Maybe you’ve seen Don Williams at WNBA games.
He’s the man grooving to whatever music the DJ is playing and recruiting other WNBA parents to do the same. He’s the unofficial mascot hyping the crowd from his courtside seat and, at times, an impromptu coach when his team is in a rut.
Most importantly, he’s the proud father of Connecticut Sun guard Courtney Williams, who has averaged 18.5 points per game during this playoff run. Whenever she scores, he holds an oversize cutout bearing his daughter’s face high above his head for all the crowd to see.
“He has definitely been this way always at all my games, doing the same thing,” Courtney Williams said. “But I love it. I feed off his energy when he’s over there clowning and jumping around and having a good time, then just telling me what I need to do and how I need to do it. It definitely keeps me going while I’m playing.”
Even after the Sun lost 94-81 to the Washington Mystics in Game 3 of the WNBA Finals to go down 2-1 in the series, Don and Courtney’s mother Michele were both in attendance to let their daughter know to keep her head up. That there’s another game to focus on, and they’ll be at that one too.
Lather, rinse, repeat.
Kobe Bryant analyzes the performance of Connecticut Sun floor general, Courtney Williams, during Game 3 of the WNBA Finals. Watch the full episode of “Detail” on ESPN+.
For Williams, her father’s energetic spirit and extra antics on the sidelines are nothing new. In the Williams household, that was just Dad being Dad.
It was something that always kept Williams going as she developed her passion for basketball, which started at an early age while she played with other kids in her mother’s recreational league. When Courtney was around 7 years old, her father noticed that her skills were above average. Participating in a league where boys and girls played against each other, Courtney was already beating the boys.
“She’d just dribble that ball,” he said. “Nobody could stop her from scoring. I said, ‘Uh-oh! I got me one!’ ”
From there, Williams spent more time learning the game and falling deeper in love with the sport.
“[Basketball] was our recreational sport,” Don Williams said. “And we ran all the time. We’d run, run, run. I knew the skills were going to come because she had all the genes. Me and her mama had skills. I had no doubt about that. I just had to program her confidence.
“Early on I just thought, What am I going to put inside her head. [My kids] love and respect Daddy. Whatever Daddy says, it’s what it is. So I needed to put in her head that she’s the baddest, she’s the best. Can’t nobody beat her at nothing. Whatever it was, track or basketball, she always had it locked in her head that can’t nobody mess with her or beat her.”
That piece of advice stuck.
“When I was younger, he said, ‘Always be cocky, but be able to back it up,’ ” Williams said. “He told me that when I was little. ‘Don’t let people fool you and tell you that being cocky is a bad thing. Just as long as you back it up, you can do what you want to.’ ”
It was an attitude Williams would carry throughout her career at Charlton County High School in Georgia, where she once scored 42 points in a single game, breaking the school record her mother had set 22 years beforehand. The skills also transferred to her collegiate career at the University of South Florida, where Williams became the only player in USF’s history to compile 2,000 points (2,304), 900 rebounds (931) and 300 assists (318).
When Williams returned home during breaks and holidays, though, Don Williams continued to challenge his daughter. Only this time, Williams was better, faster, stronger.
“We had about a 4-mile run around the neighborhood and I would outrun everybody,” Don Williams said. “I told [Courtney], when she beat me in that run, then she’d be ready. The last time we did it, her second year of college, she made me look bad. That’s when I knew she was ready.”
In 2016, Williams was selected eighth overall in the WNBA draft by the Phoenix Mercury before being traded to the Sun two months later. She remains the highest WNBA draft pick in USF program history.
Williams has been making waves with her energy during her four seasons in the league. The 25-year-old was the second-leading scorer on the Sun this season, averaging 13.2 points per game. She also averaged 5.6 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game.
On Tuesday night, the Sun will face the Mystics with their season on the line, but they can count on Don Williams grooving to some beats, waving a giant cutout high above his head and giving his daughter the confidence she needs.
Lather, rinse, repeat.
“I know there are a lot of people who don’t have their fathers in their lives,” Williams said, “but I’m blessed to have him and my mom both very present.”
Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton has been quite busy the past few months. While working to build on a strong rookie campaign, during which he averaged a double-double (16.3 points, 10.3 rebounds) and was named to the NBA’s All-Rookie first team, the 7-foot-1, 250-pound big man has shifted some of his focus off the court.
