How One of the “Nicest Kids in Town” Helped Turn Segregation into Integration (Hairspray)

By:Morgan Baxendale 

12/11/20

Back in the 1960s, in Baltimore, Maryland, you would never think that a plump, regular teenager could make such a monumental difference with integration, but that’s exactly what Tracy Turnblad did. John Water’s production of “Hairspray” emphasized what segregation was like during this time, but also what it looked like to overcome it. This production also made its way to the big screen in 2007, when Nicole Blonksky played the star role as Tracy Turnblad. There were aspects to both the broadway show and the film that showed just what it was like during that time and what the future was going to look like in the lens of segregation.  During this period of time in Baltimore, The Corny Collins Show was one of the most popular entertainment shows that was aired on television. This TV program was based on the real-life Buddy Dean Show that portrayed a typical teenage dance show that mainly consisted of white kids. Tracy Turnblad was completely in love with this show and knew someday she would be dancing on that stage alongside those other hip, rockin’, cool kids. Once Tracy saw there was an opening on the show, she had to go for it, and that’s when she would make an impact that would last for decades. The culture that the country was surrounding itself in needed to be changed, and Tracy Turnblad made a giant step in the right direction because of her actions on The Corny Collins Show.  

The setting of this production was taking place at a pivotal point in the Jim Crow Era of racial segregation. This system regulated African Americans to the position of second class citizens that started back in 1877. The Corny Collins Show was the most popular teenage dance program in Baltimore, June of 1962, and the host of the annual Miss Teenage Hairspray pageant every year, but it demonstrated how segregated the culture was at the time. Even though there were so many great things about the show that people loved, the one pivotal aspect about the show that, in my opinion, needed to change, and that was the fact that it was extremely segregated. A majority of the dancers on the show were popular white teenagers. The show did allow black dancers to be a part of it, but they were only allowed to perform on the show once a month during negro day. If both groups of dancers had to be sharing the stage with one another, the white dancers and the black dancers would have to be separated. Even though people knew this was wrong, producer of the show, Velma von Tussle, wasn’t planning on changing anything anytime soon, until Tracy Turnblad came in and changed it all. 

Ever since Tracy can remember, it has been her dream to dance on The Corny Collins Show. Everyday after school Tracy Turnblad and best friend, Penny, rushed home to watch The Corny Collins Show. She loved the dancing, the energy, and Link Larkin, the heartthrob on the show. On one particular afternoon, Corny Collins announces that one of the dancers on the show would be taking a leave of absence for 9 months and they needed a replacement. Right at that very moment, Tracy knew this was her chance to live out her dreams, but also changing the norm when it came to campaigning for the show to integrate. She was thinking of the bigger picture, not just her desires and dreams, but the hopes of society coming together as one. 

When Tracy arrived at the audition, she knew the environment was going to be hostile and unwelcoming because of Velma von Tussle and the rest of the white teens. All of those teenagers were fully aware of the segregation that was occurring on the show and in their community, but because of higher authorities and people like Velma von Tussle, they didn’t plan on changing their mindset. Velma von Tussle and the other producers of the Corny Collins Show favored a white dancer, but Corny Collins picked Tracy as the replacement because of her talented dance moves, but especially because of her plans for the show moving forward. A lot of people have plans to make big things happen, but to actually have the motivation and drive to do it, is a big difference. Tracy knew that if she could get on this type of stage she could let all of the viewers watching and the people within the show know that integration is where our world is heading, and let’s get on the bus to head there. Tracy exceeded society’s restrictions and judgements in order to make it on the big stage and live out what she was called to do.

The following day after Tracy’s audition for the show, she meets an African American boy named Seaweed who is one of the dancers that performs on the monthly Negro day (that boy sure had some moves). They met in detention after Tracy got in trouble for her hair blocking other students’ view in the classroom. Seaweed and the rest of his crew were all part of the Negro day on The Corny Collins Show, and they, too, wanted to despartely help integrate the show. After their detention session, Seaweed urges Tracy and Link, who was also in detention, to come back to Motormouth Maybelle’s Record Shop. That’s where Tracy meets Seaweed’s little sister Little Inez and his mother to talk about the future of the show and the future they want to see integrated. All of them agreed that something needed to be done about integrating both the black and white dancers on The Corny Collins Show. After much discussion, they decided that a protest was the best way to prove what should be done. 

