Today for Throwback Thursday, Arts in Color looks back at the 1958 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Flower Drum Song. In reviews of the original 1958 production, Flower Drum Song was fairly criticized for perpetuating inaccurate stereotypes. Indeed, even the central conceit of the play, the picture bride, was wildly anachronistic for the 1950s. However, the production was also arguably groundbreaking for late 1950s Broadway. It was based on source material by a writer of Chinese origin (C.Y. Lee), it focused on a story-line about Asian American characters with no mediating white point-of-view character, and it featured actors of color in all except one principal role (that of nightclub owner and rival love interest Sammy Fong, played in yellow-face by Larry Blyden). Continue reading
Juanita Long Hall, was born in Keyport, New Jersey on Nov. 6, 1901 to an African-American father, Abram Long, and an Irish American mother, Mary Richardson.
Classically trained at Juilliard, Hall’s early career was in singing and choir directing. From 1935 to 1944 she directed the Works Progress Administration (WPA) Chorus. From 1941 to 1942 she also directed the Westchester (New York) Chorale and Dramatics Association. In the early 1940s she led the Juanita Hall Choir, which performed on radio with Rudy Vallee and Kate Smith and in 1949 the Juanita Hall Choir performed in the film, Miracle in Harlem.
Hall’s first major acting role came in 1943 when she appeared on Broadway in The Pirate. Other Broadway acting opportunities came and she performed in Sing Out, Sweet Land, Saint Louis Woman, Deep Are the Roots, The Secret Room, Street Scene, and The Ponder Heart, all between 1943 and 1956.
Fun fact: Hall sometimes had to pass for Asian to get jobs on Broadway (i.e. Bloody Mary in South Pacific and Madam Liang in Flower Drum Song)
In 1950 Hall became the first African-American to win a Tony Award when she was named Best Supporting Actress for her role in South Pacific. She eventually played the part for close to 2,000 performances onstage and was the only cast member from the original Broadway production to star in the 1958 movie version. Take a look at her famous number, Bali Ha’i ,below.