A History Book
Showboat written by Oscar Hammerstein was the first musical to have black and white choruses singing together on stage. Although it was a shock to many people at the time, audiences today realize that the musical actually did accurately represent the races interference from that time period through its scenes and music. When it comes to musicals, it can be presumed that events get sugar coated or over-dramatized, but Showboat shows a true representation of racial integrity and proves that musicals have the power to document history.
The musical takes place in the 1920’s. One of the practicing’s of this era especially in Mississippi, was slavery through farming. One online documentary states, “During the harvest season matters only got worse. Across the Delta officials refused to open schools until every last bit of the harvest had been brought in by African Americans. (Ron, 2011)”. There is a particular song written for Showboat that directly relates to this historical happening. In the song, “Ol Man River” Paul Robeson sings about, “He don’t plant cotton…colored folks work on de Mississippi…body all achin’ an’ rack’d wid pain (Ol Man River, 1927)”. The song has true lyrics that describe the historical events of the time.
Another scene that holds racism aspects, is the scene of Irene Dunne putting on black-face and an afro wig to represent a black women in the 1920s-30’s. This song shows white peoples perspective of black people in this time since the scene is a white person impersonating an African American. Irene sings on stage in front of the back ground of a farm, “been galavantin’ around, just galavantin around, my feet been off of the ground…(Galavantin, Around, 1927)” to poke fun at African Americans roaming around farms for fun, when in reality they are being forced to do these chores. This song represents the whole idea of racism and how it begins by discrimination against or making fun of another race.
Finally, there is the spectacle of interracial marriage being inappropriate in the play that is true to the cultural and social aspects of the past and even today. In the musical Showboat, the character Julie is a mulatto women married to a white man, and local laws prohibit such actions. They get arrested and are not accepted as actors for the audience and are kicked off the Showboat. This form of racism that happens in the story is something that was also happening in real life.
Overall, it can be stated that Showboat is a musical that represents the struggle of racism from the 1920’s to 1930’s through these examples of particular scenes and music. In an even broader sense, we can learn that musicals aren’t just crazy forms of entertainment- they hold true historical events and they have the ability to teach us just as much as a history book.
copyright: Carly Ristuccia