During the protest, Motormouth Maybelle expresses herself and everyone around her with such power and grace through her number, “I Know Where I’ve Been.” I don’t know this personally, but I’m sure most African Americans in the U.S. have faced hardship, stereotyping, and judgement because of the color of their skin. The words that were sung during this number speak volumes to what some people face everyday and to what some people have been facing for decades. “There’s a light in the darkness, though the night is black as my skin, there’s a light burning bright, showing me the way, but I know where I’ve been.” The community that is surrounding Motormouth Maybelle is truly surreal, but does a great job at emphasizing the severity of this problem and how long it has been occurring. Even in 2020 there are still protests and riots about issues like this going on every single day around our country. You’d think that after almost 60 years that issues of segregation would’ve come to a close, but that’s definitely not the case. At the conclusion of the number, the police take a small incident with one of the members in the protest out of proportion and wanted to arrest people. Criminal injustice and police brutality had affected Black Baltimoreans from a wide range of religious and professional backgrounds. Events like this continue to happen on a daily basis in our society today, and people have no tolerance for it and will do whatever it takes to show higher authorities and the community that they need to accept how our country needs to make this change for the better.

The big event that takes place at the end of every year for the show is Miss Teenage Hairspray Pageant. It’s a competition that each of the girls on the show can participate in, except for the African American girls on the show. Each of the girls are judged on their dancing, specific special talent, and how pretty and lovable they can be toward the audience. Even though Tracy wasn’t allowed to participate because the cops were looking for her because of the events that took place during the protest, she snuck her way in and absolutely stole the show. After Tracy is declared the winner she encourages all of the dancers, including the Black dancers to all join her on stage and show that this is how the show should be. The Corny Collins Show looked and acted completely unified. One of the key moments in the final number of the musical is when Tracy invites Little Inez during “You Can’t Stop the Beat” to join her and dance on stage. Little Inez refined what it was like to be a part of The Corny Collins Show and proved that no matter who you are or what your race is, that you can absolutely be a part of something big like this. Even though Tracy was initially declared the winner of the pageant, she knew that there was something else significant that needed to be done. Tracy knew that the true winner of the pageant was Little Inez for her unbelievable talents, the inspiration she showed to everyone, and the mental toughness that she had to overcome because of the color of her skin.

The Corny Collins Show is now and forevermore officially integrated!” This declaration made by Tracy was the beginning of the end of the hit musical “Hairspray.” After many years of the show being segregated, the show is finally making a turn for the better. Even though most people at this time were comfortable with everyone being separated and treated differently, this was not how it was going to be forever. Yes, severe segregation in the United States came to a close towards the end of the 1960s; however  there are still instances today where people treat others how they did decades ago. Segregation is just something that always seems to be relevant in our culture and something that people need to continue to work on. Hairspray did an incredible job of portraying what segregation was like back in the 1960s, but ended with the reality that we are now and forevermore racially integrated and as a country we need to start acting like it once more.      

Did Real Community Exist on the Upper West Side?

By: Morgan Baxendale 

Back in the late 1950s, the world and its view of culture was in a whole different place than it is today. The 1950s was a decade that was marked by post-World War II, immigration laws, but, more importantly, racial and ethnic tension. An Upper West Side neighborhood of New York City was the home of the rivalry between the Jets and the Sharks, which were two teenage gangs and of completely different ethnic backgrounds. In Jerome Robbins’ 1957 Broadway production of West Side Story, the main idea was centered around which group was going to have control over the neighborhood. The Jets, which consisted of the local white kids, were not in favor of the immigrants that were moving into their territory. Many of the Puerto Rican immigrants belonged to the other main gang, the Sharks. Both groups of people dealt with hardship and tension in the musical, but none greater than the Latinos. Through all of the misunderstandings, fights, and hatefulness between the two groups, each gang was able to bond and get closer in some way. Throughout the entire musical, the Puerto Rican community during this time had to deal with racism, discrimination, perceived differences in ethnic identities, and hurtful comments, but the way the musical plays out emphasizes the status quo on a more intense and realistic level. 

