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!