Slings and Arrows: Theatre in my Life (Chapter 19, "The Sixties", pp. 297)
by Robert Lewis

 

 

THERE WERE TWO reasons why, at the beginning of the sixties, I agreed to direct Kwamina, my third production that had a predominately black cast. It reunited me with Agnes de Mille who was to do the choreography, and its subject matter was unusually substantial for a musical-- the problems of a small African country about to be liberated from colonial rule. Trouble was, the book writer, Robert Alan Aurthur, and the composer/lyricist, Richard Adler, bit off more than they cared to chew.

Agnes and I were carefully watched for authenticity in the dancing and staging departments by an astute technical consultant, Albert Opoku (courtesy of the government of Ghana), but the central romantic situation--the love affair between Kwamina, a tribal chief's son who studied for years in London, became a doctor, arid returned to serve his people, and Eve, a white woman physician working at the local clinic--was watered down, to the detriment of the whole project. Richard Adler, the husband of Sally Ann Howes, who played the white doctor, objected to Terry Carter (Kwamina) kissing Miss Howes at any time during the action of the play. This might be understandable if there were some dramatic justification for it, but there wasn't. In the scenes where the two doctor lovers were alone, all they could do was paw one another. This idiocy was committed in a 1961 play that purported to be about the revolutionary spirit of the new emerging from the darkness of the old. It was way back in 1924 when, as a result of complaints from theatergoers patronizing All God's Chillun Got Wings at the Provincetown Playhouse, that New York's Mayor Hylan ordered an investigation of Eugene O'Neill's play wherein a white woman kissed the hand of her black husband (Paul Robeson). In 1913, this same Mr. Robeson, as Othello, made so bold as to kiss his wife, Desdemona, played by Uta Hagen, with no noticeable damage to the paying customers--or Miss Hagen.

When Nathan Cohen, the tough critic who covered the out-of-town premiere of Kwamina in Toronto, called the approach to this interracial affair "hypocritical," I couldn't have agreed with him more. Both Terry Carter and Sally Ann Howes did, too. Therefore I arranged a secret rehearsal with both of them to restage our pussyfooting love scenes. The insertion, of the logical kisses in the love scenes not only made them more believable, but more moving. Suddenly, the basic situation of the play was illuminated in a human way. Without telling anyone, we planned to parade our brave osculations before the Toronto audience that night, and if no bombs were thrown, maybe Richard would let us keep them in. But---zounds, and: gadzooks---someone snitched on us. The back door of the O'Keefe Center of the Performing Arts was-suddenly flung open during our rehearsal and there stood the outraged husband, Richard Adler, having caught us in flagrante delicto. Kwamina never got to kiss his Eve on stage in Toronto, or in Boston where Elinor Hughes wrote in the Herald, "The central story does not take fire, being so cautiously handled that it never seems quite real," or in New York during all of thirty-two performances. When the reviews came out after the Broadway opening, I was honored by an invitation to a ceremony held in the basement of the Fifty-fourth Theatre. Our African drummer and a few of his compatriots in the cast gathered to perform a voodoo ritual designed to obliterate those drama reviewers who had written unfavorable opinions about the show. I might have enjoyed the gory rites more if it weren't for the fact that I was one of those critics. During that period I had become, albeit for a short term, the drama critic for the New Leader magazine. Taking to task a number of escapist musicals unwilling to come to grips with their subject matter, I lit into Kwamina, too. (Did critic directors Harold Clurman or Walter Kerr ever review their own shows? Probably not.) I concluded my obituary of Kwamina with, "When one aims high, the miss is more than a mile."