One aspect of Show Boat that has drawn considerable attention over the years is its depiction of the relationship between blacks and whites, particularly during the era of the 1880’s depicted in the first scenes of the play.
The so-called “miscegenation” plot of Show Boat figures prominently in the action of the first few scenes of the play. Julie Laverne, the leading lady of the show boat troupe, is a mulatto, or woman of mixed race, “passing” as white in the segregated South. She is married to Steve Baker, the leading man of the troupe, who is white, and their marriage violates a law in Mississippi at the time that forbids miscegenation, an archaic legal term for interracial marriage. In fact, many states had such laws in effect, and in 16 states, those laws were still in effect in 1967 when the U.S. Supreme Court finally ruled them unconstitutional.
Pete, a worker on the Cotton Blossom, makes a pass at Julie and Julie’s protective husband Steve knocks him down angrily in response. Pete vows revenge for this rough treatment, and goes to find the sheriff in Natchez, the town where they have docked. The sheriff turns up later in Act One during the performance on the boat to investigate Pete’s claim. Hearing news of the sheriff’s arrival, Steve resorts to a trick to protect himself and his wife from being prosecuted: he uses a pocket knife to cut Julie’s hand and swallows some of the blood he has sucked from the wound. Later, when the sheriff arrives and confronts them, Steve can claim that he has “negro blood” in him, and Cap’n Andy and his pilot Windy can truthfully attest to that fact since they saw his desperate maneuver a few minutes earlier.
Though Steve’s trick saves them from prosecution, they are now compelled to leave the company since their identity as a mixed-race couple is now public knowledge. Nola protests unhappily at the injustice of having to lose the company of her good friend Julie, but to no avail; Steve and Julie leave.
This particular episode within the plot only occurs within the first third of the musical, and Steve disappears as a character from the remainder of the play. Julie, however, turns up years later in Chicago, where Nola and Gay have been living on the proceeds of Ravenal’s gambling. When Ravenal’s luck turns back and he and Nola have lost everything, he abandons his wife, and Nola goes to seek work as a singer at the Trocadero night club in Chicago. We learn that Julie has been abandoned by Steve, and her unhappiness has caused her to drink. (In Ferber’s novel, Julie is not a night club singer but rather a prostitute in a posh bordello run by the madam Hetty Chilton where Ravenal is a customer.) It is not her race but being abandoned by the man she loves that is the cause of Julie’s downfall.
In Act II scene 3, Nola auditions for the Trocadero night club by singing “Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man,” a song she learned from Julie, accompanying herself on the guitar. Mr. Greene, the man she has auditioned for, recognizes the song as a “coon song” and dismisses the song and her performance as “old-fashioned,” but Jake, the piano player, shows her how to sing it as an up-tempo song and “rag it.” Unbeknown to Nola, Julie has seen her singing the song, and decides she will quit at the nightclub so the management will have to hire Julie as a last minute replacement. She sacrifices herself out of fond love for the younger girl. The tragedy of Julie Laverne is that she tries and fails to “pass” as white; her racial identity causes her to lose the job she loves and her interracial marriage can’t hold up to the harsh judgment of society.
This, of course, is not the only aspect of the musical in which race is relevant. It turns out that Nola becomes a successful singer performing the kinds of songs she learned from Julie – that is to say, “coon songs,” or songs whose style and subject matter make them recognizably part of black culture. It was far from unknown for white women to achieve success in the vaudeville era; the best known of the so-called “coon shouters” was Sophie Tucker, who was nicknamed “The Last of the Red-Hot Mamas” for her bawdy stage persona and earthy vocal delivery. Tucker began her career in 1907 singing negro songs in blackface, but within a few years her talent as a singer and comedienne earned her a place in the Ziegfeld Follies, which led to widespread success as a performer and recording artist.
The issue of cultural appropriation – of white artists benefitting by appropriating materials from black culture and using them to their own advantage, while depriving black artists of the recognition they are due – was of considerable significance in the era when the novel and the musical Show Boat were created in the 1920’s. Show Boat is the story of a white girl who grew famous singing negro songs, and in the final scenes, we see Nola’s daughter Kim also achieving success in the 1920’s dancing to the Charleston, a dance with black roots.
This cultural appropriation was not dramatized or given special attention in the 1927 original, although it is surely part of the story that is told. In 1993, Hal Prince and choreographer Susan Stroman decided to draw greater attention to this issue by creating sequences of dance and pantomime that showed how the Charleston was originally the creation of black artists and how black music and dance became popular in the hands of white performers as the years passed in the first part of the twentieth century.
The success of Show Boat the musical is arguably the result of another example of cultural appropriation, white Jewish composer Jerome Kern appropriating negro songs in compositions like “Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man” and the spiritual “Ol’ Man River.”
It was the practice of the day to keep blacks and whites segregated, separate from one another, a practice that remained the case in parts of America well into the second half of the twentieth century. Indeed, we are still living with the legacy of segregation, with different neighborhoods or regions of the country being nearly exclusively black or white. We may be more tolerant of diversity in our own day and age, with a black President and a number of prominent African Americans in professions like politics, sports and the arts, but the relationship between blacks and whites is still complicated by the tragic history of slavery in America and its legacy of prejudice, oppression and fear.
Interestingly, the relationship between Queenie, the cook on the Cotton Blossom, and her husband Jo, a deck-hand, is perhaps the happiest marriage in the play, and Queenie serves as a kind of second mother to Nola in the first scenes of the play. Is the success of Magnolia Ravenal the result of her fond feelings for black people like Queenie and Jo, around whom she grew up? And her innocence about racial prejudice in her early years? Nola is a white girl who is comfortable with black people and black culture. Are there examples of such figures in modern day arts?