My son’s school in conjunction with another college have just successfully concluded a production of “Hairspray”. It ran for four sessions over three days. We were very proud of what the students and teachers achieved.
Hairspray is set in 1962 during a period in US history where the country was divided over the question of integration of African Americans into mainstream society.
The scene is Baltimore, Maryland. Every afternoon teenagers sit in front their TVs to watch a teen music show called the Corny Collins Show featuring “The nicest kids in town”. The show is sponsored by a hairspray company, hence the name of the musical.
During the musical we learn that Corny Collins is quite progressive. He is keen to open the show to “negroes” and kids of all shapes and sizes. However, the villain in the piece is the show’s producer, Velma von Tussle. She is a bigot, a cheat and has no intention of broadening the scope of the show. Her only interest is promoting her daughter as the next Miss Hairspray 1962.
The hero of the story is Tracy Turnblad. Tracy is an unassuming, slightly dumpy, American teenager who loves rhythm and blues music. She is a a huge fan of the Corny Collins show. In her innocent way, she cannot understand why whites and blacks cannot dance together on television and why fat people never appear on the small screen.
The musical has some strong messages about race and body image, messages as relevant today as they were 50 years ago. It includes some moving performances by the African American cast members.
So the question arises how do you stage a musical with “black” cast members, if you don’t have any “black” students/actors.
The writers and producers of Hairspray anticipated this issue and their production notes include the following message, that was reproduced in the program.
“”Dear audience members,
When we, the creators of HAIRSPRAY, first started licensing the show to high schools and community theatres, we were asked by some about using make-up in order for non-African-Americans to portray the black characters in the show.
Although we comprehend that not every community around the globe has the perfectly balanced make-up (pardon the pun) of ethnicity to cast HAIRSPRAY as written, we had to, of course, forbid any use of the colouring of anyone’s face (even if done respectfully or subtly) for it is still, at the end of the day, a form of blackface, which is a chapter in the story of race in America that our show is obviously against.
Yet, we realised, to deny an actor the chance to play a role due to the colour of his or her skin would be its own form of racism, albeit a “”politically correct” one.
And so, if the production of HAIRSPRAY you are about to see tonight features folks whose skin colour doesn’t match the characters (not unlike Edna has been traditionally played by a man), we ask that you use the timeless theatrical concept of “suspension of belief” and allow yourself to witness the story and not the racial background (or gender) of the actors. Our show is, after all, about not judging a book by its cover! If the direction and the actors are good(and they better be!) you will still get the message loud and clear. And hopefully have a great time receiving it!
Marc, Scott, Mark, Tom & John”