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Originally published February 20, 2012 at 8:10 PM | Page modified February 20, 2012 at 11:53 PM

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'Oklahoma' seen in a new light

The response to this production of "Oklahoma!" has moved Executive Producer and Artistic Director David Armstrong to schedule a series of panel discussions.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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"Dancing, singing, sets," Dolores Murphy said as she settled in for the Saturday matinee of the 5th Avenue Theatre's "Oklahoma!"

"I'm in heaven."

Oh, but this "Oklahoma!" is not just cowpokes and petticoats, beautiful mornings and a girl who cain't say no.

The casting of the African-American actor Kyle Scatliffe as antagonist Jud Fry has turned this production into a debate over race, creative license, and how far we've really come since the corn grew high as an elephant's eye.

The response to this production of "Oklahoma!" has moved Executive Producer and Artistic Director David Armstrong to schedule a series of panel discussions that kicked off this past weekend and will be held after the 2 p.m. matinee on Saturday, the 1:30 p.m. matinee on Sunday and at 7 p.m. on March 5 at the theater.

Casting "colorblind" is nothing new for the 5th. I have seen an Asian-American Cinderella and an interracial couple as her prince's parents. I always notice the change from what I remember, but then I'm usually swept away by song and story and talent. As it should be.

But this production has some audience members squirming in their seats. Not only are they struggling with their memories of, and expectations for the Rodgers & Hammerstein classic, they're seeing on stage one of the ugliest stereotypes in our history: an imposing black man ravaging a petite white woman.

There is also a scene in which the white hero, a cowpoke named Curly, all but urges Jud to hang himself — and even pantomimes the act. Some see a clear reference to lynching.

But the most provocative scene, Armstrong acknowledged, is the "Dream Ballet," in which the female lead, Laurey, falls asleep, and conjures up a malevolent overtaking by Jud.

The dance is bathed in purple and blue lights — the antithesis of the bright, golden haze that opened the show. Laurey tries to fight Jud off while cowpokes and cabaret girls thrust their hips and ply her with booze until Jud finally drags her off through the smoke.

"Wow," I heard Murphy say in the row behind me as the lights came up for intermission. Her daughter, Nora, said she wanted to cover her mother's eyes and take out her hearing aid.

The Dream Ballet has always been a disturbing scene. In fact, original choreographer Agnes de Mille defended it by saying that young girls dream "dirty dreams."

In choreographer Donald Byrd's hands, the ballet is drawn out and seems more sexual and sinister. He's built a reputation for "political-psycho-sexual dance," according to the program, which should serve as a warning.

After the show, about 100 audience members moved to the front of the theater, where Armstrong was joined by Byrd and Scatliffe.

One man cut to the chase and asked of Scatliffe's casting: "Why'd you do it?"

Byrd said he researched the Oklahoma of 1907, the year in which the musical is based and noted the role of African Americans in that society. He wanted an African-American presence on the stage.

"That contributed to the casting," said Byrd, who is African American. "But it does bring up the issue of race, and we can't ignore the fact that it occurs to us."

Well, it's more than just race. It's violence: white on black, with the lynching allusion; and black on white, with Jud's pursuit of Laurey.

And there is likely some license taken when an African-American farmhand is allowed to escort a white woman to the box dance, as Jud does in the play.

Armstrong meant the casting to be colorblind, and at most, that people would see it as "bold" or "interesting." He did not imagine a Facebook page filled with enough comments to prompt these post-performance talks.

"I had no idea that we would get this kind of reaction," Armstrong said. "I saw (Scatliffe) as an actor."

Maybe he gave us too much credit.

Said Scatliffe, "I'm just as shocked as everyone else."

Clearly, it was too much for those who expected the stuff of the very vanilla 1955 film and countless high-school and community productions.

"I want to be entertained," one man said of Scatliffe's casting. "I didn't come here for a message."

But the 5th didn't change a thing, Armstrong said. Just the color of one main character's face.

This is the same "Oklahoma!" that debuted in 1943, he said. Not a word was changed in the songs or the script.

"People are coming to see an 'Oklahoma!' that 'Oklahoma!' never was."

Maybe some people weren't ready for that, and left with not so much a song in their head, but a question in their heart.

And isn't that part of what theater is supposed to do?

Nicole Brodeur's column appears Tuesday and Friday. Reach her at 206-464-2334 or nbrodeur@seattletimes.com.

Nellie Forbush. Fifth grade.

Killed it.

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About Nicole Brodeur

My column is more a conversation with readers than a spouting of my own views. I like to think that, in writing, I lay down a bridge between readers and me. It is as much their space as mine. And it is a place to tell the stories that, otherwise, may not get into the paper.
nbrodeur@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2334

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