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Stage Left: You Gotta Get A...Black Girl?

An important note before I get into the meat of this post: while I am not white, nor am I black. Furthermore, I am a cis man. And this post is about a casting trend that affects, very specifically, black women. So I am speaking outside my own experience here, with all that implies, and felt that should be known. With that out of the way, the trend I am talking about is one similar to one that shows up in other media, so let's start there. I assume most of you are familiar with the Sassy Black Woman stereotype, but in the event you haven't come across it, the TVTropes page gives a decent rundown (though that site is a massive timesuck, so watch out). Musical theatre black women are sassy, certainly, but more importantly, musical theatre black women have soul. They are often minor characters who show up to enlighten the main (white) ones with a Big Gospel Number, and then sink once more into the background. The example that always comes to mind for me is Sister Chantelle from bare: a pop opera, whose two big numbers ("911! Emergency!" and "God Don't Make No Trash") put her pretty firmly into this category. Another example could be Dottie from Finian's Rainbow, who delivers the showstopping "Necessity", but has no real plot significance otherwise. I invite people to share other examples of these kinds of roles in the comments. (lyrics to all songs I've linked in this paragraph will be at the bottom of the post, and I ask others include lyrics if they link songs as well. Thanks) Anyway, this trope is common. So common, in fact, that in spring 2006, not one but two shows premiered containing songs specifically lampooning it. And these are what I want to talk about. First we have "A Big Black Lady Stops the Show", from Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me, written by Marc Shaiman and Scott Whittman. Performed by the wonderful Capathia Jenkins. And then there is "Random Black Girl", from Michael Kooman and Christopher Dimond's Homemade Fusion, here performed by Patina Miller. (lyrics to both of these songs can be found here). Now, I have...mixed feelings on these songs. On the one hand, I am kind of a sucker for self-referential musical theatre, and really am attached to shows that do it well--[title of show] and Urinetown, for example. Additionally, seeing songs that are actually talking bluntly about a problem that exists within the genre makes me happy! Especially when sung by talented performers like these two. On the other hand, both of these songs are written by two white men. To its credit, "Big Black Lady" explicitly comments on how this is a trend in musical theatre at large (and honestly I think deconstructs the phenomenon a little better than "Random Black Girl", but that's open to debate), but that doesn't change the fact that it's still people writing about an oppression they don't share. And obviously there is a place for folks to do this--I am doing it right now, in point of fact--but I guess I'd rather see the people who wrote these songs making more substantial effort to integrate roles for people of colour into the casts of their shows that aren't lazy stereotypes like this one. If the problem is there, don't just write a song pointing it out--write a song that changes it, that isn't just some "random black girl singing the soul". RBG even comments on the fact that it isn't substantive change, which means the creators are aware they aren't doing enough! So FIX IT. And let's see more support for awesome WoC composers, lyricists, and directors, hey? Wikipedia lists 177 American musical theatre composers. Of these ten are women, and the vast majority are white. We can do better than this. We have to do better than this, and snarky songs (no matter how witty) aren't going to solve the problem. ---- 911! Emergency! lyrics God Don't Make No Trash lyrics Necessity lyrics

Previously: Here He Is, World!

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Comments

12 comments have been made. Post a comment.

Things are already changing!

Presently on Broadway:
SISTER ACT. Sassy Black Lady, yes indeed, but at least in this case, she is the LEAD.
MEMPIS. And here, the romantic lead.

Coming to Broadway this season:
PORGY AND BESS. Not new, but certainly worth the revisit, with new matierial by Suzan-Lori Parks no less.

And a few seasons ago:
PASSING STRANGE. In which an all-black cast played a bevy of international characters. If you haven't heard this music, I can't recommend it highly enough. It should have won best new musical.

No doubt, there is still a long journey ahead. Just saying: there are composers, lyricists, librettists, and directors out there already taking steps.

yes! And thank you for

yes! And thank you for bringing up these examples. There definitely is something of a shift going on, but I think this trend is still worth talking about I guess? And I mean, it's certainly not a universal thing, but it's common enough that even people who aren't terribly invested in anti-racism work notice it, so, yeah.

But I seriously value your mentioning the shows you did--I've been meaning to check out Passing Strange for forever, I just haven't been able to track down the cast album (small city in Canada! yeah!)

(Although it is also worth

(Although it is also worth noting that all of those shows except for Passing Strange were still written by a team consisting entirely of white people)

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I've also seen black women

I've also seen black women deliver the showstopper in roles which were not originally given to black women. I _guess_ that this is felt to be "inclusive casting," but why is it (nearly) always the character who sings the showstopper number?

(This is also one of the things that annoys me about Glee; Mercedes almost always sings either the showstopper or the only "soul" song. Just once I'd like to hear her sing something _quiet_.)

Mama Morton

Yes, the example that immediately came to my mind of the casting of a black woman in this way is the role of Mama Morton in 'Chicago'. According to Fred Ebb the character as written was based on white vaudeville singer Sophie Tucker and was played by Mary McCarty, but I think I remember seeing a black woman in the role when I saw the London revival in around '98 or '99, and of course in the film Mama Morton was played by Queen Latifah.

Seems to me it's probably the same underlying thing going on. Writers (of new shows) and casting directors (of revivals) want to put black performers in (to be 'inclusive' and to give audiences those big ol' soul / gospel numbers they seem to like) but they think of it in terms of 'putting a black woman in' to the show rather than having an intrinsic character be black. In 'Chicago', to stick with that example, there's no reason why Velma and / or Roxie shouldn't be black (perhaps Velma especially, since she's a vaudeville performer and there were plenty of black women doing vaudeville in the '20s). But to do that would require a different mind-set: it wouldn't be putting a black woman into a white show, it would be making the show about a black woman, which seems to be too radical for most musicals (with exceptions like the ones HeidiH mentions above).

Really interesting article and discussion!

Also...

What about Hairspray? It's a show that deals with a lot of race relations issues from the 60s, which complicates it a little more but you still have the Big Black Sassy Woman enlightening the white woman with the song "Big Blond and Beautiful." That song plays especially on the stereotype of black women being plus-sized and loving it (not a bad message, but come on, plenty of black women have body issues too!), and she teaches the white woman to be proud of her body too (because, apparently, all white women DO have body issues). Then you have the ballad "I Know Where I've Been," beautiful song about the racial struggles of a black woman...written by a white man (in fact, the same Marc Shaiman who co-wrote "A Big Black Lady Stops the Show").

I'm curious about the

I'm curious about the treatment of Africans in The Book of Mormon. I know it is set in Uganda and the main characters are American missionaries, but I'm wondering how the Ugandans are treated in the musical. I get the impression it is a satire of the missionaries, but I'm wondering how problematic the treatment of Uganda is. Has anyone seen it?

Race and Book of Mormon

I've unfortunately only seen the Tony Awards performance, but I have to say that did not really inspire much confidence in me (it can be seen here).

My friend Esther wrote about concerns she had based on the cast recording, but if anyone has actually seen it I would also love to hear their thoughts.

The Wiz

The Wiz, all I'm gonna say.

Big up

What a great and interesting article! It certainly raises awareness on the subject at hand. And maybe it could have been a little deeper if it was written by someone who shared the same opression (though I do not know the background). But nonotherless it has been performed beautifully and it worked out great. I love the way this blog is composed. Bless JY

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