The universal language of music can’t bridge the racial divide
By MARY C. CURTIS
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Charles Randolph-Wright, director of “Motown: The Musical,” likes to tell the story of how the national tour of his Broadway show offered respite and relief to young people from Ferguson, the Missouri town that’s become famous as a touch point in the ongoing national conversation on the relationship between police and the communities they serve.
“Teachers said they hadn’t seen the kids smile in months” before that evening in the theater, Randolph-Wright told me at a reception before the opening of the show’s Charlotte run. That stop happened to coincide with the trial of officer Randall “Wes” Kerrick in the shooting death of Jonathan Ferrell, an unarmed black man, which eventually ended in a hung jury, mistrial and a decision by prosecutors not to re-try the case.
Was this a terrible coincidence or evidence that these incidents and the mistrust and turmoil that follow have become depressingly routine? One thing is sure. The power of music to heal suffering and bring communities together is limited. That was clear at a performance during the show’s first week, when an arriving audience as diverse as the city entering the packed house for a night of swaying to the oldies was met with Charlotte’s reality.
A small, yet equally diverse group of demonstrators outside held a banner that read “No More Stolen Lives,” with the names Oscar Grant, Amadou Diallo and others killed by law enforcement, and smaller signs with phrases such as, “Would you ask for help?,” an allusion to Ferrell, who was asking for help after a car accident before his deadly encounter with Kerrick.
“Justice for Jonathan Ferrell,” they repeated.
Kassandra Ottley of Charlotte explained why they chose the venue.
“They love certain parts of us — our culture, our music – but they demonize us,” she said. “They need to get to know us.”
Shannon Mare, 39, of Charlotte, was sympathetic. Mare, who is white, said, “We’ve come far, but we haven’t in ways. It’s a shame.”
Inside the theater, Randolph-Wright’s observations about the show rang true. As he said, “People end up dancing and singing.” Audience members mouthed the words to songs they grew up with or heard over the years, and nodded at the evolution of each superstar act, from Marvin Gaye to The Supremes.
Motown’s music was always seen as social force. The thought that black teens and white teens shared culture before they shared space was more radical than the lyrics to “Please Mr. Postman” would indicate. Tops acts traveled the country, playing to segregated crowds separated by a rope at some venues but dancing together in spirit. Even then, though, the music did not necessarily translate into acceptance or understanding.
At intermission in Charlotte, some paused to reflect on the world outside. Donna Potter, who was busy buying “Motown” souvenirs, was “loving it,” that races get to know one another though culture. Yet, Potter, who is black, also said that relationships with neighbors in her predominantly white suburban town of Mint Hill, N.C., are superficial. “We talk,” she said. “We really don’t visit one another’s houses. And we avoid mentioning certain things” – such as politics, religion and the Kerrick trial.
In the second act of “Motown,” life did meet art in one moment, during the tense scene when Gaye insisted on moving past pop to relevant songs about war and the environment in what would be his landmark album “What’s Going On.” Berry Gordy, worried about how fans would react to Gaye’s transformation, quoted with horror some lyrics of “Inner City Blues:” “Trigger-happy policing.” Haven’t you been reading the headlines? Gaye countered.
In Charlotte, a moment of silence, then brief, nervous murmurs. Neither the glamour of a Diana Ross gown nor the giddiness of a Jackson 5 medley could quite hold reality at bay, even for just one night.
Mary C. Curtis is a journalist in Charlotte, N.C. She has worked at the New York Times, the Baltimore Sun, the Charlotte Observer, as a national correspondent for Politics Daily and was a contributor to The Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter.