Ain’t Too Proud to Sing: Claiming Black Space on the Great White Way

Doreen Oliver
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Two days ago, the Broadway show Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations was nominated for 12 Tony Awards. For those who don’t follow the Great White Way, this is big. Big! For those of you who do, you know that this grand spotlight means industry insiders, Tony voters and wealthy retirees from Ohio—suffice to say, mostly white people—will be clamoring to see this play between now and night of the Tonys, June 9.

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This is fantastic for the predominantly African-American show but gave me pause as I thought about black audiences. I’ll tell you why.

Last month, I took my mother to see Ain’t Too Proud for her birthday. It was a surprise. I’d seen it before, and I know what a 75-year old black woman from Newark, N.J., would like. She’d love it. LOVE IT. I mean, it’s got black music, black performers, incredible dancing and soul music from her youth. Plus, it’s brilliantly written by a black woman. When it comes to my love for singing and dancing, let’s just say, I get it from my mama. So, no brainer right?

Deep into the first act, my mother is into it, quietly at first, taking it all in. But about 20 minutes before intermission, during either “If You Don’t Know Me By Now,” or “For Once In My Life,” my mother is doing what black folks do at a black musical featuring black people singing songs written by and for other black people: she sang along.

And then from two rows in front of me, a balding white man turns towards my mother with the force of the tornado that blew Dorothy’s house to Oz, and says, “SHUSH!”

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Wait. What?!

My mother elbowed me like, “Did you hear that?” and the black and Latinx folks directly in front of us looked at each other and giggled like, the Caucasity! But all of those things were slightly muted to me because there was a steam engine of anger barreling through my brain, from one ear to the other.

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This man shushed my mama?

It was a good thing I had seen the play before because from then until intermission, I was blind to whatever was going on on that stage. If you’d asked me if the Temps had a number one hit during the first act, I had no idea. If you’d asked me if David Ruffin was kicked out the group, I couldn’t tell you. If you’d asked me if I was in NYC or Kathmandu, I wouldn’t know. This man had gotten my gall that much. And it reminded me of the first time I saw Hamilton.

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A couple of months after Hamilton premiered on Broadway, I was lucky enough to see it while sitting about fourth-row center. I sat next to my friend on one side and a balding white gentleman on the other. His back was so straight I thought he was preparing for takeoff.

At that time, I wasn’t familiar with the Hamilton soundtrack, so when I heard a lyric that was clearly a reference to a Busta Rhymes track, I was like, “Heeeeyyy!” audibly and physically. This erect, ascot-wearing man turned and looked at me with such disdain, he shushed me with his sneer.

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Now the reason I was in the fourth-row center was because I was a guest of a friend who had a professional relationship with the musical. And during that early portion of the run, only high profile folks could get tickets (Exhibit A: Jerry Seinfeld was in our row). So despite all the things that I wanted to say, I kept my mouth shut so my friend wouldn’t have any issues. But really, this was a musical featuring hip-hop music with black and brown actors performing to a mostly white audience, and *I* was wrong because I could engage with the various layers this brilliant show operated on? In my head I was screaming, “You don’t even know what you don’t know!” But I remained quiet.

But not this night. Not when it was my mama.

When intermission hit, I told my mother I was going to talk to that man. She grabbed my wrist, the kind of tight grab folks do when they know that you’re going to do something that might a) land you in jail, b) make someone cry, or c) all of the above. Plus, my mother is all about good home-training. If I were a kid, the “grab” would’ve been more like a “snatch,” but now that I’m fully-grown and she uses a cane, it was the best she could do. “Don’t worry,” I told her, those famous last words of placation and self-destruction.

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My mother had raised me well, giving me exposure to all kinds of people, cultures, and classes, so when I went over to that man’s row and leaned over to talk to him, I was a blend of everything I’ve ever learned, nature and nurture. My tone was the person I am today: Newark and Yale, Pantene and Pink Hair Lotion, pork rinds and Pimm’s. I’m not either/or. I’m bouf.

“Was that you who ‘shushed’ earlier?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said, open and pleasant, as if he thought I was going to thank him for lending a hand to the larger, “well-trained” theater-going community.

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“Please don’t shush my mother again. This is a musical about black music from her era and it’s inevitable that someone will sing. I just wanted to let you know that it was not kind what you did and if you shush her again, I’m going to sing along with her.”

“Well,” he said, “I didn’t pay money to hear your mother sing.”

Oh, Black Jesus, help me. Was that a snub about my mama? Yes, I wrote and performed an entire play about my life where my mother was the antagonist (which she loved, by the way), but you sir, cannot say nary a word that could be perceived as a slight. And clearly, he didn’t understand black entertainment. I mean, when Us came out, I told my husband, “OMG, we gotta go see it in Newark!” knowing that would be a whole ‘nother theatrical production on top of what we’d see on the screen, with lines of ad-libbed dialogue shouted out from the first moment to the last. But then I remembered it was opening weekend and I don’t like horror movies as it is, and I’ve lived too long in the suburbs to deal with all that extra drama, so we saw it in my sleepy, tree-lined town.

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Point being, I knew I had to respect the house and culture I would have entered into.

But not this man. This man reminded me of the folks who came into Bed-Stuy and then filed a noise complaint when long-standing residents got Lupe Fiasco playing at 11 p.m. on a Thursday. Or that time we lived on the black/Caribbean side of Crown Heights and gentrifiers were appalled by the late, festive nights of the West Indian Day Parade. Now some might say we’ve entered a Broadway theater so we have to respect those norms. I am pretty sure that the creators of the musical—and the folks who invested in it—would want black folk to come and sing along and spread the word to other ticket-buying folks that this is a show exciting enough to sing and dance along to. So I had to tell him something.

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And so I said, “Let me tell you something—” still Head Start and Stanford, Biggie and Bach, cornbread and quinoa. “When you entered this theater, you entered into black culture. It’s in the music and the story and it’s a part of the entire experience. People will sing along. It’s what we do. And if you wanted a quiet theater, you should’ve seen My Fair Lady.”

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When I went back to my seat, my mother asked, “What did you say to him?” She wasn’t that worried because I wasn’t in jail and nobody was crying.

And I told her. And she laughed and laughed. Because despite her concern about good home training, she loves a good read, especially one in her honor.

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And she sang and pumped her arms to the beat during the second half of the show. I didn’t even have to sing along.

I encourage our folks to go see Ain’t Too Proud and all of the brilliant plays and musicals featuring black narratives and performances. Don’t be skeered to sing, shout, and say “Amen,” if you need to. It might be a house of theater, but when our stories are being told, it’s our house, too.

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Doreen Oliver is a writer, performer, and former film producer whose award-winning one-woman show, EVERYTHING IS FINE UNTIL IT’S NOT, broke a record for the fastest-selling production in N.Y. International Fringe Festival’s 20-year history. Her essays have been published in the New York Times and Washington Post, and she’s currently working on a memoir and tour. Check her out at www.doreenoliver.com or on Twitter.

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