I love Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein II musicals. I grew up watching them as movies on television. While not all their storylines have held up over time, I’m still moved by songs like “Something Wonderful”, “You’ll Never Walk Alone” and “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught”. I am grateful to this prolific team for their heartfelt lyrics and beautiful music, but my deepest thanks goes to R&H for introducing me to Juanita Hall.
Growing up in the sixties, I hungered for images of Black women on the silver screen whom I could name and admire. R&H let me see a Black actress strut her stuff in some of the earliest examples of casting without regard to race.
Hall had been performing on Broadway since 1930. She even took a turn at directing in 1936. By the time R&H cast her in 1949’s South Pacific, she’d performed in no less than eight Broadway plays including Green Pastures and St. Louis Woman. R&H decided they needed someone with the voice and acting chops to bring the character of the Pacific Islander Bloody Mary to life. Juanita Hall filled the bill. She reprised the role in the 1958 film, although I have to listen to the original Broadway cast album to hear her sing “Bali H’ai”. In 1958, R&H used her in a second instance of casting despite race. She created the role of Madame Liang in Flower Drum Song. Hall recreated her role for the movie in 1961.
For a Black kid growing up in the East New York section of Brooklyn, knowing this Black woman wouldn’t be pigeonholed because of her race was inspirational. I like to think there’s a bit of Hall in One Breath Away‘s Mary Hamilton, a woman hemmed in by society’s expectations, but with the potential to break through them if given the chance. Besides her stage and film career, Hall cut albums, performed in nightclubs and directed choruses and choirs. You can learn more about her here: https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/hall-juanita-1901-1968/.
Nowadays those movies are critiqued for not hiring someone of Pacific Islander or Chinese background to play these roles, and rightly so. It hurts to see someone not of your race or ethnicity representing you. Boys and girls of all races need role models in whom they can see themselves and be proud of the way I was able to see myself in and be proud of Juanita Hall. I can’t ignore or minimize the wounding caused by casting a Black woman to portray someone of another race. The pros and cons of this “colorblind” approach are passionately debated. What I can do is celebrate that in 1949, by casting Hall in a musical whose plot revolves around race prejudice, R&H helped make Black History. Juanita Hall not only won the 1950 Tony for her role but, by doing so, became the first African American ever to win a Tony award.
One Breath Away
Sentenced to hang for a crime she didn’t commit, former slave Mary Hamilton was exonerated at literally the last gasp. She returns to Safe Haven, broken and resigned to live alone. She’s never been courted, cuddled or spooned, and now no man could want her, not when sexual satisfaction comes only with the thought of asphyxiation. But then the handsome stranger who saved her shows up, stealing her breath from across the room and promising so much more.
Wealthy, freeborn-Black, Eban Thurman followed Mary to Safe Haven, believing the mysteriously exotic woman was foretold by the stars. He must marry her to reclaim his family farm. But first he must help her heal, and to do that means revealing his own predilection for edgier sex.
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Excerpt from One Breath Away…
“Why not you, Mary?”
“Because someone like you only looks at someone like me out of pity.”
Of course. His aunt put him up to this. Anger warmed Mary’s ears.
“Let me go.” She made to pull away. “I want to sit.”
“Please. Not before the music stops.” He timed his plea to the rhythm of the waltz. “I’ve waited all week for this moment.”
Mary gritted her teeth. Heart hurt joined her injured pride. She needed no one’s charity.
“That was cruel of you, sir. No one counts the days until they can ask me for a dance.” Tears pooled behind her closed eyelids. “Anyone in town could tell you that.”
The grip on her hand tightened, forcing her eyes open. The light in his gaze darkened. “Anyone who’d lie to me like that would be taking their life in their hands.” He leaned in so his mouth nuzzled her ear again. “And if you use that I’m-not-worthy tone of voice again, I’ll be forced to prove you wrong with a kiss.”
Alarm shuddered up Mary’s back. “Is—is that a threat?”
A chilly thrill replaced the alarm. She blew out a breath to steady herself. Threat or certainty, both treated her to a delicious revelation—she wanted that kiss. She eyed his lips, imagined their soft yet demanding press against hers. Once more the voice of caution repeated its warning.
Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.
Oh, to be forced to flee from such a devil as he. She sighed. What a wonderful problem to have.