds, primarily because Rodgers and Hammerstein didn’t include that in the text. We’ll get to that argument a little later.

But first, a quick run-down of the reviews:

Marty Hughley, The Oregonian: Hughley’s nice, close reading of the musical is a fine jumping-off point. In it, he suggests that the African American aspect becomes submerged in the greater themes and the quality of the production and the musical itself. But he returns to the African American twist at the end:

And it’s here, at this outer edge of the story, that it becomes clear that Coleman’s casting choice actually does more than give black actors the chance to play romantic leads. Even as the show remains faithful to all the traditional pleasures and virtues of “Oklahoma!,” it adds another subtle layer to the metaphor of union, speaking to the hard work and optimism that helped a community move from slavery to full membership in these United States.

What made Hughley’s account exceptional was its context — the invective that surrounded Coleman’s decision (and what they perceived as Hughley’s justification of it) from the trolling community at OregonLive, which at every opportunity accused Coleman and Hughley of being reverse racists, typical liberals willing to desecrate anything at the altar of political correctness. They weren’t there to argue (though Hughley tried to engage them as a rational person might); they were there to spew about a musical that they hadn’t seen. My hope is that someone who agreed with the trollers read the entire thread and realized that one person (Hughley) was judicious and the trolls were, well, trolls. But that’s a longshot.

Bob Hicks, Art Scatter: Just as thunderstruck as I was about the trolling around Hughley’s coverage on OregonLive, Hicks spent a portion of his review defending Hughley (both of us worked with him for decades at The Oregonian and admire his intelligence, commitment to journalism and dedication to honest arguing, in addition to his other qualities). Hicks seemed to have enjoyed the production, and his quibbles (which he didn’t specify, really), had more to do with the way the production played than Coleman’s choice.

Still, I liked very much that Coleman’s production has linked into an underpublicized historical truth, the presence of full-fledged, independent African American communities on the frontier. I like the way it suggests that, on some basic level, communities simply act like communities. And I like the way that idea dovetails with an aspect of the play that I’ve long considered crucial to Oklahoma!’s success: the role of the outsider in American life.

He then went into this idea a little bit, and focused on an alternate “Oklahoma!”, one in which the outsider Jud is played by an American Indian, reminding us how the territory was a dumping ground for various eastern tribes until settlement pressure opened it back up again to white and black settlers.

I’d only add that what we call Oklahoma today was for a long time part of the Comanche empire, which ran things in the southern plains for two hundred years or so, competing successfully with Spanish, English, French, Native American and U.S. interests. One interesting thing about the Comanche (in addition to their abilities as traders, imperialists and warriors) was that the tribe granted equal status to anyone who joined them, and even slaves could earn the right to be Comanches. The tribe had many runaway slave members, until it collapsed under the weight of European diseases, overgrazing followed by a long drought, and pressure from American settlers. (All of this is from The Comanche Empire, the ground-breaking study by Pekka Hämäläinen.)

Ben Waterhouse, Willamette Week: I enjoyed Waterhouse’s review quite a bit, because it begins by recounting all the weird, dark stuff in the musical, including the part that suggests that girlie pictures lead to murder (well, in a roundabout way, maybe). That darkness is balanced by lots of light, of course:

Chris Coleman, in his production of the show at Portland Center Stage, very ably balances its dual personalities of darkness and delight. I had feared that Coleman’s decision to cast only black actors meant we were in for an awkward concept production, but it turns out the director just wanted to work with incredibly talented performers who don’t often get to sing Rodgers and Hammerstein’s music.

I’d argue that there’s a little more to it than that, but sometimes that’s exactly what it feels like. These aren’t black performers; they are good performers.

Noah Dunham, Portland Mercury: Dunham praised the technical achievements of the show, but argued that the African American gesture didn’t make us see the play in a new light, and, in fact, was “questionable.” The full quote: “One has to imagine that discrimination was something very much on the mind of African Americans at the turn of the 20th century. Jim Crow laws were being upheld by the Supreme Court, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was still decades away. The fact that this doesn’t even come across as an undertone in PCS’s production makes the credibility of Coleman’s choice questionable.”

