The unbearable whiteness of ‘Oklahoma!’ In new Broadway revival, the blinding sunshine of the Territory exposes the violence beneath the romantic myth

Though it hasn’t always been acknowledged, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! has always been a musical about whiteness.

This is important because a new and well-reviewed production is now running on Broadway. Oklahoma! has often been summarized through a lens of racial neutrality as a romantic musical about a woman named Laurey Williams trying to make a choice between two suitors: Jud Fry, a hard-working farmhand who lives in the smokehouse of a farm owned by Laurey and her Aunt Eller. And guitar-strumming Curly McClain, who is more socially adept, but doesn’t offer much beyond a pretty face. Set in the Claremore Indian Territory of Oklahoma in 1906, Oklahoma! delivers a rose-tinted view of history that centers on happy white people whose greatest concern is a town dance that will raise money to build a new school. It’s a classic example of willful erasure and ahistorical mythmaking.

In 1838 and 1839, President Andrew Jackson forced thousands of Native Americans to abandon their homes east of the Mississippi. Even though Oklahoma was the end point of the genocidal forced migration known as the Trail of Tears, Oklahoma! doesn’t feature a single Native American character. In fact, its only explicitly nonwhite character is Ali Hakim, a Persian peddler who seeks romantic encounters that don’t come with marital strings.

Jud Fry (played by Patrick Vaill, left) might be an excellent farmhand, but he is not a good man.

Little Fang Photo

Director Daniel Fish’s new, stripped-down revival of Oklahoma! doesn’t play by those rules, though. In this version, now running at Circle in the Square Theater through Jan. 19, Laurey is played by a black woman, Rebecca Naomi Jones. Laurey’s best friend, Ado Annie, is played by Ali Stroker, who uses a wheelchair, the first actress to do so on a Broadway stage. When Stroker won the Tony for best actress in a featured role in a musical in June, she was the first performer who uses a wheelchair to be nominated, much less win.

Suffice it to say, this ain’t your granny’s Oklahoma! The musical, which won the 2019 Tony for best revival, has been popularly characterized as “Sexy Oklahoma!” That’s largely because of the horny howling of its handsome leading man, Damon Daunno, who plays Curly, and its shamelessly libidinous Ado Annie. But I did not find Oklahoma! to be sexy so much as darkly terrifying — and I mean that in a good way.

That’s because this version, which faithfully maintains the original script and lyrics of the 1943 musical while updating the orchestrations with modern arrangements, subjects toxic whiteness and masculinity to the glaring bleach of the noonday sun.

Oklahoma! provides a nuanced opportunity for audiences to reexamine systems of power from the view of those least protected by them.

The revival is unique because of its deft interrogation of the whiteness and toxic masculinity that has long been romanticized in the American western, and in the many treacly iterations of Oklahoma! that have been mounted since 1943. This version asks its audience to consider a familiar world in an unfamiliar way: through the eyes of a black woman with little to no physical security or power of her own.


The first thing one notices upon entering Circle in the Square is the aggressive brightness of the room’s lighting (more than a few members of the audience wore sunglasses through the performance). The second is that the walls are lined with racks upon racks upon racks of shotguns.

The lighting turns out to be subversive. Much like a black light held over the surfaces of a sketchy motel room, it illuminates all the ickiness lurking on surfaces that appear otherwise innocuous. It welcomes you to the Oklahoma territory, where flowers fill the prairie and the june bugs zoom, and then it ensures that you cannot turn away from the ugliness that lurks there. “Everything’s going my way” certainly applies to the men of the Territory. But its female residents? Not so much.

Tony winner Ali Stroker (left) plays Ado Annie and Will Brill (right) is Ali Hakim in Oklahoma!

Little Fang Photo

It’s strange to see Oklahoma! when the horrors of mass shootings (most recently in Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso, Texas) are still in the shallow recesses of one’s consciousness. But mostly, I was reminded of violence specifically linked to virulent misogyny, and so Alek Minassian, Elliot Rodger, and George Sodini entered my mind within minutes of the introduction of Jud (Patrick Vaill). Minassian, Rodgers, and Sodini are white men who committed mass murder because they were angry, lonely, and felt entitled to attention from women when they weren’t getting it. Minassian identifies as an “incel,” or involuntary celibate.

There is a rhythm to the news of mass shootings, and one beat in particular is frustratingly metronomic: The killers, more often than not, have a history of abuse or antipathy toward women. In Oklahoma!, Jud is armed with an unshakable crush, a shifty attitude, and a revolver. Vaill imbues Jud with a patina of gentle shyness, underneath which beats a familiar pulse of resentment, entitlement, and a violent temper precariously held in check. Jud might be an excellent farmhand, but he is not a good man. It makes for a terribly dangerous combination for Laurey.

