So, as some of you may or may not know, I tend to dabble in the world of theatre here at Muhlenberg College. My dabbling in this world has led me to a lot of wonderful friends, valuable learning experiences, and, really, just a lot of great times. Of late, however, it has provided me with an interesting window into the world of contemporary racism.
Let’s start with an honest fact: the world of theatre has been littered with racism since the dawn of its existence. From the concept of “minstrel shows” to the prevalence white performers performing in black face the old world of theatre has not been particularly friendly to non-white members of society. Now, of course, we have moved into an age where, overt, old-fashioned racism is no longer acceptable. This rule, to an extant, has applied to the world of musical theatre. In fact, many contemporary works of theatre, even musical theatre, have focused on racial issues and the problems they have caused within society. This summer, Muhlenberg College’s Summer Music Theatre program (MSMT for short), is putting on one of those productions, Shaiman, Wittman, O’Donnel, and Meehan’s Hairspray.
Hairspray is a catchy sixties-era musical that deals with the issues of discrimination on the basis of race and on the basis of weight. The intended message of the musical is almost undeniably positive and progressive, as the show is based around the demand for people of all types to be allowed to live as they wish (although in this case doing what they want is dancing on the “Corny Collins Show”). The vehicle that the musical uses to send this message is, however, questionable.
The cast of Hairspray is divided into two groups: black cast members and white cast members. There is nothing unusual about characters in plays being cast according to their race, but Hairspray seems to take the whole notion of racial casting to an extreme.
For the majority of the roles for prospective black cast members, the roles call for the actors to act in extremely stereotypical manners. These stereotypes include language, dress, and even the ways they physically carry themselves on the stage. Many black actors find their niche in playing roles such as this, and, with the opportunity to make a lot of money off of being in any production, black actors often seek out these parts avidly in order to make a living. With exposure to these stereotypes on a daily basis, many black actors are quite adept at portraying these roles in a convincing manner.
When these actors take the stage in these stereotypical roles, they perpetuate the stereotypes within the brains of all of the audience members who see them. When a person goes to see Hairspray, his or her brain is flooded with stereotypical information about the black community.
So, we reach a conflict of interest. On one hand, shows such as Hairspray preach equality. On the other hand, shows such as Hairspray preach stereotypes. I think, what we are seeing in this situation is a general misunderstanding of the meaning of racism in today’s society. Hairspray condemns overt racism and preaches equality. However, Hairspray completely ignores the issue of aversive racism.
Is it Hairspray’s job to tackle the issue of aversive racism? Perhaps not, but, it is definitely not Hairspray’s job to perpetuate stereotypes and feed the vicious cycle of aversive racism. Are productions such as Hairspray valuable in that they promote equality? Should they be avoided because of their perpetuation of stereotypes? Which message comes through more clearly the message of equality or the stereotypes that are so clearly promoted by the script?