The best part of Dunham’s review, though, was the response to it by Rodney Hicks, who plays the lead role, Curly, in the Center Stage production. You should jump to the Mercury site and read it in its entirety, but here’s the crucial bit, at least for me:

“I take great pride in the fact that we are doing something very special and ultimately important to who we are, not just as Black people but who we all are as Americans and all of our contributions to the History of this great country. With the end result being we’re no different. That is what makes this new production of Oklahoma to me seem fresh, timely and ultimately universal. Where at its heart and center is the universal theme of community and love. What is problematic in that?”

Dunham graciously acknowledged Hicks’ response to his review, and clarified his central point a bit, mostly by personalizing it. Dunham, I think, was looking for a deeper investigation of African American life in the real, historical African American communities of the Oklahoma Territory. That might be difficult within the context of this particular play, but I can imagine the greater “realism” he advocates. He himself writes: “Perhaps I’m being a greedy audience member.” And that made me laugh: I feel the same thing so often. I want it all. I want this production AND an alternate one, just to see which one really works better. I’m not just greedy; I’m a glutton.

To the historical points Dunham raises, I’d add this one. In 1921, the Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, Oklahoma, by some accounts the wealthiest black neighborhood in the U.S. at the time, was attacked by a white mob over a couple of day and razed to the ground. Hundreds are likely to have died, though the “official” count was 39. Was the white Curly involved? Did the black Curly perish? And knowing about the riots (which were kept out of the official histories of Tulsa and Oklahoma), do we think of a line such as “Oh what a beautiful morning…” in a different way?

Ron Hockman, Culture Mob: Hockman agreed that the Coleman Choice had infused the production with new energy, and then, in a nice, thorough review, detailed the technical achievements that gave it life:

The success of this production is the result of all the individual parts fitting together and complementing one another. Portland Center Stage has once again provided a rich, rewarding, and thoroughly entertaining evening of musical theater.

Barry Johnson, Oregon ArtsWatch: Yeah, there’s no escaping me. My primary observation is simply that this production does what a good revival is supposed to do — help us rediscover something worth rediscovering, in this case a great musical encrusted with cornballs and the image of the happy dancing cowboy, an image that is false to the play itself, let alone Real Oklahoma. As to charges that Coleman has damaged Oscar Hammerstein’s book by introducing African American actors, I pointed out that Hammerstein himself, the same year that “Oklahoma!” was produced on Broadway, also moved a classic — in his case “Carmen” — to an African American setting in “Carmen Jones.” So much for the purity argument.

Chris Coleman on Oregon ArtsWatch podcast: I interviewed Coleman about the production, and he talked about the moments in the script when the decision to use African American actors really mattered, his approach to this play and how his directing approach in general has changed, the comparison between a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical and a new musical (kudos for R+H) and many other topics. Give it a listen while you chop vegetables for supper!

Chris Coleman in The Oregonian: The Oregonian asked Coleman to respond to the trolls on OregonLive, whose responses nearly always include invective against liberals or the Far Left or Obama and who can’t assemble anything like a coherent argument. Hughley has been chastising them regularly through this, but I’m afraid they aren’t willing to engage in civil argument.  I liked Coleman’s response, though, calm and deliberate. Here’s how he ended it: “And, ultimately, whether an artistic choice is successful will be judged by those who sit in the theater and take the ride. My favorite response thus far was overheard from a high school student who saw our first performance and turned to his friend to say: ‘Wow! I’ve never seen ‘Oklahoma!’ before. It’s great. (pause) I can’t imagine it with white people.'”

That seems like a great place to stop. “I can’t imagine it with white people.” Except that you can: a successful production gets your imagination running in various ways, and you start to dream up alternate versions, dredge up real history, confront hard stuff from a different angle. And heck, we’re talking about a Broadway musical here! I don’t know about you, but when I saw “Oklahoma!” on the Center Stage schedule last year, I didn’t think I’d be going on this particular trip. Not by a long shot.

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