To survive in the modern world, women develop a spidey sense about men who would potentially harm us, and we mold our lives around the avoidance of male aggression. We move to a different subway car if someone stares a little too long, or brushes up a little too close. We slow our gait to let someone pass rather than take the chance that he may be following when we must walk late at night. And we get very good at managing — managing expectations, managing tempers, and managing egos.

The same reality of ever-present male danger is true for the women of the Territory. For them, the most effective way to guard against it is to get married. (Nothing sucks the romance out of courtship quite like knowing you’re seeking a man in hopes that his presence will prevent your rape or murder.) Laurey has a decision to make about who she will choose for the dance and her life afterward: Curly or Jud? By Laurey’s second interaction with the seemingly mild-mannered Jud, I felt my stomach grow queasy with worry. Oda Mae Brown from Ghost made an entrance in my notebook: “Laurey,” I wrote furiously, “You in danger, girl!”

Before Fish reimagined her, Laurey was usually portrayed as a lucky woman blessed with a surfeit of romantic possibilities. Nowhere is that more clear than in Fred Zinneman’s 1955 film adaptation. In Zinneman’s Oklahoma!, Laurey is played by Shirley Jones, a sunny, self-assured blonde whose good looks, tiny waist, and homespun charm are enough to tame any man.

When Shirley Jones sings “Many A New Day,” she’s surrounded by white women pirouetting in bloomers and petticoats, and she’s laying out a philosophy that Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider would come to monetize some four decades later in The Rules, possibly the worst self-help book about dating ever published. Essentially, it is a doctrine that tells women that all their power and moral authority lie in their sexual availability or lack thereof, also known as playing hard to get.

But this display of performative reluctance isn’t an indication of power, so much as the lack of it, especially when you consider the presence of armed threats like Jud. From the beginning of the musical, Aunt Eller is telling Curly how much her niece likes him, no matter how much Laurey’s behavior indicates the opposite. It’s strategic: Aunt Eller’s trying to provide some security for Laurey, in the limited way that she can, by playing matchmaker. Sexual violation is a constant threat for women, even for Ado Annie, who is generally portrayed as a ditsy, well-meaning slut with her rendition of the song “I Cain’t Say No.”

Stroker’s Ado Annie, on the other hand, delivers a rollicking, proudly sex positive rendition of the song, a recognition of the character’s agency.

Still, in both scenarios, Ado Annie’s choices are protected by her father’s ever-present shotgun — to a point. She may get around, and she may like it, but she’s still got to marry somebody, and furthermore, someone with money. Ado Annie’s father insists that a man vying for her affections have at least $50 to his name before he’ll let him marry her. (Remember, it’s 1906.)

Laurey doesn’t really have two viable options so much as she’s faced with making a choice between a man who will almost certainly kill her if he doesn’t get what he wants and a well-meaning dunce who thinks the height of being gentlemanly means getting down to the dirty business of dispatching the Territory’s resident incel.


Jones is not the only member of the Oklahoma! company who is black, but her blackness serves to reinforce just how vulnerable and disenfranchised Laurey is in a place where men hold an overwhelming amount of sociopolitical power and women have nearly none. That social order is enforced and maintained with guns:

  • When Ali Hakim won’t commit to Ado Annie, her father threatens him with a shotgun.
  • When Jud and Curly want to intimidate each other, they shoot holes into the roof and wall of the smokehouse.
  • When Laurey finds herself in need of protection from one bad man, it comes from another wielding — you guessed it — a gun.

Jones plays Laurey as a woman moving through the world with tense, uneasy reluctance. At times, she exhibits an attraction to Curly, but it never seems to permeate too deeply, perhaps with the exception of the dream ballet (danced with magnetic athleticism by Gabrielle Hamilton) that explores Laurey’s subconscious. It concludes with Laurey’s id scooching crotch first offstage toward Curly — she’s made her “choice.”

But even when Laurey agrees to marry Curly and enters the stage in her wedding dress, she’s bereft of the glowing, floaty ebullience typically associated with brides. Instead, the subtle hesitations in Jones’ movements and the drawn expression of her face leaves the viewer wishing poor Laurey had a trusted maid of honor to ask, “You OK, sis? I got the horses in the back if you want to ride east ’til we can’t ride no more.” It’s a beautifully crafted performance, full of simmering internal contradictions that Laurey dare not raise aloud. She seems more resigned than anything to spend her life with Curly, if only because he provides protection from the Juds of the world and she knows that she needs it.

Laurey Williams (Rebecca Naomi Jones, right) eyes Curly (Damon Daunno, left) as he serenades her in Oklahoma!

