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Of Jets, Sharks, Jews and ‘Niggers’BY: Dan Rottenberg 05.01.2012
The use of word “Niggers” in the original Show Boat was deemed so harsh that it had to be softened. Ditto now for “Jews” in Bach’s St. John Passion. Yet sometimes a slap in the face makes you sit up and pay attention.
Of ‘Jews’ and ‘Niggers’
The opening song in Show Boat is still devastating today to those of us who aren’t inured to the horror of American race relations, and it was surely more shocking when the Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein landmark musical opened in 1927. Along a levee at Natchez, Mississippi, about 1890, two choruses sing in apposition to each other: on the one hand, the white swells and their coquettish ladies, who have nothing to do but flirt with each other and await the arrival of the showboat, Cotton Blossom; on the other, the black stevedores and their women, sullenly loading cotton bales on the wharf.
The show’s very first lines, sung by the black chorus as the curtain opened, established clearly that Show Boat was no frilly entertainment but a serious work about the gulf between the races:
Niggers all work on de Mississippi,
Yet in subsequent productions, the use of “Niggers” was deemed excessively harsh for a Broadway audience, and so “Niggers all work” was softened to “Colored folk work” or “Darkies all work” or even “Here we all work” or even omitted altogether. Show Boat became a musical you could enjoy without losing much sleep afterward.
Not until 1988 was the original lyric restored (and only then occasionally)— with the result that some singers in the black chorus said they had never before appreciated the anger with which the song was meant to be sung.
These thoughts occurred to me as I read the colloquy between Kile Smith and Thomas Lloyd about the use of “Jews” in Bach’s St. John Passion in our Letters section. Lloyd, director of choral and vocal studies at Haverford College, observes that words can take on different connotations over time. The use of the word “Jew” in the Gospel of St. John had no anti-Semitic connotation at a time when just about everyone involved (including the author and his audience) was Jewish. But of course today it does.
That being the case, Lloyd suggests, he customarily changes the word “Jews” to “people” when the author’s clear intention is to refer to “all those present.” This is surely a valid approach, especially for audiences brought up to think of Jews as Christ-killers. On the other hand, sometimes it takes a slap in the face from a harsh word— “Niggers,” say, or “Jews”— to make you sit up and pay attention.
Bernstein’s generic Jets
Think, for a moment, about the two contending gangs in Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story. The Sharks are clearly Puerto Rican. The Jets, on the other hand, are a generic white group; the closest we get to an ethnic identification is Tony’s passing remark that his name is “Anton” in Polish.
As someone who grew up on New York’s Upper West Side at the very time West Side Story opened, I can testify that almost no Poles lived in that neighborhood (almost no blacks, either, other than my neighbors Harry Belafonte and Lena Horne). In my elementary school, P.S. 9— alma mater of such luminaries as Susan Strasberg, Suzanne Pleshette, Ed Rendell and Marvin Hamlisch— I had just one white Protestant classmate. Virtually the entire West Side in the 1950s was populated by four ethnic groups: Jews, Irish, Puerto Ricans and Italians.
Any member of these groups who saw West Side Story might have gone home feeling bad about how Puerto Ricans were treated. But none of them would have felt responsible for the problem.
But suppose the Jets were presented in West Side Story as specifically Irish, or Italian, or Jewish (yes, there actually was a Jewish gang in my neighborhood, led by a fellow named Bernie Bernstein). Do you get my drift?♦
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