Promoting it as a variety show recalling “a pretty, gallant world … a time of knights and ladies, slaves and masters,” the Sanford Maine Stage is scheduled to perform “Oh, Susannah!” this weekend at the Nasson Community Center in Springvale, despite criticism from community members and scholars who argue the production is racist and, at best, misguided.
“You won’t want to miss this show as we return to a time long past … a time of charm and grace, master and slave, the Confederacy and the war between the North and the South, with all the music of the time,” the theater’s Facebook page still said late Tuesday afternoon.
“We’re here to entertain,” Mary Stair, who directs the production, said when contacted by the Bangor Daily News. “We don’t get involved with politics. I made a mistake, I guess, and posted the quote [from ‘Gone with the Wind’].”
But Bowdoin College history professor Patrick Rael questioned why such a show would be staged in 2018.
“The history of racial stereotyping is replete with instances of benign intentions gone awry,” he said Wednesday. “The show in question seems to forget that times change, and with them our attitudes toward depicting the history of slavery and those who suffered under it.”
The show features performances of songs including “Old Black Joe,” “Dixie,” “Ol’ Man River” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” Stair told the Bangor Daily News.
But Rael said the latter two songs were devised for the minstrel stage, “a uniquely American popular culture form built around depictions of enslaved African Americans as lazy, docile and ignorant creatures fit only to serve or entertain.” Rael went on to say that minstrel shows “ahistorically portray an Old South of ‘moonlight and magnolias’ that never was.”
Scholars “rightly came to view the plantation order as a police state of forced labor camps, in which people were reduced to tradable commodities, worked often to death, disciplined through corporal punishment and torture, and denied recognition as actual human beings,” he said.
Stair said no masters or slaves are depicted in the variety show.
“You can’t blackface,” she said of the practice of white people wearing makeup to appear as African-Americans. “It’s illegal.”
By midday Tuesday, comments on the theater’s Facebook page prompted Stair to remove a picture of the Confederate flag, “since everyone is offended by it.”
“There were some great songs and music written during the Civil War … and it was our wish to bring it to you,” she wrote at 2:30 p.m.
But some commenters on the theater’s Facebook page agreed with Rael that the flag, the message and the show itself are “tone deaf at best.”
“I hope anyone can understand that there is no fond remembrance of that horrific time for non-white people,” wrote Kael Parker. “Your message, and the performance of many of these songs without any historical reckoning, is tone deaf at best. To combine it with the image of a flag which has so often been a symbol of racism and white supremacy was doubly insulting.”
Others called for critics to be less “politically correct.”
“To use that quote is a honest reflection of the production,” wrote Mike Trumble. “It’s not a history lesson, it’s a show. Not everything needs to be made politically correct. People try way too hard to be offended these days.”
“The silliness of being offended by what happened in the past is the epitome of stupidity,” wrote Ron Fortier, in part. “We should never ignore our past, good or bad.”
“The concern here is not that we would forget the past, but that we should recall it accurately, and not seek entertainment in demeaning depictions of African Americans that trivialize a brutal, state-sanctioned crime that lasted from 1619 to 1865 (and beyond),” Rael said. “It’s possible to imagine this history being recalled, but it’s hard to imagine a historically sensitive portrayal of it making for an evening of light-hearted fun.”
“We need not doubt the sincerity or intent of those staging the show to be appalled by the consequences of their actions,” he continued. “It’s harder to defend those who discount the concerns that have been raised as mere hypersensitivity. This moves beyond the misinformed, into the realm of willful harm. In essence, the message is that some people’s entertainment is worth more than others’ dignity.”
“Oh, Susannah” will be performed at 7 p.m. Saturday at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Nasson Theatre, 457 Main St., in Springvale. Tickets cost $10 each.
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