The Jets was started by a young man by the name of Tony. His vision for this group was to bond with a group of guys that were similar to each other and have a good time. However, Tony’s best friend, Riff took over the gang because Tony didn’t want to be involved with all of the mischief that was going on between the Jets and the Sharks. Throughout the first few scenes in the musical, the Jets bonded and danced over trying to figure out how they were going to gain control over the territory and the Sharks. You could see how comfortable they were in their environment and how much confidence they had in one another. Even from the very first song, you got a taste of what it was like to be a part of their group. The “Jet Song” emphasized the superiority and arrogance they thought they had, “When you’re a Jet you’re the top cat in town, you’re a gold-medal kid with the heavyweight crown.” They didn’t care what it took, they were going to gain complete control of the territory somehow, someway. It’s when Riff confides in Tony about a potential dance between the two groups; that changes the entire course of the musical.

Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks, has only one aspiration in his mind, carve out the territory as a sense of identity for himself and his other Latino friends. This group didn’t come to America with a lot, and the Jets and other white folks in this area make them well aware of that. This group was dealing with strong stereotypes as well. The Puerto Rican men were seen as poor, violent, and uneducated. The women were seen as loud, obnoxious, and feisty. All of these stereotypes were exaggerated and emphasized when they were in the presence of the Jets. It is clear that the two gangs are fighting and struggling for a given territory, but are also carrying out socioeconomic and racial confrontation. The Jets feel as though they should rule and be number one in the community, because of their all-white identity and the background in which all of them reside. When the musical gets to the middle of Act 1, is when both groups decide to attend the neighborhood dance and that their real battles between each other become much more interesting. 

All of the dancing numbers in The West Side Story tell a story and have a distinct tone to them. This musical has some of the most unique and elaborate dance moves that I have ever seen, and also emphasizes the relationships between the different characters and the gangs they were in. The “Dance at the Gym” number showed how competitive the two gangs were being towards each other. The toughness and tension that occurs on a daily basis on the outside of these gym walls, is happening within the dance. Even when they were told by an authority figure at the dance to switch partners, both gangs didn’t follow that and stayed with their own kind. No matter what anyone of them did throughout the number, they were going to make sure they were better than the other. 

There were many aspects to the “Dance at the Gym” number that grabbed my attention, but the choreography, attire, and the ethnic identity that was expressed from each gang really stood out to me. This number emphasized the perceived differences and stereotypes in the ethnic identities portrayed by the Jets and the Sharks. This scene focused on a dance-off between the Jets and the Sharks that created moments of pure tension and competition, but also allowed a significant moment of joy for one member of each gang, Tony and Maria. You could distinctly see the difference in the choreography and dance between the two gangs. The Sharks danced more in rhythm, style, and confidence, they were the ones who definitely owned the dance floor. They all looked to be in their natural element and dancing in great connection with one another. The Jets looked to dance more mechanically, with not as much freedom and focusing on themselves, not the entire group as a whole. Puerto Ricans are known to have more soul to their dancing and, in general, are known as good dancers. The Jets, I believe, were fully aware of these notions and seemed as though they were trying their best to maximize their moves to keep up with them. All of these decisions that Jerome Robbins made about the choreography related to the perceived ethnic identity that was present between the two gangs. “Not all stage movement is choreography, but all stage movement has purpose.” There was also a fine line between how both groups dressed. They were defined by the colors they wore, which directly relates to cultural codes. Most of the Latino women wore warmer colors like red and purple, while the American women wore cooler colors like yellow and orange.  Both gangs are unified during this number, but it was emphasized more in regards to the Sharks than that of the Jets. 

Because of the events that took place at the dance, Tony from the Jets, and Maria on the side of the Sharks were able to meet. This interaction sparked passion, connection, and ultimately a strong love between them. Their love was igniting many conflicts between the two gangs, but Tony and Maria didn’t care, they wanted to be together no matter what. In this setting, their culture was encouraged not to mix with another culture, especially American culture. They were both criticized by everyone around them, and ultimately both groups paid a large price. Maria’s brother, the leader of the Sharks, Bernardo was killed along with her lover, Tony, as a result from the constant hatred and disagreement between the groups and this particular love conflict. No matter what any of the Sharks or any other Puetro Ricans did at this time, they were never going to escape the hardships they were facing. All immigrants at this time experienced some type of hardship and criticism, and they knew this was out of their control. The American culture was definitely a “privilege” and the white Americans that were part of the musical, always seemed like they had the upper hand over the other communities of people. You could see that the Jets bonded and felt together as a group because of this very “privilege” they felt that they deserved.

