Director Machele Miller Dill talks about the profound experience of directing an all-African American cast in Rodger’s & Hammerstein’s classic American musical Oklahoma! Join us for this unique production on March 30th and 31st at Gilcrease Museum. Doors at 7:30 p.m. Advance tickets are $6.50 through Eventbrite. Cash only at the door.
Oklahoma! in Concert is my third all African American cast production for Rebecca Ungerman’s Big/Little Musicals series. When beginning these projects, I always start the same way: with everyone around a table – or several tables pushed together as was the case with this cast. And I always start with the same statement. You see, I am white, pale, freckled, green-eyed, red-haired and about as WASPy as one can be. As I look around at a see of faces that are outwardly different than mine, I know from years of experience that my job is to find the places where we are the same, use them as a foundation, then step back and empower the cast to tell their own unique story. I tell the cast, “it is not my job to tell you what your experience. I can’t. I have no idea what it’s like to be black in America. And it’s stupid to try to say that I can imagine what it’s like. Because I can’t. What I do know, however, is how to bring in a show. I can get us to opening night and guarantee we’ll have a great show and a great time getting there.” It never fails: everyone around the table relaxes, then we begin the business of piecing together a theatre family.
Oklahoma! in Concert was chosen based on the OCH theme of Homelands and the historic all-black towns that once thrived, and still, to some extent, survive here in the state. The discussion with the cast about an all-black Oklahoma! turned to excitement. Everyone needs their own space. Their own place to belong. Where is your beginning? Where is your start? For most of us, it meant a place where you can grow while surrounded by people who are like you. Home is what you make it, and it’s what makes you.
What I’ve heard over and over during this entire rehearsal process is that this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play these characters. Most of these actors will never get the chance to plays these roles again. And why is that? Because they’re black? I can only assume that’s the reasoning though that honestly doesn’t make any sense since this company of actors is insanely talented. However, it’s true that a character like Laurey is almost always cast as a fragile blonde, though the Royal National Company’s version with Hugh Jackman cast a brunette Laurey and put her in overalls like a real farmgirl. (You can’t slop hogs in a dress – and yes, I do know that for a fact.)
I once asked an African American actress in another show I directed why I never saw her in one of the many other musicals around town – I mean this young woman was phenomenal. What she told me broke my heart and has informed how I approach theatre and social justice to this very day. She said, “I’m tired of playing the maid.” Is there really no room for color-blind casting? Aren’t theatre people inherently creative, and don’t we learn to problem-solve fairly early on when we go into theatre? Why can’t we collaborate with Theatre North on more projects or with the Latino Theatre group to provide more opportunities for persons of color to tell their stories? Why do we underestimate our audiences and think they won’t believe a mixed family? Come on! Look at the success of Hamilton! Personally, I believe that audiences are ready for a 49-year-old, overweight, female George Washington (that’s me in case you didn’t know – I know ALL his songs by heart, people) but more importantly, it’s time that theatre became a home for persons of color the way it’s been a home for all sorts of disenfranchised people for hundreds of years. And the only way that will happen is if I, and all those like me, move over from behind the table and make room.
I had this very conversation with one of our cast. She’s been in all three Big/Little Musicals and she’s taken on more responsibility on each time. I was working up to mentioning to her that she could train for directing on the next one, and she beat me to it. She asked – demanded really in the best possible way – and of course I said yes. Yes, let’s work out a plan. Yes, let’s get you some training. Yes, there’s a place at the table for you. And to quote Hamilton, I want to be in the room where it happens, but I don’t need to be in charge. I just want to be part of the team, a member of the family. Because that what we are. A theatre family. Yes – welcome home, Kaicee. Here’s your seat at the table. Welcome home, because theatre is your home as it’s been mine.
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