How Black Lives Matter in ‘Kiss Me, Kate’

Kiss Me, Kate came to Broadway twenty years after Showboat, and more than a decade after Porgy and Bess, but the mostly white Kate managed to slyly address racial issues that were at the fore at the time of it’s opening.

A rather lighthearted musical comedy, Kate takes place during try-outs for a fictional production of a musical version of The Taming of The Shrew at a place where, at the time, there were some decidedly un-lighthearted goings on: Ford’s Theatre in Baltimore, not far from where the death of Freddie Gray, and the subsequent unrest, occurred in 2015.

Ford’s was in the midst of a years-long crusade by the NAACP and others to end the theater’s segregated seating–protests, that had begun in 1946 and would ultimately be successful in 1953. More detail about the Ford’s protests, along with some fascinating photos, can be found at https://hendersonphotos.wordpress.com/tag/fords-theatre/

The creation, original Broadway run, and the original West End run of Kiss Me, Kate happened smack in the middle of the desegregation campaign, between 1947 and 1952, with try-outs at the Shubert in Philadelphia in early December of ’48, the Broadway opening later that month, and the West End opening in March 1951.

The choice of setting for the main action of the show was likely more than a casual one: when Bella and Sam Spewack, wrote the book, they could have set Kate at any of a number of try-out venues between Hartford and Washington, D.C., so the Ford’s setting was likely incorporated into the script as a show of solidarity with a protest movement that, at various times, had included Bayard Rustin and show business luminary Paul Robeson–and the setting isn’t the show’s only possible expression of support for desegregation efforts.

The Ford’s protests came on the heels of another stand against racism by prominent citizens of the entertainment industry: the challenge of racially restrictive real estate covenants in Los Angeles, in a campaign whose most well-known organizer was Hattie McDaniel. Ethel Waters, and Louise Beavers were also among the prominent Black actors residing in the West Adams section of Los Angeles when a years-long court battle concluded in 1944, bringing to an end covenants in real estate contracts and mortgage agreements that had prohibited homeowners in West Adams, aka “Sugar Hill”, from selling their houses to Black people.

McDaniel, of course, had won the 1939 Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for Gone with the Wind, making her the first Black American to win an Academy Award, but that obviously had not exempted her from the segregation that was the norm throughout the United States until well into the 1960’s. Jim Crow laws had prevented McDaniel from attending the GWTW premiere in Atlanta, and at the banquet following her Oscar acceptance, McDaniel had been required to dine at a segregated table.

So, along with the setting, Kiss Me Kate, whose lyrics were written by Cole Porter, has written into it what are likely salutes to two civil-rights heroes of the industry and of the era: In a nearly all-white show, Act I opens with a song called “Another Openin’, Another Show”, led by a character named Hattie, who ha. Act II opens with “Too Darn Hot”, led by a character named Paul. While the script doesn’t specify the race of these characters, they were played by Black actors in the original 1948 Broadway production and cast recording, in the 1999 Broadway revival and cast recording, and in other productions. “Too Darn Hot” caused something of an uproar by being highly sexually suggestive—at the time, especially controversial, given that the song and accompanying dance moves were led by a Black male, trying to beat the summer heat at the back door of a theater that wouldn’t let him sit anywhere below the balcony for another five years.

 

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