The Vaudeville Museum ran this past Friday and Saturday. It was a part of the Oklahoma Center for the Humanities focus on humor. It was researched, written and directed by Machele Miller Dill, the Applied Assistant Professor of Musical Theatre and Director of the Musical Theatre Program.
The show was, on a surface level, very enjoyable. However, by the end of the show, the audience realizes that the show is not only superficially entertaining (certainly a good thing), but also makes a profound statement about American culture with regard to the prejudice and discrimination that were, and are, so common.
Upon arrival, each visitor to the “museum” received a ticket. Each of the three “docents” participated in a short spiel about the history of vaudeville. Then the audience split into groups and the tour began.
Because vaudeville is a form of entertainment from the 1900s to the 1920s (or thereabouts), having the show take place in the reading rooms of the library provided an interesting background. The reading rooms are quiet and full of history, so putting a historical show there was conducive to the overall turn-of-the-century experience.
My group went first to Bert Williams, played by Nash Wayne McQuarters. Williams was a black man who performed in blackface. There is something incredibly powerful about mixing that kind of “comedy”—comedy that is dependent upon systematic oppression of an entire race—with statements about racism and what it feels like to be “othered.” And there is something really fucking cool about a black person “reclaiming” blackface.
We moved to another room where we saw Fanny Brice, a Jewish singer and comedian, played by Machele Miller Dill (who also wrote and directed the whole shebang). I am a fairly massive Fanny Brice fan, so I was so excited for this part of the evening. It did not disappoint. Dill was funny, got the Fanny Brice cadence down, and sang “My Man.” All of which were exactly the things I wanted out of her performance.
We next met Bert Savoy (Pat Hobbs) and Jay Brennan (John Orsulak). Brennan was the straight man to Savoy’s DRAG QUEEN. There are few things I love more than a good drag queen, and “Maude” was a very good drag queen.
The act was kitschy and funny and over-the-top (like any good drag show). Outside of the comedy, the actors also made powerful statements about queerness, and comedy as a way of making queerness acceptable.
The final stop was with Sophie Tucker (played by Tulsa’s own indomitable force, Rebecca Ungerman). Before she came on, two actors performed “Who’s on First?” the famous (infamous?) Abbott and Costello routine.
By this point in the evening, we had all heard statements on racism, homophobia and anti-semitism. Tucker provided a look at body-shaming and gender—she was told she was “too fat and ugly” to perform. The policing of women’s bodies is nothing new, and this was an interesting look at how little has changed.
At the end of Tucker’s act, Kathleen O’Reilly (Liz Hunt), an Irish immigrant, auditioned for the show. O’Reilly provided another example of discrimination—because around the turn of the century there were few things America hated more than immigrants.
This remains an important message, especially with the rise of Donald Trump who is actually xenophobia with hair.
After this, the show got a little kitschy for my tastes, and the cast members recited statements about equality and sang that poem from the statue of liberty.
The actors stressed that vaudeville was so important because it provided a safe haven for America’s “others”—it was not an ideal life, but it was better to have the audience laughing with you than at you.
Overall, the show deserved the standing ovation it received. It was simple, funny and profound. It made the audience laugh, and it addressed the ways in which prejudice has shaped American culture.
The Oklahoma Center for the Humanities and Machele Miller Dill provided a fascinating look at the way humor is shaped by oppression—and how oppression can be fought with humor.