Controversial Musical is Biggest Outlet for Black Actors in U.S. Stage History
by Helen H. King
Ebony Magazine - May 1970

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The biggest Theatrical success of modern times (first year gross some $18 million) and unquestioningly the biggest outlet for black actors in the history of American theater is Hair, a free-for-all musical about peace, pot, freedom, and love.  An outgrowth of the youth revolt which, in turn was triggered by the Black Revolution, Hair represents a break with stage tradition in that it is theater for, by and about the young.

It is an obscene and yet serene parade of shaggey-headed black and white people, coming, going, sometimes angry, sometimes sweet, sometimes bitterly truthful.  Singing really good songs like "Aquarius" and "Let The Sunshine (sic) In".  People making love.  Black people doing both their own thing and a white thing.  White people doing their own thing, a black thing and their forefather's thing.  Sodomy.  Love.  Pot.  Black/white/sex/love.  Black-black love/sex.  Homosexual love/sex.  The flag, endeared and chided.  The war, ignobled and dishonored.  A mockery of self.  People nude and spiritual.  Spirited people in raggedy, kooky clothes.  A love-knock at the Supremes.  An immortalization of James Brown.  Shiny, glittery costumes.  Psychedelic lighting.  A love affair between the cast and the audience.  People swinging from ropes, running up aisles, jumping from balconies, walking on the backs of occupied seats - compelling participation.  And finally, a last-ditch, on stage dance-in that includes spectators and an exhausted, exalted feeling that makes people want to linger.  That is Hair. A racy, rollicking, black-hippie message to the Establishment that topples from the stage into the audience - into the world.  Certainly, 150 or more blacks are playing the show in six U.S. cities and 14 foreign countries and new Hair productions continue to pop up all over the world.

It is controversial, even political theater, especially in some foreign cities like paris, where racial issues are not so poignant.  It is plagued by criticism, vice squads and bad press.  Since it's early 1968 beginnings, cast members have endured rotten fruit, more rotten language, spectators who walk out in disgust, name calling, and downright denouncements by both blacks and whites.

Establishment whites continue to be appalled at the nude scene, the knocks at "Americanism", and the black-white sex scenes and black intellectuals continue to question the relevancy of the show to the current black movement.  One such critic is poet Don Lee, who says: "Hair is indicative of the whole white theater scene.  The white man's own limitations are heightened by the fact that nudity is the only attractive thing he has going.  The nudity aspect of white theater is an important comment on the state of the Union and Hair is one of the prime vehicles to make that comment."  Playwright-poet Ameer Baraka (Leroi Jones) dismisses any discussion of the musical, saying: "It has nothing to do with black people."

The musical played only one Southern U.S. city as a college production at the University of Memphis, but it is in the talking stages for Atlanta and Houston and is planned as professional theater in Memphis.

The black cast members of Hair hold varied opinions - some good, some bad, but most of them feel that the experience is a big one for black actors.

Jim McCloden, who plays "Hud" in Chicago Hair, says "I get a chance to express anger at white exploitation, slavery, white capitalism, the draft.  A chance to be satirical about things black people have known for a long time."  Another Chicago cast member, Andre DeShields, who is one of the "tribe", and dance captain, says "Hair is supposed to be striking a new trend in American's obvious to us that the roles of the blacks are dated....whites don't go through many changes, the black society changes every day."

In Toronto, Wayne St. John, "Hud" understudy and "tribe member" comments: "Hair to me is a new beginning for the black struggling singers or actors...."  On Broadway, Lorrie Davis, one of the few blacks who have been in Hair since it's beginnings, says "Hair is valid; they preach about love, freedom, and liberty.  To me, that's valid.  The show does give a lot of blacks a chance to gain a new and unique experience."  Toronto "Hud" (Rudy Brown), a Guatemalan, says "As a black human being, I have many things to say and contribute to this society and Hair gives me the opportunity to do this; it is a vehicle for self-awareness."

George Tipton, a member of the Broadway Hair chorus and an actor with wide experience in theater, says: "I understand that the message is not a black message.  It relates more to white suburbia and their problems.  I don't think it was written to be a black message show, although black kids carry the show.  I think the few blacks that come to see it are proud that we are on Broadway."

Tyrone Scott, vocal director for Los Angeles Hair, says: "I really learned a lot from Hair that I could apply to my professional and personal life....what the authors are saying are things that I have really always felt."

Michael Butler, millionaire producer of Hair, sees the musical as a way to effect a "gradual, honest, actual change in our way of living."  He sees the black middle-class as one of society's problems, but feels that without "the young black's involvement or assistance, changing the society is going to be difficult, if not impossible.  I would say Hair can have a heavy effect on the black community in the 1970's.  We are going to have some more groovy, black leaders to come out of this."

Despite criticisms - and perhaps because of them - hair continues to grow, and no one yet knows what accounts for it's tremendous success.  Maybe it was in the script when authors Gerome Ragni and James Rado first set it to paper, or maybe it crept in through the musicianship of former jazz buff galt MacDermott (sic), or came riding in on the golden wings of it's producer Michael Butler who rescued the musical from an off-Broadway theater.  A great many black cast members say they are responsible for the zest and vibrance - the excitement and color of the shows - and some Hair publicists agree with them.  In fact, Toronto black cast member Tobi Lark rearranged one of the Hair songs (Dead End) with a gospel beat and a preaching ending and her version of the song has been adopted by hair's authors for possible use in all the productions.

Still others say that the Fifth Dimension's sell-out recording of the lead tunes, Aquarius and Let The Sunshine (sic) In, provided the needed thrust.  Whatever, hair just keeps on rolling along and producer Butler says confidently: "We have shown the Establishment that these hippies can play their game and make it.  I think Hair will go on for ten years.  Maybe it will become a kind of universal celebration."

Copyright Johnson Publishing Co., Inc.

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