Show Boat

by Lee Sharkey

Quiet in the snow     a memory lies there
Snow Face, pick up your cold cream, your tube of tar
Prepare the mirror for revelation
What has fallen onto your pale shoulders
A darkie wants your tongue

A tangled skein of race and gender.  It’s a Jewish girls’ camp; in the musical, I’m
cast as Joe.  The director traces slavery’s legacy in the song and dance on the riverboat,
the black chorus behind the white romance.  When we listen to the cast
recording, Robeson’s “Old Man River” makes me tremble.

Snow Queen, a song of cotton
Open your throat and veil your eyes
With every step, necessity
Doubles you over, toting bales to the river
Where black skin slicks with sweat

In rehearsal, she’s harshest on me.  I can’t take a step without her stopping the
action, revising my gait, my vowels.  The low note’s not one a girl can reach.
Only before the dress rehearsal, while her fingers apply my makeup, does she tell
me she saw the actor I could be — This role’s as broad as the river, and you can
carry it.  In the mirror, I see an old, black man.

Snow Fool, there is no entr’acte
When night has fallen and you’ve claimed the stage
Your blackness streams into the spotlight
Obscuring everything but rapt attending
Now the low note rumbles from your chest

I have become Joe, back aching, legs cast lead.  All eyes are on my
solo; I stare into the pulsing dark.  Paul Robeson stands beside me.  My lungs
expand to reach the low note, lift the burden with my song.  I will never recover f
rom this, no matter the sense of irony I will acquire, the shame.