Theater » Theater Feature

Theatre Memphis Goes All-American with Tintypes.



I'll get around to reviewing Theatre Memphis' production of Tintypes, I promise. First, I need to share an unflattering snapshot from 2007. I'd been sent to Mayor W.W. Herenton's campaign headquarters where the incumbent mayor was receiving an endorsement from a group of African-American ministers. In his speech the mayor frankly defined the concept of "house negroes" and "field negroes," while the preachers said their amens. The strong implication was that his opponent was of the house variety and not authentically black like the mayor. I was stunned. I'd never witnessed the historic class divisions among African Americans stated in such stark, 19th-century terms by a 21st-century leader. Patriotic bunting brings election season colors to Theatre Memphis' Tintypes and reminds me of the campaign trail. But it's something that doesn't appear on stage (but should) that reminds me of this still-haunting incident, which I'll come back to soon enough.

It was 1980 when Tintypes, a musical survey of late-19th and early-20th century American song, made its splash. The Tony-winning production showcased songs by John Philip Sousa and George M. Cohan, alongside other popular tunes of yesteryear. The curtain went up a mere four years after the pomp and pageantry of America's bicentennial, at the dawning of something newly elected President Ronald Reagan — the bane of "welfare queens" everywhere — described as "morning in America." And even though Tintypes appeared on its smiling surface to be more goopy patriotic nostalgia, it actually painted a darker, more complicated portrait of the American dream.

Tintypes tells the story of immigrants melting, sometimes painfully, in the American crucible. It confronts predatory capitalism, economic inequality, gunboat diplomacy, and all manner of cultural insensitivity, while treating audiences to toe-tappers like "Hello My Baby!" Theatre Memphis' revival, directed by Kell Christieisn't a dynamic clash of ideas and cultures, it's a quaint collage: pretty and prettily sung but only occasionally rising to its potential.

Justin Willingham is at his best performing physical comedy inspired by Charlie Chaplin. Joe Lackie is effective (if never quite bully!) as rough riding President Roosevelt, and Jessica Spencer carries some of the show's most relevant moments as radical organizer Emma Goldman. It's not surprising that in this story of immigrants blending, Annie L. Strong stands out as Susannah, a black laborer. She does so, in part because of her expressive voice, and in part because the African-American story isn't an immigrant story, a circumstance not lost on the show's authors. Watching Strong recoil when confronted with the white minstrelsy of "Mama's Little Baby," we're reminded that cultural appropriation isn't newly problematic. Now, let's talk for just a moment about that missing piece.

Tintypes is a study in juxtaposition. The content of songs, often presented in medley form, struggle, while melodies blend. It's no coincidence that the patriotic anthem "You're a Grand Old Flag" is supposed to be immediately preceded by the more jarring "She's Getting More Like the White Folks Every Day," a satirical number by the African-American duo Bert Williams and George Walker, two of the early 20th century's most influential performers. In spite of its relevance and currency, the song was removed because the director and cast felt it should be. We're poorer for the choice since the uncomfortable dynamic intentionally evoked in this song isn't trapped in some troubled past, as witnessed by recent exit polls in South Carolina asking if "blacks are getting too demanding over equal rights." And in a not-so-distant Memphis election when a sitting mayor called his opponent a "house negro," cheered on by patriotic men of God. That's not "my America," mind you, but it's the America I live in, bunting and all.

Tintypes is a balancing act. Cutting a conversation-starter like, "White Folks," pitches the closing more solidly in the direction of a flag-waver. The musical confronts the misleading powers of jingoism in Act 1, but ends with less complexity than it might, reprising "Yankee Doodle Dandy" and steering it through "Toyland" into an uplifting rendition of "Smiles." It's not a bad show, it's just not bold, and when art flinches so easily, we lose something.

Update: Theatre Memphis has announced that Williams & Walker's "She's Getting More Like White Folks" has been reinserted into the production.

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