Ayton hails from the Bahamas, which was recently ravaged by Hurricane Dorian, a Category 5 storm that led to a reported death toll of 53 people (and counting), with more than 1,300 people still missing and an estimated $7 billion in damage to the home country of the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 NBA draft.
“Thank you to everyone for reaching out with their prayers and concern. It’s been a rough few days checking in on family and friends back home and thankfully everyone is OK,” Ayton, a native of Nassau, wrote on Instagram on Sept. 6, four days before Hurricane Dorian dissipated. “The damage back home is devastating and my heart goes out to my fellow Bahamians as we deal with the effects of Hurricane Dorian.”
In his Instagram post, Ayton pledged $100,000 to various relief efforts in the wake of the natural disaster and has since received support from the Suns, his teammates, local businesses, Arizona Cardinals wide receiver and future Hall of Famer Larry Fitzgerald, and now Puma.
In 2018, Ayton signed a multimillion-dollar endorsement deal as part of the German sportswear company’s return to basketball for the first time in nearly two decades. On Thursday, the brand released the Puma RS-X Deandre, Ayton’s own colorway of the 1980s-inspired silhouette. The lifestyle sneaker, which will be sold exclusively at Champs Sports for $120 a pair, marks Ayton’s first product collaboration with Puma and specifically pays homage to his native country in the design. Puma also announced that for each pair of the RS-X Deandre that is sold, the brand will donate $25 to assist relief efforts in the Bahamas.
Ahead of the shoe’s release, The Undefeated spoke with Ayton about what this moment means to him — and to the Bahamas.
How does it feel to have your first product collaboration with Puma, the RS-X Deandre?
Following Puma and wanting to be a part of Puma for a long time after growing up around the brand and wearing it at a young age, to now have my own personal shoe and design reflecting my signature style, it’s amazing. It’s a dream. It’s everything that somebody who’s in the business and industry would want. It’s a huge milestone.
How exactly did this opportunity come about?
Hard work. I worked my butt off, and with success comes individual accolades. This is one of the accolades that I accomplished.
What was the design process like, and how hands-on were you during it?
It started with the insoles. They’re like the beach. I love the beach, being from the Bahamas. The shoe also represents sand and a shore. Every time I’m in the Bahamas, I just feel free. No worry of nothing. And I have red in the shoe, which is my favorite color.
How do the colors incorporated into the design represent your home country?
There’s aqua blue, which is a part of the flag. That’s the only thing I really want to put in it to make it a magical shoe.
How important is it to you that for each pair of the shoe that’s sold, Puma will donate $25 to assist relief efforts in the Bahamas?
To have the support of a partner like Puma is awesome. I really appreciate everything they continue to do for me. This is just a huge step that they’re taking for me and my team to help out and do as much as we can for Hurricane Dorian relief.
How did you first hear about Hurricane Dorian, and what’s the past month been like for you?
My stepdad lives down there. He goes back and forth and was giving us updates about the weather and telling us to keep an eye on the hurricane. Growing up, we know what a hurricane is capable of. We know what the process of preparing for a hurricane. Sometimes the plan doesn’t go the way you want, unfortunately. So having flashbacks, it was just about sending prayers to all the families back home.
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Thank you to everyone for reaching out with their prayers and concern. It's been a rough few days checking in on family and friends back home and thankfully everyone is ok. The damage back home is devastating and my heart goes out to my fellow Bahamians as we deal with the effects of Hurricane Dorian. My family and I have been working to determine how best to support now and going forward. We’ll be pledging $100K toward various relief efforts while we continue to work through long term support with the NBA Family and my partners. We are also asking Suns fans and those in the Phoenix area to please join us Tuesday, September 10th where we'll be working with the Suns to collect much needed supplies and donations. More details to come on time and location ASAP. Please give as much or as little as you can. Items to be collected: Toiletries, diapers, baby wipes, first aid kits, cleaning supplies, canned goods, box fans, leather work gloves, hand sanitizer, non-perishable food, water, generators (no clothes) and monetary donations. More info to come for those who can’t come out locally but wish to support. Thank you and blessing
A post shared by Deandre Ayton (@deandreayton) on Sep 6, 2019 at 12:05pm PDT
What specific memories do you have experiencing hurricanes while growing up in the Bahamas?
