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Toronto Blacks Protest Production Of Show Boat

July 6, 1993

TORONTO (AP) _ The classic 1927 American musical ″Show Boat″ is steaming toward Toronto under heavy fire from the city’s blacks, who consider it racist, insulting and dangerous.

″Show Boat,″ with a cast of 68 headed by Robert Morse, Elaine Stritch and Michael Warren Bell, is the inaugural centerpiece for the $38 million North York Performing Arts Center north of Toronto, scheduled to open Oct. 17.

Because of it, preparations for a glorious kickoff of the three-stage arts center have become mired in controversy, protest and animosity between blacks and Jews. On the other hand, the flap has given producer Garth Drabinsky a windfall of free publicity for his $6.4 million production.

″Show Boat″ is about the Cotton Blossom, a Mississippi riverboat operated as a floating theater, and the family that runs it. The story spans 40 years from the late 19th century into the early 20th.

The Oscar Hammerstein-Jerome Kern musical, based on an Edna Ferber novel published in 1926, helped launch the career of Paul Robeson, who made ″Ol’ Man River″ his theme song.

″Racism is an absurdity and ‘Show Boat’ is part of that absurdity,″ said Lennox Farrell, a leader of the Coalition to Stop Show Boat. ″This show’s stereotyping is deep, broad, dangerous and injurious. There is absolutely no turning back on this issue.″

As he spoke, a placard-waving group of 20 to 30 people marched in front of the mock-sternwheeler ticket office. Such protests have become a ritual on Saturdays.

Angela Lee, general manager of Canadian Artists Network: Black Artists in Action, calls the musical ″hate literature in the form of entertainment.″

Stephnie Payne, a black member of the North York school board, said the musical portrays blacks as ″subhuman savages, dim-witted, childlike, lazy, drunk, irresponsible and devoid of any human characteristics.″

Drabinsky declined several requests for an interview, but in an article written for The Toronto Star, he vowed not to cancel the show.

″I am the first to acknowledge that members of the black community face real problems, and I empathize with the frustration and anger they feel as every day they must confront the effects of racism,″ he wrote.

″But to lash out at ‘Show Boat’ and to target it as an evil symbol of black people’s oppression - both historically and currently - is not only wrong, it trivializes these real concerns.″

He said the offensive elements of ″Show Boat″ would be removed, but his staff would not say what was being taken out.

Ms. Payne raised Jewish hackles by saying in a television interview: ″Most of the plays that portray blacks or any other ethnic groups in a negative way is always done by a white man, and always usually a Jewish person is doing plays which denigrate us.″ Her clear reference was to Drabinsky, a Jew.

Although Ms. Payne apologized publicly for the remark, a black weekly called Share picked up the theme in a series of articles.

″The issue has now moved from ‘Show Boat’ itself to what can only be described as anti-Semitism,″ said Bernie Farber, a national director of the Canadian Jewish Congress. ″We are very disturbed by it.″

Gerda Frieberg, chairwoman of the CJC, wrote to Share publisher Arnold Auguste: ″We find it abhorrent that, in the process of upholding your community’s interests as you see them, you also have seen fit to besmirch, malign and wound our community.″

Metropolitan Toronto’s population of 3.9 million includes about 140,000 Jews and roughly the same number of blacks.

Drabinsky has hired Henry Louis Gates Jr., chairman of the Afro-American Studies Department at Harvard and a leading black American intellectual, to calm the passions.

Gates’ job, it was explained, will be to assemble a committee of academic and literary leaders from Canada and the United States to develop an education program placing ″Show Boat″ in its ″proper social and political context.″

Farrell, the protest leader, dismissed Gates as a ″high-profile black″ Drabinsky is trotting out to obscure the issues.

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