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Race on stage

(Ben Hider/Getty Images)


Race on stage

Plays show what radical progress looks like

The Obama presidency, for all its problems, still signifies a breakthrough in U.S. race relations. A musical and a drama that opened in New York theaters last month, and are likely to have long runs on Broadway or in repertory around the country, suggest a movement away from pessimism.

The Broadway musical is Memphis, an energetic depiction in song and dance of a time in the 1950s when some white churchgoers damaged the reputation of Christ by thinking more about race than grace, and some black churchgoers and club-owners expected malign intention in any whites who strolled onto their premises. One of the battlegrounds was music, as fans of Perry Como and Patti Page feared that blues and rock would be entry drugs leading to societal upheaval.

Memphis throws a match into this gasoline spill by introducing us to Huey Calhoun, a fictional white Memphis DJ (played by Chad Kimball, who looks and sounds like a fast-talking George W. Bush) and black singer Felicia Farrell (played by the great-voiced Montego Glover). Huey and Felicia fall in love and want to marry, but cannot due to miscegenation laws as well as sometimes-violent social pressure. Yet, one racist changes her views; looking back half a century, we know that others did as well.

The drama is Broke-ology, the story of a decent African-American family in crisis. It shows the sadness of an industrious but poor widower stricken with multiple sclerosis and still mourning the loss of his wife 10 years earlier. His two grown sons love him but want their independence. The characters are complicated, with contradictory impulses, and that makes the drama resonate with deep emotion as a dignified dad faces loneliness and medical indignity.

The play works because of its realistic specific detail and its lack of pandering to racial stereotypes. The family is not dysfunctional-the brothers display affectionate rivalry-and its situation is not sensationalized. The older son has developed a philosophy of poverty that he calls "broke-ology . . . being broke and staying alive despite your brokeness." Applied spiritually as well as economically, that's not far from the Christian sense that all of us, in a fallen world, are "broken actors on a broken stage"-but through God's grace we stay alive and even progress.

Note: Because of themes and the occasional use of ugly words in Memphis and Broke-ology, visitors to Manhattan who cannot be apart from their children will be better off seeing Shrek, which deals only with discrimination against green ogres.