In 1875, composer Georges Bizet premiered a sweeping opera called Carmen. Almost a century later, famed Broadway hard-hitter Oscar Hammerstein II created a 20th-century adaptation of the piece, the big-budget musical Carmen Jones. Still concerned with the lives of the proletariat, Carmen Jones is the story of a woman working in a parachute factory during World War II who is caught between her desire for two men: a soldier and a prize fighter.
“The most obvious difference is that it’s an all-Black cast,” says Fredericka Meek, who plays Carmen in the upcoming Ensemble Theatre Company production. “Carmen is a young woman who loves love. She loves the chase. Once the chase is over, she moves on. At the start of the show, she’s bored, and Joe comes in on leave … he becomes the focus of her next chase.”
Audiences will recognize the music from Bizet’s opera, but with new lyrics to tell the updated tale. Directed by Jonathan Fox, Carmen Jones remains a relevant story of the haves and the have-nots. Some may bristle at the idea of a white man writing a story about Black culture, but Hammerstein, who was Jewish, felt cultural kinship with African Americans in the wake of the Nazis. “He also likened African Americans to the gypsy people, the Roma people,” says Meek (in Bizet’s opera, Carmen was a gypsy). “He felt like African Americans were the gypsies of the United States.”
Fox and the ETC team have also taken pains to alleviate potential problematic elements in the script by de-stereotyping the characters’ diction. Meek calls it a big change that “elevates” the piece. “Putting on a show that highlights a woman of color is really important,” she says, “especially at this time, when there are so many things in the world that are against women, against women of color.”
Carmen Jones runs at the New Vic Theater October 8-23. For more information, visit etcsb.org.
Credit: Zach Mendez