The premiere in 1970 of Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice’s rock opera musical, “Jesus Christ Superstar,” was controversial at the onset.
Telling the seemingly well-known tale of the last days of Jesus of Nazareth, the show took on a new and, to some, blasphemous perspective by depicting Jesus’s betrayer, Judas Iscariot, as a tragic hero. Adding in long riffs, the tender caresses of Mary Magdalene, and instrumentation that is as characteristic of ’70s pop, rock and disco as one can get, and you have a production that many consider to be the epitome of experimental theatre.
Yet, for a show full of controversies that stem from the subject matter itself, it’s astounding that it took this long to present a production of “Jesus Christ Superstar” that featured an entirely black cast. The Paramount Theatre in Aurora’s production gained acclaim early in its April run for infusing the already rock-glam production with gospel musical themes, as well as utilizing black actors for all roles.
Recently, I was able to see this production, which acted as the final entry in the Paramount Theatre’s now-hallmark Broadway Series that run from the fall through the spring.
While the amount of applause elicited after each show-stopping number was no indication of any potential, shall we say, irregularities in audience opinion, the comments I caught wind of pre, during, and post-performance were indicative of both conscious and subconscious public dissention.
“But why do they have to distinguish it as being an all-black cast? If it were marketed as all-white there’d be so many people up in arms!”
Indeed, why does it matter that this particular production is noted as being one in which all black actors were given the opportunity to tell its story?
Films, plays and musicals that have recently popped up as including an “all-Latina/o” or “all-black” cast or crew have elicited criticism because of the seemingly unnecessary distinction that has never been made for such mediums’ all-white counterparts.
But what challengers fail to comprehend is that all-white, well, everything, have become such normative components of our society, that distinguishing them as such seems obsolete and unnecessary. The mindset has become, “Well, of course they’re all-white. Who needs to say it when it’s so obvious?”
That is the rub.
Because all-white casts should not be normative in the realm of storytelling, creative engineering, or any realm of productivity in any employment sphere. It is not normal that only white actors have had the opportunity or the assumed privilege to tell stories that, in keeping with the realm of theatre, are meant to be universal and available for all to take in.
So distinguishing “Jesus Christ Superstar” as a production of all-black cast members becomes imperative to relating the message that yes, people of color are still here and can relate to and tell a story just as powerfully, if not perhaps more so. Unfortunately, staging a theatrical production in which all black actors participate is not normal in our society. Making the distinction should not be necessary, but it is. At least, for our time now. Calling out challenges to hegemony and normativity are the only ways in which such a cycle of inclusivity can be broken.
Soon, we hope, the distinction won’t be necessary or even thought of, because equal opportunity will be so ingrained into our society that future generations will say when they see mixed race (and sexual orientation and gender identification) actors on the stage and screen, “Well, of course—duh.”