At Plano Children's Theatre, They've Shampooed All the Black Kids out of Hairspray
The kids of Hairspray
You need two things when you do the musical Hairspray: a fat girl to play the lead character, Tracy Turnblad, and a bunch of African-American kids to play the African-American kids. There are about a dozen roles for young black performers in this show, plus one for a big black lady who closes out the first act with the showstopper "Big, Blonde and Beautiful."
So out at Plano Children's Theatre right now, they're doing Hairspray without those things. The girl playing Tracy is wearing padding to puff up. (This isn't a role like Cyrano where you can slap a big nose on a pretty face and get away with it. Tracy is supposed to be chubbo to start with.) And there are no black kiddos in the show. None. The roles of Seaweed, Mother Maybelle and all the other black Baltimoreans are being played by kids so white they make the Cleavers look ethnic.
Somebody tipped me off via email to this all-teen production, which runs through February 12. I don't normally review shows at PCT, one of those pay-for-play outfits that charges parents $250 a pop for their kids to be on the stage. PCT styles itself as an academy. Their motto is "developing characters."
I went to the Saturday, January 28, matinee of PCT's Hairspray, bought a $10 ticket and watched the show. Or most of it. I left after my intermission interviews with people on the staff. I'd seen enough by then. My emotional/ethical elevator had already pushed the button for the floor marked "High Dudgeon."
Hairspray is a musical comedy based on an old John Waters movie. The show is done all the time at high schools and community theaters around here. There are five more local productions in the works right now, including one at the drama department at Plano's Collin College that opens March 1. You may also have seen the movie version of the musical, which stars John Travolta in drag as Tracy's mother, Edna.
This is how the production normally looks.
The premise of all of these Hairsprays is the same: A fat, funny teenage girl in 1960s Baltimore dreams of joining the cool kids on the "council" of a local afternoon TV dance show. She becomes a political activist when she discovers that her black friends at high school aren't allowed on the show except on "Negro day." How Tracy, Seaweed and their gang of dancing misfits integrate "The Corny Collins Show" is what Hairspray is about. The fat girl also gets the good-looking guy as her boyfriend. Good, clean fun with a serious message about segregation, acceptance of differences and how things used to be in America.
And how they still are at the corner of Custer Road and 15th Street in Plano, in the dreary strip mall/office park where Plano Children's Theatre sits.
The matinee I attended was full of proud parents, grandparents and others who didn't seem to notice or mind that the little white boy playing Seaweed was singing the lyrics "the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice" as he gyrated in some awkward approximation of Hairspray's dirty-dancing to "race music." Maybe they didn't know Seaweed and his soul-singing sister, Little Inez, are supposed to be African-American. Maybe they didn't care that Mother Maybelle, Seaweed's mother, was being played by a white girl in a curly blond wig singing this: "They say that white has might and thin is in/ Well, that's just bull 'cause ladies big is back/ And as for black, it's beautiful!"
At intermission, I spoke to Darrell Rodenbaugh, president of PCT's board of directors. My question was "Why do you have white kids playing black characters?"
There are also no naturally big girls in Plano.
"Well, should we deny these kids the opportunity to do a fun show?" he said. "We'd paid for the rights to the show six months in advance. We couldn't cancel it."
Didn't any black kids audition? No, said Rodenbaugh, it's hard to recruit black kids to PCT because there aren't that many in Plano. (African-Americans make up less than 8 percent of the Plano, Texas, population of 259,841, according to the most recent census numbers.)
So why do a show with black characters in it if you know going in that you won't have any black kids to play them? Rodenbaugh had several answers about how much the kids wanted to do Hairspray, how they weren't going to bow to "political correctness" and how "the parents expect this."
They expect to see white kids playing black characters? "Yes," said Rodenbaugh, who has kids in the cast of Hairspray, one of them playing Little Inez. He said PCT also did the musical Once on This Island with an all-white cast. (It's an Ahrens and Flaherty show that's basically Romeo and Juliet set in the French Antilles. It's usually cast along racial lines, with black actors playing the peasants and Anglos playing the upper classes. There is a version of the show that removes references to skin color and makes the story about class differences. I don't know if PCT did the latter.)
Rodenbaugh said they might do To Kill a Mockingbird with an all-white cast or Othello or The Wiz (three shows I mentioned to him that feature African-Americans either in prominent roles or as a majority of the cast). He said he saw nothing offensive or amiss about having no black actors in a show about racial segregation. I had to ask: Doesn't having an all-white cast ignore the core message of Hairspray - you know, the message about how the black kids weren't allowed to be on a show with white kids until brave little Tracy took a stand?
Rodenbaugh told me each young member of the PCT Hairspray cast had been asked to write a "report" about what the plot was about. "They're learning a good lesson in this show," he said.
I'm sure they are. I'm just not sure it's the right lesson.
Hairspray's director, Cassidy Crown, caught up with me in the parking lot. She kept saying PCT has to work with what they have and she did feel uncomfortable with the all-white cast. I got the impression she had hoped nobody would notice.