- Editorial CommentRepresentation/Reception/Nostalgia
I fully intended to begin my editorial comment with profound observations about the newest trends in current theatre and performance studies scholarship or the general state of the profession or even insolvent universities and defunded theatre programs. Each time I started that editorial comment, however, my mind’s eye turned to Beth Kattelman’s article “Magic, Monsters, and Movies: America’s Midnight Ghost Shows.” Call me shallow, but I have reached the age—my late fifties—where the mere mention of low, popular entertainment from my pre-teen years causes sensuous waves of nostalgia to wash through me. Every weekend my brothers and I sat in front of a monstrous tube television set to watch the local broadcast of Shock Theatre, which came to our little farming town of Dixon, Illinois, from the Quad Cities. We loved this grisly program hosted by a shabbily costumed local crazy with a bad Transylvanian accent. Shock Theatre shaped my identity: it was here that I learned to love both Bela Lugosi and tuxedo tails. Who would have guessed that Shock Theatre would become the object of serious cultural analysis?
I suspect others of my generation will also get a tiny thrill of recognition from Kattelman’s article, but this general issue of Theatre Journal offers a profusion of delights both high and low for readers of all tastes and ages. Indeed, this issue might well be titled “from lowbrow to highbrow with station stops at middlebrow and the avant-garde.” Broadway is the venue for three of the five articles. In “Trying on The Yellow Jacket,” Ju Yon Kim traces the trajectory of this “American classic” from moderately successful Broadway commodity to proto-Brechtian avant-garde object d’art. Hoping to redeem the corporate Broadway product, Anne Beggs uses the enormously profitable Urinetown to argue that the popular does not necessarily preclude the subversive. Shane Vogel’s “Jamaica on Broadway: The Popular Caribbean and Mock Transnational Performance” probes the radical implications of a calypso musical intended for Harry Belafonte, but re-narrated and re-purposed for Lena Horne. Broadway’s long shadow also fell—albeit briefly—on Tall Horse, an unlikely contender for the Yankee dollar. Needless to say, Kattelman’s monsters did not appear on Broadway, although they surely touched the US psyche in profound and mysterious ways.
Representations of race on the commercial stage are rarely unproblematic, and “Jamaica on Broadway” and “Trying on The Yellow Jacket,” the articles bookending this issue of Theatre Journal, reveal the dynamics of the reflexively signifying commercial commodity. In this context, I understand reflexive as “unthinking”—but without implications of innocence. The creators of Jamaica and The Yellow Jacket hoped to profit from new trends in culture and society: in the first instance, the “bomb” and the calypso craze that swept New York in the 1950s; and in the second, Chinese immigration and a backlash against naturalism. Distance from the productions and greater sensitivity to racial representation and reception indicate just how racially loaded they were. Although rescue and reintroduction of these rather obscure classics of the Broadway stage are significant acts of recuperation, the light shed by Vogel and Kim on the dynamics of race, representation, and reception is surely more interesting and important.
Shane Vogel’s “Jamaica on Broadway: The Popular Caribbean and Mock Transnational Performance” begins thus: “Lena Horne almost didn’t star in the Broadway production of Jamaica.” How different this exemplar of Broadway Caribbeana would have been without her. With a book by black-listed lyricist Yip Harburg (and Fred Saidy), Jamaica was supposed to be a sharp social satire featuring calypso idol Harry Belafonte. When Belafonte suddenly dropped the project, his replacement was the not-Jamaican, not-calypso, not-male Lena Horne—then a popular nightclub singer with no experience in book musicals. Belafonte’s unlikely replacement required a new narrative, which obviously changed the [End Page ix] musical’s purpose and identity. Although marketed as a “folk” musical, Jamaica’s dubious Jamaican authenticity was further compromised by Horne’s presence, and whatever folk qualities the musical might once have had vanished along with Belafonte. Nonetheless, Vogel argues that Jamaica—a...