by Rashaan James II
I’ve been lucky enough to perform in three productions of Oklahoma! Rodgers and Hammerstein’s music and this story has always resonated with me in a very real way. In one of those productions, I was also fortunate enough to do the original Agnes DeMille choreography set by the late Gemze De Lappe in Atlanta. The Denver Center Theatre Company production that I’m currently working on is different because our director Chris Coleman has made the choice to cast this traditionally Caucasian show with an all-Black cast.
The words on the page of this play gain a new and powerful meaning when spoken by a group of African-Americans. One would expect the material to be severely affected by having an all-Black cast. This is true, but not in the way that you expect it to. It translates seamlessly to our cast. Not only does it translate to us, it brings to light the actual history that our culture simply doesn’t teach. In 1906, the year that the story of Oklahoma! is set, there were 50 all-Black towns in Oklahoma. The 137,000 African-Americans residing in these Black towns were clenching on to the same American dream that the neighboring white towns did. There is a misconception that the play is simply a White man’s story. That’s absolutely not true. Our production brings to light that there were plenty of African-Americans who were chasing the “American Dream;” the dream to have your piece of the American pie.
Being in the ensemble of this all-Black cast is a very different experience than I’ve had in past productions. As an actor, I get to really dive in in a way that I haven’t with other productions. With those productions, I have to deal with the idea of the anachronism that a Black man wouldn’t be standing next to a White man in 1906. There wouldn’t be a Black cowboy fraternizing with the White cowboys in that way. That’s a very confusing obstacle for an actor. The real part of history is that one third of the cowboys in that time were in fact African-American. We really got into the history of these African-American cowboys like Nat Love and Bill Pickett who invented “bulldogging.” I’d bet that most of the actors who play Curly don’t even know that Bill Pickett ever existed or that a black man invented “bulldogging.” It finally feels like something real instead of just an idea.
I’m extremely excited for audiences to experience this new production. In this political climate, I find it important for audiences to take in this story in a new way. These faces that they don’t necessarily associate with these stories will hopefully resonate in the heads and hearts of our audiences.