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Why can’t the awkward black guy get the girl? Review: Sister Act, Palace Theatre

SISTER ACT. Alexanda Burke as Deloris Van Cartier and Ensemble small. Photo by Tristram Kenton

Image: Tristram Kenton

Sister Act The Musical, directed by Craig Revell Horwood

Palace Theatre, Manchester [24.07.17]

This is not another My Country but it falls in a similar ball park. Let’s start with the positives shall we…

Mother Superior is in need. She prays to the Lord in the hopes that he will help save the church… And out pops, Deloris Van Cartier disco diva in search of fame, fortune and, a white dress and fur, just like Donna Summer’s.

Sister Act The Musical is not the theatrical version of the film. If you go to see this expecting the fire that is Whoopi Goldberg alongside the best soundtrack ever (everybody loves Hail Holy Queen and I Will Follow Him, even if they deny it), you’ll be very disappointed. However I must say the songs in this (though very different) were upbeat and catchy. Take Me To Heaven and It’s Good To Be A Nun were certainly whizzing around in my head post show, that’s for sure. The show is full of good songs, some okay dance routines and larger than life characters. Alexandra Burke’s Sister Mary Clarence is even more extra than Whoopi Goldberg’s and at one point, I must say I doubted if she could keep that up for the whole show. To my surprise, she certainly did, bringing constant laughs and diva charms to the room. This was a good musical. But…

And, this is a big but…

Why has Eddie suddenly become a white guy? Before you head down to the comments section to ask me why i’m always bashing you over the head with diversity, hear me out. In the film, Eddie is a black cop and Deloris’ lover, Vince (whose name is Curtis in the musical, but the character is basically the same) is a white guy. In this musical, their races have been swapped around. ‘Well, why is that a problem?’, I hear you ask.

Firstly, let’s contextualise this. Eddie is the loveable, awkward (more awkward in musical than film) cop who basically saves Deloris’ bacon (well, the nuns actually do that) and in the musical, he actually gets with Deloris (this is only implied in the film). Curtis(Vince) owns a casino in which Deloris wants to sing and the two are having an affair, which becomes apparent when he gives his wife’s blue fur coat to her as a gift. When Deloris tries to return the coat, she witnesses a murder conducted by Curtis and his men, resulting in Eddie protecting her and her having to hide out as a nun. In switching the races of Eddie and Curtis/Vince, the white saviour rhetoric is being subliminally peddled alongside the stereotype of the violent, thuggish black male. What makes people so uncomfortable with the idea that an awkward black guy can save the day and get the girl? And to top that off, the only black man on the stage is being criminalised.

I’ve seen quite a bit of messy representation and erasure of black men on stage recently and theatre really needs to start coming up with some answers, fast. And before anyone brings up some colour-blind casting nonsense (which is a racist mess all of its own), attention is repeatedly drawn to Deloris’ race throughout this play and therefore it is impossible for anyone to claim that they do not see the race of the people on stage. Slight tangent: it doesn’t even make sense for the white nuns to keep referring to Deloris’ race, as there are two other black women on stage playing nuns. Surely the white sisters would have experienced this ‘shock’ over an African American nun when the other two black sisters joined the order? Or maybe once again, we have blackness being erased before our eyes and the only blackness that can possibly be acknowledged on the stage is Deloris’… I’m still hoping that theatres will eventually understand that people of colour don’t stop being people of colour just because they’re on a stage, in the same way that white people don’t stop being white. Erasing blackness and not having a conversation about the fact that this is happening all the time, is only feeding the misguided idea that whiteness is some sort of ‘norm’.

Some of you will be reading this thinking ‘why is she moaning again, there’s already a black woman in the leading role?’ My response to that is how many times do you see a black woman as the lead in a musical? Or in any type of theatre for that matter. And don’t just come back at me with Dream Girls and Lion King. Having a black woman as the lead, does not change the fact that the racial politics external to her casting can still be highly problematic. Too much time and energy is put into passing the book and avoiding accountability surrounding diversity issues in casting. Whether conscious or not, a decision was made that turned a black cop into a white cop and a rich, white thug into a rich, black thug – feeding the idea that white men are heroes and black men shoot to kill. This is a narrative that should be challenged not peddled. But what’s more concerning is that it isn’t being talked about.

Verdict: Yes, song and gag wise this musical is good fun. But, problematic representations have left a very bad taste in my mouth.

 

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