Critics found so much to dislike about the Don Schlitz-Ken Ludwig musical The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which closes this Sunday at the Minskoff two weeks and three days after its opening, that one of the oddest aspects of the show received little attention: namely, "color-blind casting" that really pushed the envelope in terms of political correctness holding sway over historical accuracy.
Director Scott Ellis stressed the importance of racial inclusiveness in casting the show, apparently not having fully considered the repercussions of such an approach. Based on the classic novel of the same title by Mark Twain, the musical is set in Missouri in 1844, at the height of slavery in America. Yet Ellis and his colleagues saw fit to cast the African American actors Tommy Hollis and Tommar Wilson in the roles of, respectively, Reverend Sprague and Ben Rogers (one of Tom's young friends). Perhaps such casting was thought necessary in view of the fact that Injun Joe, the one Native American character in Tom Sawyer, happens to be the villain of the piece? (I've always wondered if the folks behind the revival of Kiss Me, Kate used this same reasoning in tapping Brian Stokes Mitchell for the lead in that show. It should go without saying that no theatrical company touring the United States in the 1940s would be headed by a black man playing opposite his white ex-wife; but Mitchell's presence allowed the revival to have black actors in the roles of a maid and a valet, as written--casting which might have otherwise been protested as stereotypical.)
This kind of thing becomes an issue whenever old shows are revived--or whenever writers choose to create new shows based on old source material. It's especially dicey in the case of Tom Sawyer which, during its brief run, marketed itself as a family-friendly musical. Can we assume that the parents and teachers who brought young children to see the show will make it crystal clear to them that the rainbow coalition depicted therein is a fantasy, and that black people in America in the 1840s were firmly denied the rights and privileges of white people? Will they point out that a black child would not have been allowed to play with Tom Sawyer as an equal? Will they note that the concept of an African American as the spiritual leader of a white community in the ante-bellum U.S. would never have entered anyone's mind--and would, in any case, have been prevented by law?
Finally: Will those adults insist that their charges actually read Twain's books about Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, both of which give far more accurate pictures of what life was like for black people in America 150 years ago? I fervently hope so...but why do I tend to doubt it?
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