I definitely remember Hurricane Katrina. I remember my favorite tamarind tree going down in front of my eyes, and I was singing, ‘Rain, rain, go away’ with my little sister, looking outside the window. I’ve seen the rooftops of certain houses blown off, and certain objects flying in the air while the storm is going. It’s pretty wild. You see trees bending so far until they’re ready to snap. It’s a lot.
What type of support have you received from the NBA following the hurricane?
Last night, my coach, Monty Williams, donated $5,000 to UNICEF’s Hurricane Dorian relief efforts. We did a collab with Ocean 44 [restaurant]. The Suns set that up and got a dinner done. People donated about $47,000 that night, which was a huge blessing. I didn’t know it was going to be that much. To be honest, I didn’t know that many people were gonna come out. It was big. I was speechless seeing the results. And Fry’s Food Stores helped me collect and donate goods. The Valley is really supportive, and I’m just glad to have fans like this have my back.
Have any specific players helped you provide relief?
Kelly Oubre Jr. …. He’s doing a Valley Boyz [clothing line] pop-up shop here in Phoenix, and everything is going to Dorian relief. That’s something big. He surprised me with that one. He didn’t tell me. It gave me goose bumps to see how much love people have for me.
Do you plan on returning to the Bahamas?
Of course I would love to go back. But right now, I’m just focused on the season and doing what I can from here.
Looking back to last year, what made you sign with Puma when you entered the NBA?
Everybody knew what Puma was back home. And me, I wanted to be different. I grew up playing in AAU circuits like the Nike EYBL, and I knew who the superstars were with certain shoe companies. But I just wanted to be different. I wanted to go my own way and try to be the top dog of Puma hoops.
What was your first-ever pair of Pumas?
I can’t remember exactly … but the person who inspired me was Usain Bolt, watching him on TV representing Puma. I think that’s mainly how I got into it. I fell in love from there.
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This man right here has inspired me my whole life. Not only to meet him, but to give him the very first pair of my new lifestyle shoe is a moment i’ll never forget. Shoutout to @puma & @pumahoops for making memories
A post shared by Deandre Ayton (@deandreayton) on Aug 30, 2019 at 11:00am PDT
On Instagram, you posted a photo of you giving Usain Bolt a pair of your Pumas — what was that moment like?
You gotta ask me if I was even speaking English when I was talking to him. I was so nervous. I just told him how much he inspired me in terms of collaborating with Puma, and how much of an inspiration he is in terms of his work ethic and how he represents his country from the heart. Everything he does is from the heart, even how athletic and versatile he is.
How big is he in the Caribbean?
You might as well call him the president of the Caribbean. But he’s global. I think he’s like that everywhere he goes, to be honest.
What can the NBA expect from Deandre Ayton in year two?
Improvement. I’ve been in the lab. I can say this, I’ve never been in the gym so much my whole life.
What’s the most notable improvement you’ve made to your game?
Definitely the 3-ball. I’ve worked on it a lot, as well as bringing the ball up and handling the ball around the perimeter. I’m just really trying to take over every possession. Overall, being more dominant every game.
What’s it going to be like walking into Talking Stick Resort Arena this season in your own Pumas?
Man, they just better take a picture. I don’t care what I’m wearing … just take a picture of my feet and I’m good. I’ll just post that. … That’ll be my postgame pic.
Do you think your fellow Bahamians will like the Puma RS-X Deandre?
Most definitely! I didn’t show our flag too much, but I put our aqua blue in there and I put our beaches in there. Nice, clear blue ocean, nice sand. … They better like it!
On Sunday, Fox will air the 71st Primetime Emmy Awards show at 8 p.m. EDT. But the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences’ credibility as an arbiter of excellence will face justified skepticism because Beyoncé went 0-for-6 at the Creative Arts Emmys last week.
She was nominated for her work on Homecoming, a documentary that captured her performance as the first black woman to headline the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. And just as it was with 2016’s Lemonade, her previous visual album, America’s greatest living pop performer was royally snubbed.
For insight on how that snub might have been received, we can look to the self-titled album released at the end of 2013, which was accompanied not just with music videos but also documentary snippets that explained her mindset. One was about losing, and why she chose footage from her first professional loss — her childhood group, Girls Tyme, losing Star Search — to precede the grimiest, most boastful song on the album, “***Flawless.”