With the events that occurred at the dance, Tony and Maria’s love conflict, and the reoccurring hatred between the gangs; all of it accumulated to resulting in a final showdown at the end of the musical. Bernardo from the Sharks and Tony from the Jets ended up paying a heavy price because of hatred and disrespect that was ever present between the gangs. When Chino, another member from the Sharks, shoots Tony, Maria makes a bold statement that I believe puts the entire musical into perspective. Maria tells everyone that was standing around Tony that “all of them killed Tony and the others because of their hate for each other, and, now I feel that I can kill too because now I have hate!” It was amazing to see how two groups of teens could have so much resentment and disgust for one another that they would even kill someone for it. After this moment in the musical, all of the members from the Jets and Sharks realize that all of the fighting and hatred had to come to a close.

The West Side Story showed how such a small difference can make a big impact. When you look at the whole picture, the two groups didn’t have many differences, but the ones they did have were magnified and caused many problems. Both groups did bond and come together as a group, but not all for the right reasons, and at the very end of the musical, that was clearly exposed. Once Tony was gunned down, every member of both gangs gathered around Tony, portraying that the battle was now official over between them. It’s unfortunate that it took for two of their own to be killed for them to realize how they were acting was wrong and the reasons for their actions were unacceptable. I believe both groups know what to do and how to act moving forward with these issues in the back of their mind, but will never forget what both experienced and lived through. The Sharks and Latinos in general, know in this setting that they will never escape adversity and stereotypes in this culture, but have bonded in a way that is unbreakable, powerful, and beautiful to see. 

Defending What You Know Best (The King and I )

Morgan Baxendale 

10/18/20

Ever since Anna Leonowens and her son Louis arrived in Siam, she impacted everyone around her, especially the King of Siam. The setting in which The King and I takes place is Siam, Bangkok in the early 1860s. Anna is all set for her new adventure to take a position as a schoolteacher for all of the children of the King of Siam, however, when she arrives she is met with many challenges that deal with holding firm in her traditions, values and succumbing to those of the King. As soon as Anna and the King step foot into the palace of the King, they both struggle to find any common ground and it takes almost the entire play for both of them to fully respect what each other believes in and why they are so passionate about it. The musical communicates something significant between Anna and the King of Siam that shows their cultural differences, how each view their social status, and the ways they look at gender and race. Both of these characters bring something unique to the table and allow the other actors on stage and the audience to have a full picture as to what it is like for two totally different people in this particular setting. 

Anna, who comes to Siam as a white English woman, immediately expresses to the audience how confident and excited she is about embarking on this new adventure. The staging helps tie this scene together extremely well, along with the first number that Anna performs in the musical. The first scene of The King and I was a pivotal moment for me as a viewer because of the way Anna expressed herself to the audience and how powerful she seemed when singing I Whistle a Happy Tune. You would think that a woman in this position would be more fearful or unsettled, but because of her experiences in England, the knowledge that she possesses, and the fact that she is a white woman, she is ready to take on these challenges in Siam. “I whistle a happy tune and ev’ry single time the happiness in the tune convinces me that I’m not afraid.” The more she continues to show confidence in herself, the more the audience believes in her as well. The staging in this scene is planned out perfectly because the boat that she arrives in emphasizes that she is the one with all the power in the scene because of the way the boat is extremely high and the audience has to look up at her. She is the one the entire audience has their attention on at that moment. Throughout the rest of the play, she has to fight for her power as a woman because the King continues to demean her, mainly because she is, in fact, a woman. Even though this battle between them continues, there is light at the end of the tunnel for both of them in this case. 

