‘She’s a big star in musical comedy,” says the love-struck young man, showing his mother a photo of his sweetheart. “Ain’t that a shame!” his mother exclaims. “Such a nice girl, too!” Yes, the battle lines are clearly drawn in Samson Raphaelson’s 1925 play, The Jazz Singer (the Connelly Theater). But where those lines would once have separated society blue bloods from raffish stage folk, in plays like Pinero’s Trelawny of the ‘Wells’ (1898), Raphaelson redraws them to mark, for Americans, the border an ethnic minority must cross to assimilate.
The love-struck young man (Justin Flagg) is The Jazz Singer‘s hero, once Jakie Rabinowitz but now calling himself Jack Robin. Descended from five generations of Jewish cantors, Jack desperately wants to cross over; his American-born instincts inherently combat his father, Yossele (Charles E. Gerber), hero of the Orchard Street synagogue. And like his goyish sweetheart, Mary Dale (Christine Bullen), who does come from the landed gentry, Jack has located the crossover point where America’s classes and ethnic groups meet: the musical theater. Having discovered that the cantorial sob that his father trained into his voice enables him to put over “jazz” songs, Jack blots out his Jewishness, at least onstage, by donning blackface.
Even before the convoluted ethnic-identity issues involved can arise, though, Jack and his father have pitched into the conflict that every ethnic group has fought in the New World, the one between religious and secular. “I taught you to sing to please God,” Cantor Rabinowitz says sternly. “You sit by my piano, and you curse it with your dirty music from the sidewalks.” Jack/Jakie has been entertaining his shocked but delighted mother (Nona Pipes) with, ironically, a hit tune of the day called “Red Hot Mama.” Later, the blade of irony twists even deeper, when we see Jack, in full blackface and cartoonish costume, making his mother wait in his dressing room while he dashes off to rehearse a cornball song about his mammy down South.
It’s a measure of the depth to which Raphaelson’s irony cuts that the audience at the Metropolitan Playhouse’s revival of The Jazz Singer never snickers, even at the script’s most melodramatic moments. The story’s simplistic oppositions and contrived web of circumstances might seem crude—Jack must choose between getting his big Broadway break and taking his dying father’s place in the synagogue for Yom Kippur—but within its crudity, Raphaelson has grasped the sore point at the core of half a dozen cultural myths. The religious-secular battle still hovers over us today; along with it comes the history of Jewish assimilation through the theater, and by implication, the stories of Irish and Italian assimilation that ran parallel to it. Beneath the melodrama, a parable is enacted of how popular entertainment emerged as the social force that unified America. Not by accident did Raphaelson’s play become the touchstone work of the historic moment when movies went from silence to sound. It landed there by saying what audiences then most wished to hear: that we can all build on whatever heritage we bring to become Americans—and, if we’re lucky, stars.
And what makes stardom, by our culture’s inexplicable decree, is imitation negritude. Bitterly underpinning all the myths that The Jazz Singer grasps is the chronicle of the one people barred, until recently, from assimilation. While social and legal restrictions kept African Americans firmly apart, their culture, in diluted and stereotyped form, crept into the mainstream through the mediators, of every ethnic group, concealed under the blackface mask. Jack, getting into makeup, compares himself to an ostrich who “puts his head in the ground and thinks he’s all covered up.” Blackface, he says, “covers your face and hides everything,” and if more Americans knew what it felt like, “I bet everybody would do it.”
Laura Livingston’s production, skillfully understated, handles this riveting key to the past with elegant discretion, making the most of the limited space and the game but uneven cast. Gerber and Pipes embody the Old World with quiet dignity; Flagg, wisely eschewing any Jolson mimicry, imbues the hero’s divided soul with charm and pathos. Our culture’s divided soul stands visible.