“I was only 9 years old, so at that time, you don’t actually realize that you could work superhard, and give everything you have, and lose. It was the best message for me,” Beyoncé explained. “When I put Ed McMahon introducing us as the ‘hip-hop-rapping Girls Tyme,’ it clicked something in my mind. I feel like something about the aggression of ‘Bow Down’ and the attitude of ‘***Flawless,’ — the reality is, sometimes you lose. And you’re never too good to lose and you’re never too big to lose. You’re never too smart to lose. It happens. And it happens when it needs to happen.”
The pop star’s shutout at the 2019 Creative Arts Emmys didn’t need to happen, but it did. And it’s completely reasonable that her team is having trouble embracing the outcome.
Beyoncé’s Netflix concert film Homecoming was nominated for six Emmys: outstanding directing for a variety special; outstanding variety special (prerecorded); outstanding costumes for variety, nonfiction or reality programming; outstanding music direction; outstanding production design for a variety special; and outstanding writing for a variety special.
Here’s what won:
- Directing — Springsteen on Broadway
- Variety special (prerecorded) — Carpool Karaoke: When Corden Met McCartney Live From Liverpool
- Costumes — RuPaul’s Drag Race
- Music direction — Fosse/Verdon
- Production design — Rent
- Writing — Hannah Gadsby: Nanette
The television academy’s decisions for music direction and variety special strike me as, at best, misinformed and, at worst, insulting. To understand why, let’s take a deeper look into what made Homecoming excellent, first with musical direction and then the show.
In crafting the musical arrangements for Homecoming, Beyoncé and music director Derek Dixie did something incredibly ambitious, something that requires an encyclopedic knowledge of black music and a broad imagination and acuity for music theory.
What dominates Homecoming is a sustained nod to New Orleans. It extends past the tracks that originated on Lemonade, an exploration of Beyoncé’s Creole heritage. Dixie and Beyoncé didn’t just adapt her music for a marching band; they conducted a sonic archaeological dig and placed her within a continuum of black music. The orchestrations are reminiscent of the approach to pop music at Motown. Queen Bey’s hits benefit from the use of modern technology, which allows artists to take advantage of infinite possibilities. But they’re also written in a way that comes alive with a live band, an indication of top-notch songwriting and inspired orchestration.
See: the Homecoming arrangement of “Deja Vu,” which, after the first few measures of its bassline, drives into the song with horns that take a little from the funk of B.T. Express’ “Do It (T’il You’re Satisfied),” which is sampled on “Deja Vu,” and mixes it with strings more associated with Philadelphia soul.
Ambitious ideas are one thing. Execution is another. And there is evidence that Beyoncé’s famously high standards were present in the show. The horn runs on “Say My Name,” for example, are exquisite — a blizzard of notes, played not by one person but a group. The greater the number of musicians attempting to play the same run in unison, the greater the likelihood that the sound will become muddied, which is why a classic choice for trumpet section battles at football games is “Flight of the Bumblebee.”
On “Say My Name,” those runs are clean, tight and distinguishable. But they are part of a bigger sonic and visual machine. Besides the horn runs, there are the vocal harmonies from Beyoncé and her Destiny’s Child mates, Kelly Rowland and Michelle Williams. Then add the percussive beats, separate from the drum line, that come from the steppers.
Everything has to happen in unison and is being performed in large part by college students. To attempt to do the whole thing not once but twice, and then stitch both performances together in postproduction, is, in a word, crazy.
When Beyoncé offers an assessment of the students’ abilities during an interlude, she’s not being hyperbolic. “The amount of swag is just limitless,” she says. “The things that these young people can do with their bodies and the music they can play and the drum rolls and haircuts and the bodies — it’s just not right. It’s just so much damn swag.”
Then there are the screaming trumpets that are integral to the sound of a historically black college or university (HBCU) band. If you’re listening to the Homecoming album, you can hear them in full force at about 1:37 into the first track, “Welcome,” and again in the last 40 or so seconds. Hitting those notes requires a skilled level of musicianship. Being able to hit them again and again over the course of a two-hour set, as Homecoming calls for, is harder because horn players have to retain their chops, or their embouchure, so that their facial muscles aren’t giving out before the performance is over.
These challenges are different from those faced by the music department of Fosse/Verdon, led by Alex Lacamoire, which won the Emmy for the first episode of the seven-part miniseries. Fosse/Verdon is about the personal and professional lives of dancer and actor Gwen Verdon and her creative and romantic partner director and choreographer Bob Fosse.