Little Fang Photo

I could not help but see parallels between Laurey and the protagonist of Test Pattern, a new film from director Shatara Michelle Ford that premiered earlier this year at BlackStar Film Festival and is currently seeking distribution. Test Pattern explores the aftermath of sexual assault for a black woman living in Austin, Texas, named Renesha. Renesha (Brittany S. Hall) is in a loving interracial relationship when she is sexually assaulted during a celebratory night out with a friend. (Coincidentally, the two works share an actor; Will Brill plays Hakim in Oklahoma! and Renesha’s boyfriend Evan in Test Pattern.) Like Laurey, Renesha ends up spending a great deal of time managing the emotions of two white men, one of whom is ostensibly “good” and the other who is “bad.” It turns out the two men are not so different. Like Jud and Curly, they both prioritize their own wants over the needs of the black woman who is the object of their desire or devotion. This is not accidental. In both the Territory of 1906 and modern-day Austin, the world is constructed to serve these men, and that’s what they’ve come to expect. This is their version of neutral.

Oklahoma! becomes a jaunty horror show when Laurey is splattered with Jud’s blood on her wedding day after Curly guns him down and the entire company belts out a lively rendition of “Oklahoma.” The residents of the territory ignore the cancer infecting their community in favor of singing, dancing, and the avoidance of discomfort, in much the same way that no amount of tragic deaths seems to spur meaningful action on gun control.

Ultimately, Oklahoma! provides a nuanced opportunity for audiences to reexamine systems of power from the view of those least protected by them. The artists will even serve you chili and cornbread during the show’s intermission. The timing is key — better to eat a bowl before pore Jud is daid, when its contents can’t remind you of his bullet-blasted innards.

Our vulnerabilities & fears shouldn’t keep us from being courageous From the Parkland, Florida, teens’ tenacity to Stephen Hawking’s incredible life, bravery comes in many forms

About 30 years ago, I walked across the campus at the University of California, Berkeley (aka Cal), where I worked. It was evening and dark, probably the fall. I heard a whirring sound. A young man shaped like a question mark sat in a wheelchair. He blew into a device that made the wheelchair go. He looked sure of where he was going.

Nevertheless, the young man looked so vulnerable, alone in the darkness, that I feared for him. My mind whirled through all the bad things that could happen to him, alone in the darkness, with no one to help. I wondered if I could help him, if he needed or wanted it.

And then I laughed to myself. Although I was young then, I was just a little more formidable in the darkness than the young man making his way in the wheelchair was. Oh, I could throw a punch, but I hadn’t had a fight since I was 15. I lost badly and retired, defeated. I could run, too, but like my fellow traveler in the wheelchair, if someone wanted to hurt me, he could, especially on a deserted back pathway on a college campus.

It was just that I had trained myself to forget I was as vulnerable as thinking about the young man in the wheelchair ultimately reminded me I was.

After all, I was a young black man from Philly. I’d grown up traveling in darkness, wary yet unafraid. Like the young man in the wheelchair, I went where I needed to go. And like the young man in the wheelchair appeared to, I made my way without the expectation of anyone helping or protecting me.

For a time in my teens, I traveled with an ice pick in one pocket and a copy of the 27th Psalm, which my grandmother had copied in red ink, in another: “The Lord is my light and my salvation — whom shall I fear?” After a few days, I ditched the ice pick kept the psalm and took my chances.

Last week, three disparate (but, to my mind, related) events put me back on that deserted path at Cal, pondering darkness and vulnerability. Stephen Hawking died at 76. During his life, the physicist went wherever his brilliant mind took him. He helped us better understand the mysteries of the cosmos while illuminating their majesty and wonder. While enduring Lou Gehrig’s disease, or ALS, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, for decades, he used a wheelchair to put himself on a more equal footing with others. He championed a society that didn’t allow its spirits to become disabled.

In the same week, young Americans across the country, spurred by last month’s mass shootings at a high school in Parkland, Florida, swept out of their schools and into the streets to protest gun violence, their spirits unbroken. In the nation’s capital, one protester railed, “The adults have failed us.” I believe the elders’ unwillingness to act more forcefully to quell gun violence is emblematic of a much larger failing: the elders not protecting the futures of our children, the nation’s most precious and vulnerable people.

And just around the corner from my New Jersey home, a black teenage boy passed me on the street. He was going in the direction from whence I had come. He was coming from a direction I knew well. We looked at each other as black males, boys to men, too often do: quickly assessing the level of threat. For a moment, we held each other’s eyes. We both have brown eyes.

He started to smile, faintly and imploringly, as if he wanted me to acknowledge that he was just a kid carrying a backpack.

I smiled, a black man with a gray beard. The young man smiled a little wider. Then he ducked his head the way deer sometimes do.

And we continued on our way before darkness fell.

