His Royal Hipness Lord Buckley is the most racially insensitive production I have seen at a major theatre. In the days since I witnessed it I have struggled to understand how a work so offensively misguided could see the light of day. I cannot. This play would like you to believe it is progressive and enlightened, and that you, for seeing it, are progressive and enlightened too. It is mistaken. Though its actors may not be wearing blackface, Lord Buckley is a minstrel show, a recklessly cartoonish misappropriation of black culture in which a white man, imitating Martin Luther King, Jr., sings “We all dreamin’ the same dream, baby!” For all its wannabe-edgy jabs at Donald Trump and Steve Bannon, it embodies much of the same racial entitlement that gave them the Oval Office. The irony would be laughable if it weren’t so horrifying.
Lord Richard Buckley was an English-born American entertainer in the 40s and 50s, two decades that complicate any project of white nostalgia. His schtick was dressing like an aristocrat while acting like a hipster, which back then referred to people who enjoyed and/or performed jazz. I suppose this was amusing, at the time, because it enacted in a highborn costume what was considered low art. Promotional materials tell me Lord Buckley influenced the likes of Lenny Bruce, Jack Kerouac and Richard Pryor, though today he is largely forgotten, perhaps because his work spoke to a precise cultural moment which most of us are embarrassed to look back at, let alone resurrect in two 45-minute acts that feel interminably longer. Not so for Lord Buckley’s writer and leading man, Jake Broder, who has been performing some version of this show for the last decade. The current iteration, a production by North Coast Repertory Theatre playing at 59E59, is a sleek mess of jumbled storytelling and retrograde politics. Backed by a jazz trio and a “Hip News Man” (Michael Lanahan), Lord Buckley translates highlights from the Western canon into what he calls the “semantic of the hip,” a euphemism for jive talk. It’s wildly appropriative—everyone onstage is white—and Broder’s exaggerated impression of a black jazz performer is, frankly, not okay. Though he acknowledges the history of the art he’s coopting, he seems oblivious to the endeavor’s implicit assertion of racial superiority. Here’s a segment from his opening monologue:
“Now we’re going to do for you some of the most beautiful stories in all storydom in the beautiful zig zag semantic of the hip. It was said 60 years ago—People of color bashed up against the granite walls of stupidity for long—they not only gave us Music—Blues, Jazz, but they created a language which sparkles in its Color of its depth—and resounds with the content of its character. Tonight—think of yourself at a graduate course at the University of Hip—you will graduate Magna Cum Swingy.”
It is easy, in theatre and especially in music, to be so taken with the style of a thing that one glances right past the substance. So let’s look more closely here. Translated into what I’ll call the semantic of subtext, the monologue reads something like this: “After being enslaved and disenfranchised for centuries, people of color invented jazz and the blues. They also talked differently than white people. We have not suffered under any of the same power systems, but we can all agree that jazz is cool, and so is the slang associated with it. As we have the privilege of moving through this world as we please, why not use another culture’s music and speech to ‘jazz’ up Western literature?” The play’s selections of the “most beautiful stories in all storydom” are A Christmas Carol and The Pied Piper, which gain little new resonance when translated into the “hip semantic”; it becomes quickly apparent that this is all just a lark. Consider the beginning of his take on A Christmas Carol:
Yes, me, I’m Scrooge and I got all Marley’s barley, and I’m the baddest cat in all dis world,
Coolin in my penthouse pad in Scrooge tower.
I been studyin’ all my life how to Scrooge people,
and I guarantee I done some fine work in dat direction. “Cratchit!”
“I shorely is, sir.”
“See dat you keep busy.
Don’t want no danglin’ wanglin’ around here.
Keep everybody tight.
And tell dem two cats come in here want to get some money
I ain’t givin’ no money away.
Dey messin’ wit Scrooge.
I’m takin’ it in. I ain’t puttin’ it out.