Lacamoire was charged with an assignment that was almost the reverse of what Dixie and Beyoncé were doing. He had to take highly recognizable songs across several different musicals, written by different composers, and aurally unify them, creating a soundtrack that feels like it’s a collection of songs from one musical called Fosse/Verdon.
Even though “Big Spender” is from Sweet Charity, and written by Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields, and “Mein Herr” is a number from Cabaret, written by John Kander and Fred Ebb, Lacamoire’s arrangements make them sound like they belong in the same television show. In Lacamoire’s case, the artists unifying the collection are a dancer and a director, not a leading vocalist. The Music of Fosse/Verdon is from a variety of artists, from The Fandango Girls to Alysha Umphress to Bianca Marroquín. Creating and shaping that thematic continuity is not an easy feat.
Still, the recording sessions for Fosse/Verdon didn’t have to take place during a live concert in which the musicians are also performing choreography for two hours — without sheet music. The songs of Fosse/Verdon, which included “Cabaret,” “All That Jazz” and “We Both Reached for the Gun,” were originally written for musical theater. That doesn’t mean they aren’t difficult to play, but they were composed with the intention that a live orchestra would do so for eight shows a week on Broadway.
Listen to the Fosse/Verdon version of “All That Jazz,” the opening number of Chicago and one of the most iconic songs in musical theater history:
Sometimes songwriters will torture Broadway musicians with arrangements that test the limits of human endurance, but it’s usually vocalists who suffer. That’s what happened to Audra McDonald when she did Porgy and Bess on Broadway. Her teacher’s assistant at Juilliard described the role as “difficult” and a “voice-killer” because of the range it demanded and the frequency of the performances. In a 2012 Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross, McDonald spoke about the arduous task of singing “What You Want With Bess” eight times a week.
When Beyoncé took the stage in April 2018 at Coachella, the festival livestreamed the performance. In real time, the singer’s contemporaries marveled at what she’d accomplished.
“How. in. The. Fuh. Did. She. Pull. That. Shiii. OFF!!!!??? It’s like 170 musicians onstage,” tweeted Questlove. “I mean the stage plotting. The patch chords. How many monitor boards were used??! Bandleading that s— woulda gave me anxiety. Hats off man. Jesus H Christ.”
If Questlove, who is about as experienced and virtuosic a bandleader as a person can be, declares that the job would have given him anxiety, that’s a good indication that what’s taking place onstage is extraordinary.
So why didn’t the television academy see it that way?
“It’s got everything to do with the voting membership, which skews much older, whiter, and more male than the industry or audience,” tweeted actor Rebecca Metz, who plays Tressa on the FX show Better Things. “The awards reflect their taste and viewing habits. I’m on a mission to recruit young, diverse members for this very reason.”
Let’s turn to the broader picture: What makes Homecoming uniquely great television? What Beyoncé accomplished in two performances at Coachella and with the Homecoming documentary is like a Broadway show. There’s singing, there’s dancing and there’s a story. Remember, the Emmy is not for the live performance itself but for the documentary. We’re asking specific questions here: How do Homecoming and Carpool Karaoke, which won the Emmy, function as pieces of television? What do they offer visually? What role does the music play in the delivery of a larger narrative?
Again, Beyoncé is operating in a space that’s not dissimilar from her competition. Corden, before becoming a late-night host, was an actor. He sings and dances, as evidenced by his stints hosting the Tony Awards. Both Corden and Beyoncé are invested in a type of musical theatricality. Corden is just more self-effacing about it.
“Carpool Karaoke,” Corden’s running gag on The Late Late Show, is reliably great. Corden has a magical capacity for disarming his guests. He offers a fun, anodyne form of celebrity schmoozing that isn’t weighted with self-serious pretension. It’s viral internet gold: Corden drives around with popular musical artists, sings their songs with them, and the whole thing is recorded. Past participants include rappers Migos, singer Adele and even then-first lady Michelle Obama, who rode with artist Missy Elliott.
Look at the episode of Carpool Karaoke that won the Emmy for best variety special (prerecorded) over Homecoming, in which Corden sings with Paul McCartney while driving around the Beatles’ hometown of Liverpool, England.
There’s some editing that takes place when Corden and McCartney are singing the “beep beep beep beeps” of “Drive My Car.” Clearly the show was able to get McCartney to do the bit at least twice, once in the passenger seat and then once as the driver, with both edited together.
