Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Too Much Sax?

On The Stranger's Slog, Josh Feit tees off on the The Seattle Rep's Great Gatsby.

Apparently, the Rep decided to insert a Jazz Saxaphonists as sort of an Emcee, a'la Cabaret.

The problem, Feit points out, is that this is wildly anachronistic:

When you’re putting on a 20s set-piece like Gatsby, you certainly oughta get your 20s basics right. Not only was their sexy sax an anachronism for the 20s (which is bad enough…sort of like watching a movie that’s supposed to take place in the ’70s and seeing a cell phone), but the Lester Young-style sax they conjured up is specifically evocative of the 1940s. (The sax didn’t emerge as a centerpiece of jazz combos until the late 30s and particularly the 1940s.)

I thought this is where dramaturgists are supposed to come in, especially for larger regional houses like Seattle Rep. But Feit sees a deeper institutional problem with this decision. Racism:

However, I’m not just being a finicky music snob. The main reason their lazy fumble got my goat has to do with racism. To drop the trope of a black saxophonist just whaling his haunting sexy chops into this play was a sop to the Rep’s banal white yuppie audience that loves its comforting, nostalgic, romantic stereotypes of black Americans. (That the Rep got their specific racism wrong—it should have been Louie Armstrong on hot trumpet or maybe even a Jewish cornet player—is just sorta funny.)

Immediately, I thought of August Wilson's 1920's chapter of his African American Play Cycle. Ma Rainey's Black Bottom has the hot trumpet player, Levee, as its focus.

Fitzgerald's novel has hardly a mournful passage in it. It is all about excess in life and death. Gatsby's hypnotic power lies not in his nostalgia of the past, but in his idealistic optimism about his ability to change the past by charging into the future. "Can't change the past? Well of course you can!" He tells the narrator, Nick Carraway.

August Wilson's Levee is a bundle of energy, seeing his talent, his drive and his entrepeneurship as a way of reconstructing his past, leaving it in the dust. Fate has different ideas for both Gatsby and Levee.

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