‘Show Boat’ Is Racist AND Boring, And I Don’t Know Which Is Worse

By Bryce Palmer

When I was new to the marvelous world of theatre, I specifically remember asking one of my close friends about Black musicals. I never really heard of any, and I wanted to get the lay of the land as I began to develop into somebody who would love musicals endlessly.  I still remember that answer, even to this day: “There’s Hamilton! And uh… Show Boat? I guess? I don’t know… there aren’t many honestly.”

Before we get to Show Boat, I’d like to talk a little about my friend’s first recommendation: Hamilton. I didn’t mind that as a recommendation (I had seen it already) but it kind of rubbed me the wrong way that this was the show at the top of the bill. Don’t get me wrong, Hamilton is marvelous. It’s everything it’s cracked up to be, and a lot more. But please make no mistake: Hamilton is not a story about Black people. It’s a recontextualization of a white story that uses Black and brown bodies to give it a modern day relevance. There are many arguments about whether this is productive or detrimental, and I tend to fall somewhere in the middle. That Hamilton is the famous show with Black people in it is telling, and such a reality is a result of a blatant lack of desire to tell Black stories on Broadway. That Hamilton features a heavily Black cast is both encouraging and disparaging, and here’s why: We had it in us all along.

Hamilton’s success (plenty of which stems from the awe-inspiring performances of its cast members) shows us not only that stories with black people can succeed on Broadway, they can thrive. They can shatter records and start phenomena… and all it took was a storyline about old white men to get people to actually notice! Hamilton has given me at least a little confidence that we’ll see more Black stories soon, and especially so after the “We See You White American Theatre” movement that gained traction over the summer, which called (calls) for increased opportunities for POC in every aspect of the creative process in theatre on the biggest stage and throughout. For these reasons, Broadway seems to be ushering in something of a new age of diversity, but I’m not holding my breath quite yet. Wait and see (or, rather, just you wait) what happens.

Now onto friend suggestion #2, Kern and Hammerstein’s Show Boat. I had heard a little bit about Show Boat before, and I knew that it certainly wasn’t what I was looking for when I asked for suggestions. But this class has given me the means and the medium for thinking critically about musical theatre, so I figured I would finally give the show a shot in its entirety. We also talked in class (via module) about some of the show’s anthems earlier on when we were discussing Blackness on Broadway, (particularly Ol’ Man River and Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man) and from that rose a little of the inspiration for this critique as well.

I went in with decently lofty hopes, having heard solid things about the characterizations of the Black people in the show but… that was my first mistake. The show features a shallow storyline of 2-dimensional white women falling head-over-heels for their even less established white male counterparts. The black characters in this show are accessory, servants to the white characters, and proud. None of the show is even about Blackness, but instead it pits Black people as these Great Wise beings who have only been made wiser and stronger by working in diligent servitude to the good ol’ white folk.
It’s okay to let things go. Or, at least, it should be. Why, why, why haven’t we let Show Boat go? Yes, I understand we have to pay homage to the foundation of modern musical theatre, and yes, I get that Kern and Hammerstein are “brilliant” and “revolutionary.” But Show Boat hurts. To be a Black person looking for a home in the musical theatre and have Show Boat be the touchstone… that sucks. I would truthfully rather the theatre world forget the show entirely than celebrate it because of the “barriers it broke down” or whatever. That this story is still being told today, and that it’s the only Black story of note (if you can even call it that) is harmful. For Show Boat to be the go-to Black story recommendation for a young Black kid looking to get into theatre isn’t just irresponsible, it’s actively destructive. We can do better. We must.

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