Daily Dose: 11/13/17 Colin Kaepernick named GQ’s ‘Citizen of the Year’

Happy Monday, kiddos — hope you had a healthy and productive weekend.

Colin Kaepernick has had an incredible year. His charity work has reached a lot of people and if he wasn’t a household name due to his NFL play, he certainly will be one now that GQ magazine has named him its Citizen Of The Year. He’s on its newest cover rocking what could be described as a militant look, which personally, I think comes with its issues. Kaep doing Kaep is completely fine, but one need not look like a Black Panther party member to be down for the cause. You can wear Gucci and still be a freedom fighter.

Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but bringing guns to church seems like a bad idea. Namely because if you’re there to praise the Lord, it just feels like gunning someone down is not really congruent to that whole cause. But, because people are willing to attack others in houses of worship, more and more are taking up arms publicly. So, to review: To prevent mass shootings, quite a few people of the cloth think that more guns in a scenario would lead to less gunfire. Maybe I’m terrible at math, but that just doesn’t add up.

President Donald Trump’s White House has a few characters in it. Some of them are members of his family, some aren’t. But one very famous member of his staff was a reality star as well with Trump, before they made it to Washington. Omarosa’s hiring was big news, and though she formally has a job title, no one really knows what she does. Sidebar: It’s not even her first job there. But when a reporter followed her around for a day at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., the trip brought more questions than answers.

Carlos Beltran has retired. It’s cool news because going out on top is a great feeling, in general. So, now that the Houston Astros won the World Series, after 20 years, he’s stepping away. To be clear, for my money, Beltran is headed directly to the Hall of Fame. Sure he played for a lot of teams, but to call him a journeyman is misguided. He’s not in the 500-homer club, but he did make nine All-Star teams and was absolutely one of the best players of his time. Looking forward to hearing him speak in Cooperstown, New York.

Free Food

Coffee Break: I’ve been a reader of Vanity Fair since I was in high school, and a religious one, at that. But for as much as it highlights the off-the-beaten-path worlds of the rich and famous, it is still a very rich and very white publication. Now, Radhika Jones will be taking the helm, which is a step in the right direction.

Snack Time: When I want to see appliances destroyed on camera, I don’t ask a ton of questions, because the footage is always good. The reason people are banging out their Keurig machines happens to be extremely stupid, however.

Dessert: If you didn’t watch Saturday Night Live this week, just check this out.

 

Daily Dose: 11/9/17 O.J. Simpson gets kicked out of a Vegas hotel

Thursday was another TV day, so if you get a chance to check out Around The Horn, please do so. I pulled a bit of a prank, so let me know how that goes over.

School shootings are a massive problem in the country. They’re basically everyday occurrences on balance, which overall should scare you very much. Instead of trying to get lawmakers to, you know, help prevent people from getting the types of guns that can kill in mass quantities, we take a different route. Like down in Miami, where a school is offering up “bulletproof panels” for sale to kids to put in their backpacks, in case of a shooting. This is what it’s come to.

KFC thinks they slick. On Twitter, it follows exactly 11 people. If you’re not familiar with its “secret recipe” that includes 11 herbs and spices, where have you been? This is not a reflection on their chicken, which is a whole separate discussion. But, one guy figured out its little social media strategy and it’s actually kind of brilliant. As it turns out, they follow five Spice Girls and six guys named Herb. So, once homeboy cracked the code fast food company hooked him up with a serious gift.

O.J. Simpson is out here wilding. The man who is widely believed to have gotten away with a double murder, then served all sorts of time in prison for an unrelated crime, is now out. And not only is he out, he’s partying with ladies, just like he was before he went to prison. Thursday he got kicked out of a hotel for being drunk in public, which is just an incredibly bad look. I have no idea what the limitations of his parole are, and whether this will send him back to prison. But dude might want to slow down, if he can.

It appears that Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott won’t be playing this week. His on-again-off-again relationship with the NFL has now turned into a matter of public ridicule on multiple levels. Another court has decided that he can’t play and his six-game suspension will now be served. Who knows if it will be off again by Tuesday? This case, by the way, has completely sent Cowboys owner Jerry Jones into the next stratosphere with anger. He’s trying to sue the NFL over commissioner Roger Goodell, which we all know is about Zeke.

Free Food

Coffee Break: If you don’t know who Masai Uriji is, you should. He runs the Toronto Raptors and he was born in Nigeria, and is largely responsible for the resurgence of that franchise in the NBA. He also happens to be very much a part of trying to grow the game in Africa.

Snack Time: Planes get grounded for a lot of different reasons. But if you’re the dude who gets caught by his wife cheating to the point that they gotta land the plane? My guy, that’s not good.

Dessert: I can’t stop looking at these shoes.