Timeless "Show Boat" just keeps
on rolling along
By Patricia Cronin
Who knew when Edna Ferber wrote "Show
Boat" in 1924 that almost seven decades later, it would still be in
the minds and hearts of theater-goers.
This timeless play about love, jealousy, hatred and forgiveness goes through
the full range of human emotion. Show Boat deals with the tension between
blacks and whites in the South after the Civil War.
The story unfolds on a riverboat, which hosts a family of traveling actors
and sideshow attractions. The situations that arise between the characters,
like the interracial marriage of Julia and Steve, are still relevant in
The relationship between Julia and her husband is an interesting one. Julia
is from a racially mixed background, and it is illegal for a white man to
be married to a woman with any black blood in her. Rather than leave her
side, Steve cuts Julia and swallows some of her blood so that the sheriff
cannot say that he does not have any black blood in him.
The racial situations in the play provoke thoughts of how hard it must have
been to be black in the South. In the dialogue, some of the black slaves
are called "niggers" by the white characters in the story. At
first, it is shocking to believe they are allowed to use a word that negative
at all in a play at the Wang Center. But in the context in which it is used,
it is appropriate due to the impact it makes. It reinforces how much of
a derogatory term "nigger" was then and still is today. Also,
if you pay close attention during the scene changes, it becomes obvious
that the black slaves are responsible for picking up and straightening out
The costumes and choreography are excellent. They show the `20s as a very
happy, crazy time. The last scene is especially vibrant. It is meant to
contrast the darkness in the South after Reconstruction with the bright
future that people believed the `20s held.
An objection that becomes evident is the way in which the writers make all
of the women in the play seem fragile and unable to survive on their own
without a man. Perhaps this is because of the time in which the play was
written, when women were expected to be unable to care for themselves. Parthenia,
Magnolia's mother, is the one strong female character in the story, yet
she is really just for comic relief.
Another disappointment is the fact that the audience does not know what
happens to Julia. After she leaves her job singing at the club so that Magnolia
can take her place, the story leaves Julia as a beggar in Chicago.
The sets are realistic and change quite quickly and smoothly. The singing
and music are amazing.
Edna Ferber was quoted as saying, "The music mounted, mounted, and
I give you my word my hair stood on end, the tears came to my eyes, I breathed
like a heroine in a melodrama. This was great music."
That quote says it all.