Four Broadway shows this season share a common theme

Four Broadway shows, each written from a modern perspective, add up to a narrative of racial attitudes throughout American history

Jeffrey Wright stars as Jacques Cornet in A Free Man of Color.
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Four Broadway shows this season share a common theme. Each one is written from a modern perspective, but together the plays make up a narrative of racial attitudes throughout American history, writes Diane Nottle

Maybe it has something to do with Barack Obama's presence in the White House. Maybe Americans are due for some soul-searching. Or maybe it's sheer coincidence that multiple long-term projects landed on Broadway at the same time.

Whatever the reason, an unusual number of shows this season share a theme: race. No fewer than four - A Free Man of Color, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, The Scottsboro Boys and Driving Miss Daisy - explore racial attitudes and relations at various points in history. Although written from distinctly modern perspectives, they add up to a historical narrative of how white America has dealt, often uncomfortably, with "the other" in its midst.

Chronologically, this accidental cycle begins with A Free Man of Color, a new play by John Guare (The House of Blue Leaves,Six Degrees of Separation) at Lincoln Center Theater until January 9. Guare's ambitious epic sprawls outward from New Orleans in the first decade of the 1800s - the time of the Louisiana Purchase, which more than doubled the size of the still-young United States. Directed by George C Wolfe, an African American whose work has often addressed racial themes, the play charts the rise and fall of Jacques Cornet (Jeffrey Wright), a rich, dandyish former slave who bought his freedom and now owns a slave himself (played by Mos, the artist formerly known as Mos Def).

Then, as now, New Orleans is the American "melting pot" in the microcosm. Guare's characters talk candidly about race, introducing themselves in one early scene by the proportions of white and black in their ancestry. ("In the new world at this time," a programme note explains, "there was a vocabulary of more than 100 terms for people of mixed race, extending back seven generations in an individual's heritage," and splitting hairs as far as "113 of 120 parts white".)

Cornet has an all-white half-brother, the villain of the play, who longs to marry a slave but is inhibited by the Code Noir, the 1685 laws governing racial relations in the French colonies. His beloved extols "the blacks, the browns, the yellows, the pinks" in the skin tones of the sailors she sees at the port. Yet all is not well in the melting pot: a slave described by her master as "perfectly happy" turns to the audience and says in an aside: "If I had my way, I'd chop their heads off."

Cornet becomes radicalised by the arrival of a shipload of yellow fever victims from Haiti. Since they had so little to begin with, a white character says, "it's working very well for them" - a direct reference to the former first lady Barbara Bush's infamous remark about poor black New Orleanians displaced by Hurricane Katrina. The crisis of conscience sends Cornet into the wilderness and, ultimately, back to the auction block himself.

The play, which has drawn mixed reviews, is rife with anachronism. It begins in the style of Restoration comedy, with sumptuous costumes and wigs to match. Cornet speaks in rhymed couplets, while his slave calls himself an "administrative assistant". In an imaginary confrontation with Thomas Jefferson, Cornet questions the author of the Declaration of Independence about those words he wrote,"all men are created equal", and finds - as have so many before and since - that it doesn't apply to them. Jefferson explains the economics of slave ownership (including his own); Cornet responds by cataloguing the troubles Jefferson could have spared America: the Civil War, the Jim Crow laws intended to keep blacks in their place, the need for the 20th-century civil rights movement.

If Free Man reaches back a century or so in its theatrical style, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is on fast-forward. In a fast, loud 90 minutes, this new emo-rock musical, with story and direction by Alex Timbers and score by Michael Friedman, examines the life and legacy of the seventh president of the United States. Was he "a great president" or "a genocidal murderer - an American Hitler"?

The show, at the Bernard B Jacobs Theater, reimagines the familiar Jackson, with his shock of white hair, as a mid-19th-century rock star (Benjamin Walker), complete with spotlights, stage mist and back-up dancers. The theatre is dripping with decoration: swags of blood-red velvet à la New Orleans bar; at least a dozen chandeliers hanging over the audience; portraits of deceased white males from American history lining the orchestra-level walls. And then there's the donkey (the symbol of the Democratic Party, which Jackson founded) suspended upside down from chains right in front of the centre mezzanine. Jackson (1767-1845) lived and governed at a time when tensions over slavery were escalating toward the Civil War (1860-65). Although slavery is mentioned in passing - as an election issue, as a political bargaining chip, in Jackson's own purchase of a slave woman - the Native Americans, referred to in the play as Indians, are the minority of concern here. The real-life Jackson was a proponent of the Indian Removal Act, essentially ethnic cleansing.

Frequent refrains of "Populism!" and "We're gonna take this country back" echo throughout the play. A variation on the old children's rhyme 10 Little Indians is sung as Jackson negotiates treaties with Indian tribes that will lead to their downfall. "Sometimes you have to take your country back," Jackson sings again. "Sometimes you have to kill everyone." Yet he rescues and adopts a baby orphaned in one of his battles.

