May 16, 2012

1960s Baltimore: A Symbol of Resilience

The Royal Theatre on Pennsylvania Avenue in Baltimore. (Image Source)

Currently onstage at the FAC is Hairspray, a big, over the top, crazy musical comedy. This fun production has been leaving audiences dancing in their seats and in the aisles; but while loads of fun, it also addresses serious issues of the time: racism, discrimination, and social inequality.

Hairspray takes place in Baltimore, Maryland during the early 1960s, and civil rights issues were taking center stage on national politics. Tracy Turnblad, the chubby protagonist of Hairspray, is committed to seeing racial integration a reality. She wants to see people of all skin colors and body types dancing on TV. (Spoiler Alert: With the help of her family and friends, Tracy's dream becomes a reality.)

But fast forward a couple years, and Baltimore becomes home to one of the largest race riots in U.S. history. In 1968, a riot broke out two days after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.  While riots occurred in various U.S. cities, the riots lasted 8 days in Baltimore, and required tens of thousands of National Guard troops and Maryland State Police to restore public order. 

Damage from the riot was estimated at $12 million ($77.5 million today), with thousands of businesses looted and burned. An area most impacted was Pennsylvania Avenue, an entertainment district and home to the Royal Theatre. The Royal Theatre was a famous all-black theaters where R&B and funk stars such as Billie Holiday, James Brown, and Count Basie performed. It was equivalent to the Apollo Theatre in New York City and the Howard Theatre in Washington D.C. 

Through the power of song and music, Hairspray highlights the social disparities and racial tension that led to the riot. While entertaining, Hairspray still challenges us to reflect on an uncomfortable and ugly part of American history, and the serious costs attributed to social inequality. 

Hairspray | Closing  June 3, 2012 




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