Morris Wolfe - Essays, New & Selected

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o boycott or not to boycott, that is the unstated question at the heart of an important debate about the Toronto productions of Showboat and Miss Saigon in the current issue of Fuse, the alternative magazine about the arts.

M. Nourbese Philip, a black critic and essayist, devotes a dozen pages to an article on the politics and the media coverage surrounding Showboat. She concludes by advising parents not to allow their children to see the show. But she never states whether she’s actually seen it herself. All she says is, “I too have gone through the should-I-or-shouldn’t-I-go arguments with myself — how else could I critique it if I didn’t see it?” But based on her article, I would guess she hasn’t.

Philip chooses to set up straw men and knock them down. She quotes Jack Kirchhof, a drama critic at the Globe, for example, who in the course of his review asked, “Is Showboat appropriate for the 1990s?” I think so, he replied, “at least as much as any other 65-year-old piece of theatre.” Kirchhoff’s answer is silly, but Nourbese Philip’s riposte is no less so. “Age,” she writes, “has now become the rationale for racism and sexism ... . Would such an argument be acceptable enough to justify the promotion of such works as Mein Kampf today?” I wonder what Philip would make of it were I to write a rambling twelve-page article about a new edition of Mein Kampf that urged people not to read the book but revealed that I hadn’t read it myself.

Philip’s article makes me think of Holden Caulfield, obsessed with protecting his sister Phoebe from seeing the “fuck you” signs one finds everywhere. Instead of talking to his sister and trying to explain what the words mean, and why some people might feel the need to write them on walls, Holden is convinced he has to erase them all. Good luck.

Philip urges people to continue to educate themselves and others about the issues — but without going to see the show, of course. She complains that Livent, the producers of Showboat, have put out an educational kit for use in the classroom. But teachers don’t have to use the kit. Or they can use the kit to talk about educational propaganda, if that’s in fact what it is. All I know is that given the controversy, if I were a senior elementary or secondary school teacher, I’d want my students to see Showboat. If not the Livent production — tickets are terribly expensive — then one of the film versions, preferably the 1936 version with Paul Robeson and Helen Morgan. There’s so much to talk about. Black history. White attitudes toward blacks circa 1927. The history of the American musical and what a remarkable breakthrough Showboat was. I might have them look at The Jazz Singer, which also appeared in 1927, so we could compare the treatment of whites and blacks in the two works. I’d talk about Paul Robeson and his feelings about the role and how those feelings changed over the years. We could easily spend a couple of weeks on Showboat.

In a much briefer article in the same issue of Fuse, Richard Fung, a video artist and critic, offers a far more thoughtful analysis of the other big Toronto musical, Miss Saigon. Fung doesn’t particularly like musicals, he admits, but he did attend; indeed, he was “the only non-white person on the entire third balcony.” He discusses the show’s “anachronistic racist image of Asian peoples” and compares it with the very different construction of Asian sexuality in recent films like The Lover.

Fung quotes David Henry Hwang, who wrote M. Butterfly. “What would you say,” asks Hwang, “if a blond homecoming queen fell in love with a short Japanese businessman? He treats her cruelly, then goes home for three years, during which time she prays to his picture and turns down marriage from a young Kennedy. Then, when she learns he has remarried, she kills herself. Now I believe you should consider this girl to be a deranged idiot ... . But because it’s an Oriental who kills herself for a Westerner ... you find it beautiful.”

Unlike Philip, Fung doesn’t urge us to stay away from Miss Saigon, nor does he tell us what to think. But his arguments are so incisive, complex, and at the same time, understated, that this reader came away from his article a little wiser. Fung’s approach is that of a good teacher, Philip’s that of a polemicist. I prefer the former.

Philip dismisses the words of Henry Louis Gates Jr., the black scholar, who said of the fuss surrounding Showboat: “Censorship is to art as lynching is to justice.” I’m with Gates. White racism exists. But as another black academic, Cornel West, puts it in his fine little book, Race Matters, “an obsession with white racism often comes at the expense of more broadly-based alliances to effect social change and borders on a tribal mentality.”

—Globe and Mail , March 15, 1994

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