Beyoncé does something similar in Homecoming, but she takes it to the extremes we have come to expect but perhaps do not appreciate. Homecoming editors Alexander Hammer and Andrew Morrow are responsible for a great cut that takes place about 6 minutes and 15 seconds into Homecoming, when the band, dancers and steppers are transitioning from “Crazy in Love” to Juvenile’s “Back That Azz Up.” First, the band is facing the cameras dressed in yellow. When Juvenile says, “Drop it,” the band members turn. Their backs are to the crowd, and everyone is in candy pink — which was the color of the uniforms for the second Coachella performance. The two were cut together, and the effect is almost supernatural. For that tiny bit of visual trickery to work, all 151 performers had to hit their marks at the same time, in the exact spots, for both performances, doing JaQuel Knight’s choreography.
That’s not for the Coachella audience — that’s just for television.
By the way, that choreography is informed by the history of New Orleans. While it’s identified in modern parlance as twerking, the moves go back to the days of segregated New Orleans, when black dancers performed in the city’s nightclubs that lined Rampart Street, such as the Dew Drop Inn and the Tick Tock Tavern. They performed something called “shake dancing,” one of the many descendants of the mixed-race social dance that took place at events known as quadrilles, held in 19th-century New Orleans ballrooms.
Shake dancing, as LaKisha Simmons explains in Crescent City Girls: The Lives of Young Black Women in Segregated New Orleans, was not just an illicit thrill. It was a rejection of respectability politics and of arbitrary definitions of propriety. It represented creativity and sexual freedom, two of the themes that pervade Beyoncé’s oeuvre. But it wasn’t seen in such generous terms by white writers documenting the culture of Rampart Street, or well-to-do blacks who avoided it. So putting the dance moves of these women onstage at Coachella and setting them off with sequins, discipline and precision becomes a way of honoring them and their labor.
In executing her Coachella set, Beyoncé elevated to an enormous stage an aspect of American culture that tends to be overlooked and misunderstood: the role of HBCUs in shaping pop culture. She used the marching band in Homecoming as both a bridge and a framing device to show how her own sound fits into the broader narrative of the African diaspora. She repeatedly demonstrated how the mélange of cultures in Louisiana, from the French whites to Afro-Caribbean residents to enslaved and free African Americans, influenced American culture.
“At least two centuries had passed since those unnamed slaves Thomas Nicholls observed had helped their mistresses in and out of their shoes, so that the white ladies could learn routines increasingly redolent of Africa, perhaps while their servants snuck away to try out some French steps of their own,” NPR music critic Ann Powers wrote in her 2017 book Good Booty: Love and Sex, Black & White, Body and Soul in American Music, making the connection between New Orleans quadrille balls and Beyoncé’s decision to appear in the music video for “Formation” as both a quadroon and a bounce dancer. “In that long span, countless dances had been danced, many identities blended and forced apart. The taboo baby had grown up and become a matriarch.”
Beyoncé was able to seamlessly and coherently weave together the words and cultural contributions of Nina Simone, James Weldon Johnson, Toni Morrison and others with contemporary figures such as Lil Yachty, Fast Life Yungstaz, Sister Nancy and O.T. Genasis. She pulled from the go-go sounds of Washington, D.C., the horn-heavy jazz of New Orleans, J Balvin’s “Mi Gente,” OutKast’s “SpottieOttieDopaliscious” and the music of her own husband, just to name a few, within an epic recounting of her 25-year repertoire. It was all valid, all valuable, all part of a vast quilt of what it means to be black, to be a woman, what it means to be American, to be human. And she was the vessel embodying all of it, from the militant self-love of Malcolm X to the regality of Nefertiti.
In that way, the work is euphoric, forward-looking and optimistic, even as it’s held together by the glue of the past.
The shows in which Verdon danced and Fosse directed and choreographed are in no danger of being overlooked. Chicago is the longest-running American musical in Broadway history. Certainly the legacy of the Beatles has been well-appreciated. These artists have been beatified with awards and decades of recognition.
But the musical and dance tradition that informs so much of American pop music, beyond Beyoncé’s, isn’t regarded with the same reverence for its innovation, its influence, its history. Instead, it remains marginalized as part of the African American story rather than the American story.
What a shame that American institutions such as the television academy still bypass recognition of the epic historical record and scholarship embedded within Beyoncé’s music because it is easier to see it in work that’s long been regarded as classic. This time it is they who have lost, not she.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.