Walker's Jackson, in a white tunic and jeans, the tightness of which is often remarked upon, is by turns young hunk and petulant child. The young cast tells the story in modern language, much of it unprintable, that may provoke thought even among young theatre-goers who came to see a rock show.

While Andrew Jackson was a hit Off Broadway last spring, its creative team is new to Broadway. Scottsboro, at the Lyceum, is the work of seasoned veterans: the songwriters John Kander and Fred Ebb (Cabaret, Chicago) and the director Susan Stroman (The Producers). It tells a chilling tale of racism and injustice, about the arrest and multiple trials of nine young black men falsely accused of raping two white women in the South in 1931. The story is presented as a minstrel show, a popular 19th-century entertainment in which a white interlocutor would preside over actors in blackface, with names like Mr Bones and Mr Tambo, who rose from a semi-circle of chairs to perform songs and skits. This is a deliberately provocative form because its conventions tend to make people cringe today. At early performances numerous walkouts were reported during a blackface number and a protest organised by the Freedom Party took place outside the theatre in early November.

The "boys" - a demeaning term when applied to black men -emerge from the semi-circle to play a variety of other characters: their cloche-hatted accusers, the white lawmen who arrest them, the Jewish lawyer imported from New York to defend them. (Walkouts were also reported during the number, That's Not the Way We Do Things.) Chairs morph into props and scenic elements such as prison bars. The actors brandish tambourines, wave white-gloved jazz hands and do high-stepping dances to the music of an eight-member band of multi-instrumentalists. When the youngest of the accused - he's 12 - has a nightmare about the electric chair, it turns into a tap number. A sentimental choral ode to the South, sung a cappella, includes memories of "my daddy hangin' from a tree", and the interlocutor has to remind the "boys" to smile. Bearing silent witness throughout is the Lady, who may be the mother of one of the accused or Rosa Parks, or an African American everywoman. The sole white actor, as interlocutor and judge, is the veteran Broadway musical star John Cullum, who rightly cedes the final curtain call to the fine ensemble cast led by Joshua Henry.

Alfred Uhry's Driving Miss Daisy, at the Golden Theatre, is already a theatrical chestnut, though it is only now having is first Broadway production. A long-running hit Off Broadway in the late 1980s, it won the Pulitzer Prize for drama and was made into an Oscar-winning film. It was originally planned to run until January 29 but has been extended until April 9. It is one of the very few current productions filling the theatres. The reason is unquestionably its stars: Vanessa Redgrave as the ageing Daisy Werthan, an independent-minded Atlanta widow, and James Earl Jones as Hoke Coleburn, hired by Miss Daisy's son (the Broadway stalwart Boyd Gaines) as her driver. Interviewing for the job, Hoke is not James Earl Jones as we know him, the commanding figure with the booming voice; speaking on a higher pitch, he walks with head bent and shoulders hunched, all but shuffling in submission. But Hoke finds his voice as his relationship with Miss Daisy evolves from employee to friend. They have at least one thing in common: outsider status. "You're Jewish, aren't you?" Hoke pointedly asks early on. She is, and in the South of their time, the late 1940s up until 1972, that places her, too, outside the mainstream.

Their relationship is the core of the play, but Miss Daisy and Hoke can't escape the forces of history and social change. On a long-distance drive - Hoke's first time outside his home state, at 72 - projections of vintage signs advertise "Cabins for Colored" and warn, "This is KKK Country". When Hoke defies Miss Daisy to pull off the road, he has to spell out the reason to her: the toilet at their last rest stop was marked whites-only.

Later, it is her turn to feel the sting when her temple is bombed. "Who would do that?" she asks. "You know as well as I do; it's always the same," Hoke answers, then goes on to recount a lynching from his youth. By 1963, Miss Daisy supports the civil rights movement but continues to stumble in everyday relations. "Isn't it wonderful how things are changing?" she muses en route to a dinner for Martin Luther King, to which Hoke is driving her but has not been invited inside.

Throughout, the two characters are evenly matched - as are the actors - in feistiness and natural dignity. Perhaps Miss Daisy would get the message faster, though, if Hoke drove her around the block to the Broadhurst Theater, where a classic examination of prejudice is playing. Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice, starring Al Pacino as the Jewish money-lender Shylock, has also been extended until February 20 after drawing long queues for free tickets this summer at Shakespeare in the Park (an arm of the same Public Theater that produced Andrew Jackson). Though Merchant is widely considered anti-Semitic, it might also be seen as a plea for tolerance - especially in the director Daniel Sullivan's interpretation, which plays up Shylock's abuse by the Christians of Venice and, in a wordless added scene depicting his forced baptism, his defiance in clinging to his heritage and faith.

Coming full circle, Guare has borrowed a few lines from Shylock's "Hath not a Jew eyes?" speech to make a similar point in A Free Man of Color. In a world where racial prejudice never seems to die, the lesson remains timeless.