You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught or, the role of social consciousness in the theatre

Kelli Butler

  • Opera Columnist

In 1949, one of the most beloved musicals in the American theatre lexicon took the stage for the first time - Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific. Coming so soon on the heels of WWII, and with America on the cusp of the Cold War with Russia, the creators were faced with a choice: cut the themes of interracial marriage and racial equality, or face a financial ruin of a show.  At issue: Lt. Cable’s (in my opinion, fabulous) song “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught”. Preceded by the line ‘racism is not born in you! It happens after you’re born…’, the song addressed miscegenation and the equality of a Native race to that of the white character. One legislator in the southern U.S. went so far as to state, “a song justifying interracial marriage was implicitly a threat to the American way of life.” However, the librettist and composer refused to remove it, on the grounds that the theme was central to the show, and why they had chosen to write it at all (for anyone wondering, the show is based upon James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific - a great read).

The arts, especially theatre, have often been at the forefront of many hotbed topics in American History - even television and film often addressed then-current issues of racism, miscegenation, and civil rights (Twilight Zone and Star Trek being two of the more widely known examples; the former in many thinly veiled science fiction plot lines, and the latter with the first interracial kiss on network television in Plato’s Children). Many times, the creators and actors faced the possibility of blacklisting or fines in order to bring these issues to the screen; WIlliam Shatner famously noted that he purposely screwed up the other takes that didn’t feature him kissing Nichelle Nichols, just so they would have no choice but to use it.

Throughout the late 20th century, the build towards more controversial and difficult topics in theatre grew ever stronger. With the advent of musicals like Ragtime (which addressed social inequality, women’s rights, racism, and immigration) and Rent (bringing into sharp focus the plight of being homosexual and/or HIV-positive in an era where AZT was just becoming a commonly available drug), the stigma of many of the topics was not so much removed as it was relieved; suddenly you had portrayals of stigmatized or disenfranchised peoples in your face, out in the open, and extremely unapologetically asking for our attention. 

On November 12, the opera Five by the acclaimed African-American composer Anthony Davis will have it’s premiere in Newark, NJ. When it takes the stage, it will address a near 30-year-old grievance of justice, brought yet again into the limelight by the Republican nominee for President, Donald Trump (who is also a character in the opera) - the case of the Central Park Five. For those unfamiliar, there are a wealth of articles and studies; in short, a young woman was brutally assaulted, beaten, and raped in Central Park in April 1989. With pressure mounting from the politically advantaged elite, the New York DA’s office arrested five young teenage boys - four black, one Hispanic. Through abominable techniques (no food or drink for almost 24 hours, and no chance to rest), confessions were coerced. Despite none of the forensic evidence tying them to the crime, faced with mounting pressure - including a full-page ad in the Times from none other than Trump himself - the boys were put on trial and convicted. All were imprisoned. In May of 2002, a serial rapist named Matias Reyes confessed to the crime - and forensic evidence proved his confession true. All of the Five’s convictions were vacated in that year, and they received a settlement for their false imprisonment. JUst recently, Trump has again brought up their case, claiming that they were guilty (they weren’t), and attacking two of the Five personally on Twitter.

Full disclosure: I am singing the role of the District Attorney in Five. And it’s not only because I am part of the talented cast premiering this work that I bring it up (though a small bit of self-promotion never hurt anyone!); I bring it up because the story itself, despite being 27 years old, highlights one of America’s most shameful problems – a festering wound on justice and the system meant to protect all Americans. It is the more well-known of dozens of stories of black, African-American, and Latino men who were wrongfully convicted of sexual assault (as well as other crimes), only to be found innocent years, sometimes decades later; these men lost enormous sections of their lives that can never be recovered. No monetary amount, though completely justified and necessary, will ever bring back the time spent protesting innocence and fighting the system that erroneously convicted them.

It also comes at a time when people of color are beginning to truly make their voices known in all aspects of the arts to indicate their under-representation. With the rise of shows such as Hamilton and The Color Purple, it is abundantly clear that people of color can bring in the ticket sales with stories revolving around their experiences and their wealth of talent. In opera,  performers of color are standing up against long occurring tendencies to cast their white colleagues for roles equally qualified for; and against practices of yellow and/or blackface for character roles. Even in roles which call for performers of color, the stories are not truly indicative of their actual experiences.

Against this backdrop, there can be no better time for Five to make its premiere.

Special thanks to James Mowdy and Jouvanca Jean-Baptiste for helping me brainstorm and flesh out this blog!!!