The fact that Anna is white woman is one thing, but the fact that she is a scientific and knowledgeable woman puts things in a whole different perspective. Anna fights from the very beginning to make sure she receives her side of the bargain from the King, which includes getting her own house to live in with her son, in exchange for teaching the royal children of the King. When the King would try and intimidate her about the deal or something about her teaching, Anna would rise up right away to defend herself. Anna was taken back when Lady Thiang, one the King’s wives, would call her sir because she possessed the knowledge and leadership capabilities that men particularly possessed during that time. All of the women around her that were noticing this behavior were surprised by her actions and so was the King, but if she was going to get anywhere with him she needed to be aggressive. The norms that surround a typical woman and a typical wife of the King, were to act like they were a servant to any male figure that was around and to be very soft-spoken. The way that Anna was acting, along with the other main characters, put into perspective how important the gender norms are in Siam. It was something that should definitely not be taken lightly, but Anna was doing a great job of starting to make pivotal changes for how they should act and how women were treated. Anna wants to make sure we all know that women should be valued and treated the same as men and puts forth that effort until the very end of the play. 

The King of Siam on the other hand is a totally different story. He is a strong male figure that has been a native of Siam his whole life and someone who thinks he has all the power in every situation. From the very first scene he was in, you could tell that everyone around him worshipped him and praised him. He had one specific rule for the people around him that indicated that your head could not be higher than his because if it was, it was like you had more power than he did. The King of Siam is a firm believer in the cultural norms in Siam, especially the ones that focus on valuing males over females. This meant he could treat them very disgracefully and almost slave-like. There are many times throughout the course of the play where The King likes to remind others in the palace, but especially Anna, who is King. Even if Anna is right in a particular situation and he is wrong, it doesn’t matter because the King is always right. The King thinks he has all the power and values the right things. There are times where he does doubt himself, but of course, not where Anna can see. After his issues with Tuptim and Anna, he comes to a conclusion that he is finding puzzlement within life. The number “A Puzzlement” takes the audience into a state of confusion, just like the King is facing. The directors set this scene up very well because you found out what was exactly going through the King’s mind when you couldn’t recognize it during the regular course of the play. He was being extremely vulnerable, which was very unlike his normal emotions and something he couldn’t relinquish to everyone else. The King would be considered weak and not powerful in this particular moment, and as a male figure he definitely didn’t want to portray that to anyone else. “There are times I almost think I am not sure of what I absolutely know, and very often find confusion in conclusion I concluded long ago.”        

After analyzing both Anna and the King of Siam individually, I now want to discuss both of their characters collectively and what changed over the course of the play. For both characters, race and gender were important topics for them, but on different scales. The King of Siam wanted to make sure everyone around him followed his gender and race norms, but Anna was doing everything in her power to avoid those and stick to ones that she knows best and those that will benefit both genders. Because Anna was white and a woman, it made it even harder for the King to let Anna in at all.  Anna tried to defend every woman that was mistreated and verbally abused by the King, including herself. The moment in the play that grabbed my attention at the end and Anna’s attention was when the King said to Anna that “you are my servant.” At that point, Anna knew if she continued to stay in Siam she would continue to hurt, be mistreated, and see others mistreated as well. If Anna was like every other woman in Siam she would not defend herself, but she knew because of her statue, she could pull it off.     

It came to a point in the play that one of the King’s wives had to beg Anna to give him advice even when the King was on his deathbed, something needed to change in him and fast. I honestly believe that the King would’ve been ok with the fact that he was going to die knowing the fact that he was right, but deep inside him he knew and everyone else knew he had a “heart problem” and Anna needed to help one last time. In  receiving Anna’s help, he knew he would be going against all of his beliefs and norms that he has carried with him his entire life, and eventually succumbing to the right way of being King. 

In the final moments of the play, the King of Siam passes away, leaving Anna with what seemed like all the power. The King could not admit he was wrong for having the beliefs he had or the way he treated women, but he died knowing that his son; the heir to the throne was going to make changes to that were based on behalf of Anna. Anna did all that she could do to defend what values and standards she knows best, and ultimately ended up with the power over the King after his death. From the very beginning, most people in the palace and Anna believed that the King of Siam had a “heart problem”that caused many of his hateful beliefs. Eventually Anna was able to have power that she’d never thought she’d have in Siam because of her determination to show the people around her how all people should be treated and respected. Even though the King of Siam and Anna were two totally different people, from different backgrounds, the King was able to learn something pivotal from Anna that changed the entire direction of Siam for years to come. Anna never backed down from anyone that questioned her and stood firm in her cultural beliefs, values, knowledge, race and gender the entire time she was in Siam. Both Anna and the King made a monumental impact in the way culture and gender will be considered in Siam, but also in each of their lives.