photography: Zorana Jović
photography: Zorana Jović

This narratively simple text has been staged a countless times, both as a high school and as a professional production, and it is a living witness to the cultural aspirations and problems of the American society. With its provocatively staged final scene, the most recent interpretation of Oklahoma! (2019), directed by Daniel Fish, raised the question of how and why American theatre experienced this particular production, that is, why Oklahoma!?

Oklahoma! was created in 1943 in the context of that moment’s socio-cultural exigencies. This was a historic moment - the height of World War II and American engagement - when the American society‘s ideological integration was greatly needed and when a new future was being built. The plot of the musical is set in 1906, in the euphoria of the unification of the newly emerging state and just before it joined the Union. The plot centers on two rivals with radically opposing agendas fighting for the hand of a local girl, by means of which librettist and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein (music is by Richard Rodgers) alluded to the the need for their contemporaries to pull together in trouble times and hew to shared American values. In the musical, one set of American values is manifested by cowboys, who value a kind of every-man-for-himself independence, while farmers are presented as people who want to stay put, till the land, and marry. The show is, in any iteration, joyful, with recognizable and catchy songs, but, above all, it has always been a reminder of the unity and greatness of the American nation. As soon as it came out, it became a hit.

Dorothy’s lecture also included the historical and chronological context of the development of musicals, which, in familiar historiography, began with the opening of The Black Crook (1866). Producer William Wheatley was accustomed to booking melodramas at Niblo’s Garden, although, at the time, these shows weren’t seen as musicals. The emphasis of these shows was on spectacle, and the legend of the appearance of the first American musical came into existence only following the arrival of a European dance troupe. According to the legend, the Academy of Music building in which they were to perform burned to the ground, so Wheatley took advantage of this and combined melodrama and dance. Of course, the combination of music and narration (story) is much older and was present long before Black Crook, but it wasn’t scripted. In the mid- to late-19th century, vaudeville and burlesque blended sketches and songs, but there was no concrete integration, because songs did not serve to develop plots or explore thematic threads. There were, by the early twentieth century, light “musical comedies,” and the first integrated musical, Show Boat, in which the musical aspect worked in tandem with the main narrative, was created only in 1927. Show Boat was sold out under the slogan “An All American Musical Comedy” and, at the time of its release, it aroused great controversy over “the colored.” Until then, black people mainly played side characters, servants, or stereotyped characters, and the history of American theatre is also a history of the gradual integration of “colored” races with whites. Show Boat was the first show in which blacks played complex characters of interesting backgrounds, which was, at the time it was made, certainly a provocative boom.

The path to liberation from racial segregation meant that eventually non-white characters even constituted the main roles. This is precisely the point. This is the kind of theatre that provokes and raises questions. Daniel Fish reminded us that musicals have been doing this for decades, and this is why Oklahoma! is important. The role of the peddler Ali Hakim, a character in Oklahoma! who is a synonym for the transient and the “other” and who is obviously the worse of two options in one of the two love triangles, has been played by actors of different racial, religious, and ethnic backgrounds, as the context of productions in revival kept changing. Hakim is scripted as  Persian but was originally played by a Jew, because that suited the historical moment of the Second World War madness and because the status of Jews in the American society was still precarious. (Composer Rodgers was a practicing Jew and Hammerstein had Jewish forebears.) However, political circumstances kept changing and, just before the September 11 tragedy, Ali Hakim was played by Aasif Mandi, an Arab, while in Fish’s 2019 production, this role is being played by a white actor from California. These are all different interpretations that caution and raise questions. The final scene of Fish’s interpretation of this classic, in which the main negative character is killed by the bridegroom precisely at a wedding that should provide a happy ending, raises the question of this society’s bloody hands. How well do the Americans know their history? On whose bones was their culture built?

Dorothy’s lecture brought closer to us both the American musical and the “American problem,” which is thematically constantly and dominantly permeating this theatre. The question that presented itself to us as the listeners of her lecture was that of what we think about racial segregation. In its encounter with the problem of migrants, Europe is facing a problem that American society has been dealing with over the past two hundred years and this reflects on, or at least it should reflect on our theatrical life. Let’s ask ourselves how many shows we have seen that deal with the problem of migrants? How many theatre pieces focus on fascist ideas? How many theatre pieces raise the question of the white man’s fate? What does our theatre warn us of?