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IS THE CIVIL RIGHTS STRUGGLE OVER?
Live theater reflects and characterizes many things in our society. The biting social commentary of Show Boat energized generations about the misery of slavery. South Pacific introduced the reality of racism to returning millions of G.I.’s. Perhaps no single act on the Broadway stage brought home the issues of both better than Rodgers and Hammerstein’s did in the King and I’s performance-within-a-performance of Tuptim’s version of Uncle’s Tom’s Cabin.
The Los Angeles Civic Light Opera Association, now called “Broadway LA” and based at the Pantages Theater, presents the 1950’s classic this week and next. The costumes and sets are in keeping with the heritage of the play and the cast is credible. Stefanie Powers does surprisingly well as Anna Leonowens, although her flippant feminism is not quite the same as the mid-Victorian stiff-upper-lip-never-show-fear-even-when-scared-to-death of a Deborah Kerr or Constance Tower. Granted that no one will ever supplant Yul Brynner as the king, just suffice it to say that no one will ever supplant Yul Brynner as the king. Ms. Powers is the star of the show. But a theater review is not the purpose of this editorial.
The audience was the story. The audience was mainly young, many in their 20’s and 30’s. Their faces revealed a complete racial and ethnic diversity. Their reaction to the biting social commentary against absolute rule, slavery in Asia and slavery in the United States was astounding. A good portion of them actually laughed throughout the performance—at many, many scenes clearly never intended by the authors to be funny. Never would anyone with a knowledge of American history believe that Simon Legree’s chase of the escaped slave girl from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s incendiary story would evoke chuckles and giggles. Yet that is what happened. The familiar and faithful staging of the faux Chinese drama sequence should have brought fear and thoughtful silence. The costumed dogs were just as scary. “King Simon of Legree” just as evil. The drama intense. But many in the audience laughed and kept laughing. How does one intelligently laugh at a slave girl being chased by hounds? What did these younger theater-goers see? Quite possibly all they saw was copycat Mighty Morphin Power Rangers in period costume doing poor imitations of Jackie Chan. Were they waiting for some actors to be hoisted over the stage in a martial arts battle?
What has our educational system created? Perhaps the tyranny of oppressive rulers and trampled human rights, presented only in history class studiously ignored by the young best and brightest, hold no meaning. Quite clearly, the notion of African slavery as devastatingly attacked by Rodgers and Hammerstein struck no cord or glint of recognition—this despite years of Martin Luther King Days and Black History Months. Is this a good sign or a bad sign? Has racism receded to the point where a diverse young crowd can laugh at it, which would mean they have no personal knowledge of it and thus bear no scars from it? Perhaps the sins of our past have receded to the point where floods of immigrants from all over the world demanding attention to themselves have swept our history back to the point where tragic elements of it evoke no thought but just giggles. Our history, both good and bad, is more important than that. Once again, the theater did its job. It reflected our lives and warned us. We should take heed.
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