Now, it’s true that these lines were penned by the actual Lord Buckley over sixty years ago, and perhaps we could forgive their blatantly problematic nature as the nature of historical inquiry. But Broder makes no effort to engage with Buckley’s biography or context. This could be a timely, critical look at the long history of white artists heedlessly appropriating from people of color, one that asks why its subject has faded from memory despite his supposed influence. Perhaps it would find that his work exceeded the threshold of obvious racism we generally tolerate today; or perhaps it would find that we got him all wrong. Unfortunately, Lord Buckley plays as pure nostalgia. For Broder, as with Buckley, “hip” is merely a neat aesthetic, a speech affect, a costume to be donned and discarded at one’s pleasure, a pleasure conveniently divorced from the pleasureless history in which jazz and the blues came to be. This is painfully palpable in the first act closer, a rendition of “Georgia On My Mind” interspersed with dialogue that enacts, inexplicably, a lynching. I suppose the point is that the sunny narratives surrounding southern history have a terrible dark side, but there is little context given before Buckley starts voicing both the victim and the perpetrator. He simply prefaces the song: “This is the last time we shall have to play this number, because it will be made irrelevant.” Yes—as if white people singing jazz could bring the end of racial violence.
When he’s not retelling the original Buckley tales, Broder works overtime to prove he’s a good guy. His banter, with the audience and with his fellow performers, is dotted with contemporary allusions: jokes about Donald Trump, Barack Obama and Lin-Manuel Miranda that yearn to situate Lord Buckley on the right side of history. In one segment, the Hip News Man announces that the faces on Mount Rushmore are to be replaced with Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. In another, Lord Buckley declares that “no matter how flipped out things get” under President Trump, “In 2020, you can always vote for Kanye West.” He postulates that since the Founding Fathers, “heavy handed cats banging wigs,” overcame their differences to draft the Constitution, we can surely overcome our present political divides: “If they can do it, so can we!” Well, no. The Framers were wealthy slaveowners who architected the electoral system that has just genuinely, irreparably screwed over millions of people, on top of the millions it originally screwed over, a screw-over our country has spent decades upon decades trying to un-screw. They disagreed about how to apportion legislators; the President-elect rose to power on the promise of mass deportations and religious discrimination. To compare the Constitutional Conventions with our present circumstance is insulting.
The play presents many rich historical threads begging to be woven into something more cohesive—one of the many things the Framers disagreed about, for instance, was slavery—but Broder is more interested in using slang than actually interrogating his subject matter. In one particularly tone-deaf sequence, the Hip News Man asks Lord Buckley to translate the Bill of Rights into his “hip” dialect. After breezing through the first few, Buckley skips to his “favorite amendment”:
“Lincoln, who was the hippest cat who ever blew—he laid down a very simple truth—for all to dig. 13th Amendment: Black Lives Matter. That’s it. Old Skool Mic Drop.”
It’s a bizarrely self-congratulatory moment for a show that purports to venerate jazz but admits not one person of color on its stage. It’s also completely inane. As anyone who has paid any attention to the Black Lives Matter movement might recognize—as its very existence indicates—the abolishment of chattel slavery did very little in the way of codifying that black lives matter. And anyone who has read the Thirteenth Amendment might recall that it provides for involuntarily servitude of convicted criminals, of which Southern states took cruel advantage almost immediately after ratification, and which remains one of the more grotesque, racist features of our criminal justice system. Of course, none of that lends itself to a mic drop.
So yes, His Royal Hipness Lord Buckley is a bad play, as many plays are bad plays, best left to languish in their own corner of the intellectual echo chamber. I have devoted it this much time only because I think it exemplifies a larger problem in the theatre. As best I could tell, there were two people of color in my audience, an audience mostly above a certain age and clearly of a certain economic status. As best I can tell, there are no people of color in either Lord Buckley’s creative team nor 59E59’s management team. The same goes for North Coast Repertory’s leadership. I would be very surprised to learn that any POC were consulted in the programming of this show, which seems to me an obviously dated relic of a less inclusive era. This isn’t a matter of speech-policing or political correctness: Quite simply, His Royal Hipness Lord Buckley is an act of cultural appropriation dressed up in a condescending veneer of reverent nostalgia. It’s a group of white guys enacting black stereotypes for a mostly white audience; this should’ve been a no-brainer. Apparently the nostalgia factor is compelling enough for a subscriber base that grew up in that era to overlook—or simply not recognize—that this sort of glossy, faux-progressive, self-satisfied appropriation is deeply regressive. But it is. And this is why artistic organizations must make diversity at all levels an inflexible imperative. If white gatekeepers truly care about black lives, black voices and black art, then they must make a space for it and get out of the way; it is not enough to pat themselves and their subscribers on the back. If they are unconvinced of the artistic need for diversity, as I know many gatekeepers are, then perhaps they might consider the economic need. If your programming is geared chiefly toward rich white senior citizens, you will soon be programming for no one at all.