Monday, June 18, 2007

Touched by an Angel, but not in a good way

Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens...how does the rest of that go? Oh, but nevermind. Can I tell you about one of my least favorite things?

So, I wasn't going to write anything about The Second Tosca. And I'm sort of still not, except tangentially, because both reviews I've read commented enthusiastically on the performance of two-time Tony nominee Vivian Reed as a larger than life diva-in-decline. I did enjoy this, in a way. She did 100% of what the script asked her to do. Thing is, and I'm not casting aspersions on the play as a whole, which was funny and well-paced...but when do we get to retire the archetype of the Black Woman Who Will Tell It To You Straight? And then maybe slam a door. It's sort of the verso of the very funny Mad T.V. sketch you may have seen floating around on youtube mocking the yearly ritual of an execrable movie about a Nice White Lady who teaches the kids at an inner city school not only to write/dance/juggle/play canasta, but [gulp, gulp, gulp, taking my anti-emetic] to LIVE.

I know this is a play in which everyone is to some extent a type. But this particular type is a wearying fetish, embarassing for everyone on either end of the equation, particularly when coupled in a sort of hybrid with The Sassy Black Woman Who Always Gets The Last Word (Oh No She Di-glottal stop-unt! Sass-amplifying Finger Wag!) The only opportunity they missed was having her cook for the whole family and dispense earthy wisdom. Even the horny, catty, gay character felt less problematic, maybe because he had a bit more of a story in him. It's not lost on me that a white guy critiquing portrayals of black characters is an iffy enterprise, by the way. Anyway, um, it was a pleasure to see a play about opera, and Rachel de Benedet was terrific, and I think I meant this to be about a sentence long but this medium-deeply pisses me off. Do I need to just take a fucking valium, or does this bug anyone else a lot?

4 comments:

Chalkenteros said...

Somewhat relevant here is a number from the now-closed "Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me", reviewed by Ben Brantley in the NY Times on Aug. 18, 2006:

Even though Mr. Short has been tireless, morphing into the most famous alter-egos of his television career (the ├╝bernerd Ed Grimley, the talk-show host Jiminy Glick et al.), the show has not sustained the momentum it needs to soar.

Enter one dea ex machina, named Capathia Jenkins. Broad of beam, with an even larger voice, Ms. Jenkins is also African-American, which would normally be beside the point. But as she says while she hustles Mr. Short (now in the guise of a geriatric songwriter) out of a sketch set in heaven, her race is a crucial part of the showbiz package she represents. She sings her explanation with rafter-rattling gusto:

If your plot’s running thin

And the ticket sales are slow

Let a big black lady stop the show.

The song, called “Stop the Show,” goes on ruthlessly to dissect an overexploited entertainment stereotype, a variation of which is found frequently, amid increasing controversy, on television commercials. (Ms. Jenkins wonders why songs for this stereotype, whether gospel or blues, are usually written by “gay white Jews.”) The inclusion of this number is all the gutsier when you realize that just such a show-stopper is used more than once in “Hairspray” (the popular Wittman-Shaiman musical) and was desperately trotted out in “The Goodbye Girl,” the notorious 1993 flop that starred Mr. Short.

But something strange happens as Ms. Jenkins keeps pumping up the volume. The audience, having first laughed a little uncertainly at the joke, starts to revel in the gospel beat, clapping along and bobbing its collective head. Sure enough, “Stop the Show,” alone among the production’s 20-some numbers, stops the show.

Talk about having your red velvet cake and eating it too. “Stop the Show” is the most successful embodiment of the contradictory desires to soothe and sting that propel “Fame Becomes Me.” As befits the comic persona of Mr. Short, who always seemed like the friendliest of the “Saturday Night Live” alumni who made it big, it’s the urge to ingratiate that wins out. “Fame Becomes Me” longs to appeal on so many levels that it winds up twisting itself into a pretzel: the soft kind, sold at malls, that practically melts in your mouth.


For the whole article click here.

ch. r. said...

It's a variation on the "Magical Negro."

ch. r.

Maury D'annato said...

Good point, ch. r. I hadn't thought of that. Magical negress, indeed.

ch. r. said...

And no. It's not just you. And there's nothing wrong with saying so either.

ch. r.