Pearl Cleage

Pearl Makes A List: 5 Songs from the American Musical Theatre Canon to Catalyze Conversations About People Who May Seem Different From You, But Really Aren’t.

I am amazed at the numbers of white people I see on t.v. these days agonizing about how to talk to their children about race. This is not to say there aren’t black people struggling with this question, but for us it’s mostly a matter of issuing warnings: “Don’t run from the police.” “You can’t trust those white folks.” “You’re going to have to work twice as hard as the white students do.” So, just for this moment, let’s assume that this is a well-meaning white parent asking the question. It’s such a strange, only-in-America kind of query when you think about it. The answer is obvious. Honestly. That’s it. The key to the whole thing. When you talk about race, speak honestly. Children learn about the world from the people they know and trust. If those people speak the truth to the child, and model the truth in their behavior, the child will grow up to be an enlightened adult, capable of enjoying the amazing multi-racial, multi-cultural gumbo that is America. 

But the question kept coming up and I realized the reason white people sometimes have a difficult time talking about race with their children is that they don’t know how to talk about it with each other either. The problem is they think that everything about race has to be a long, excruciatingly serious discussion, rather than understanding that race, like love, is an ongoing conversation that doesn’t require a crisis to catalyze it. Culture is a good way for beginners to ease into conversations about race from a point of common reference and discovery, which brings us to this week’s list:

5 Songs from the American Musical Theatre Canon to Catalyze Conversations About People Who May Seem Different From You, But Really Aren’t.

These 5 songs introduce a range of ideas about race and gender and sexuality and beauty and bigotry, but in the context of great music, unforgettable characters and unshakeable hope for something better – all the things that make us go to the theatre in the first place.

1. “You’ve Got to be Taught,” a medley from Mandy Patinkin, including the title song from “South Pacific.” This classic song states the problem pretty clearly and shows us what we’re up against. I heard this song when I was a kid and the cast performed it on television, probably Ed Sullivan. I remember thinking, Okay. So, all we have to do is get people to stop teaching kids that stupid stuff. Didn’t seem that complicated to me. It still doesn’t. 

2. “I Got Love,” from “Purlie,” performed by Melba Moore. Sometimes when there is so much emphasis on protest and problems, it’s easy for white people to think that black people and people in other groups who are marginalized by racism and bigotry, go around in a constant state of rage and misery. This is not true. And you can quote me. That kind of anti-joy assumption, however well meaning, robs us of our full humanity. All people are capable of joy. Why not us? This idea sometimes imbeds itself in black artists, too. Playwright Ossie Davis told me once that before he wrote “Purlie Victorious,” which became the musical “Purlie,” he was working on a play about a young black boy in rural Georgia who was being terrorized by racist white policemen. But one day as he was working, he had an epiphany. Davis, he said to himself, is it really that bad? His answer was to abandon his tragic tale and produce instead a satirical masterpiece in “Purlie Victorious.” Set in the rural South in the era of Jim Crow, the play tackles serious social issues, but in the midst of all the bigotry, when the wide eyed ingenue finds herself in love with the play’s hero, her exuberant celebration of that feeling is pure joy and a star turn for Ms. Moore who stopped the show with it every night. 

3. “In the Heights,” by Lin-Manuel Miranda. This show’s opening number introduces audiences to a vibrant neighborhood where immigrants from many countries live and work and dream together. Miranda wrote this piece for himself after realizing that he’d done “West Side Story” in high school and didn’t see any other roles that he would be allowed to play. He decided to write stories about the people he knew best; his friends, his neighbors, his family. Never shying away from the realities of New York City life, the show is full of complex characters who are nothing like the anti-immigrant rhetoric that too often permeates our national dialogue. This performance of the show’s opening number at the Tony Awards in 2008, features Lin-Manuel Miranda and Christopher Jackson, not throwing away their shot. 

4. “Inner White Girl,” from “Strange Loop,” by Michael Jackson. This young artist (no relation to the singer!) won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama this year with his autobiographical musical about a gay, black man, working a day job he hates while developing his original music. This song is funny as hell and serious as a heart attack. Contrasting his own highly confined existence to the freedom and power of a “white girl,” it may seem to be about difference, but it’s really about dreams.

5. “I’m Here,” from “The Color Purple,” performed by Cynthia Erivo. This show, based on the novel “The Color Purple,” by Alice Walker, is a testament to African American female friendship in the face of male violence and white racism. This song, and the one Ms. Erivo opens her set with, are such fierce affirmations of her own beauty and how she came to claim it, that I won’t apologize for the fact that her words made me cry before she even started to sing. Because we are here. Because we are beautiful. Because Black Lives do matter. Because it’s not hard to talk about hard stuff if you come at it with humility and honesty and an open heart. Let Ms. Erivo show you how it’s done.


Check out all of Pearl's lists here.


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