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On the Town, flashpoint for racial distress

When the first production of On the Town in 1944 featured the Japanese American ballerina Sono Osato as its star, as part of a cast that also included whites and blacks, it aimed for a realistic depiction of the diversity among US citizens during World War II. It did so at a time when African Americans were expressing affinity with Nisei – that is, with second-generation children of Japanese nationals who had immigrated to other countries. The two communities shared the struggle of discrimination by the majority culture.

In 1942, the Office of War Information conducted a survey in Harlem, trying to gain an African-American perspective on the war, and opinions about the Japanese emerged in the process. Many Harlemites communicated a feeling that “these Japanese are colored people.” That quotation comes from a letter written by William Pickens, an African-American journalist who worked for the US Department of Treasury during World War II. When asked “Would you be better off if America or the Axis won the war?” most blacks in the survey stated they “would be treated either the same or better under Japanese rule, although a large majority responded that conditions would be worse under the Germans.”

Yet relationships between these two marginalized communities were not always easy, and On the Town became a flash point for racial distress. A striking case appeared in the memoir Long Old Road (Trident Press, 1965), written by Horace R. Cayton, Jr. An African American sociologist from Chicago, Cayton attended On the Town soon after he heard about the bombing of Hiroshima, which occurred on 6 August 1945. He articulated a shared mission between Nisei and African Americans, yet he did so with considerable agitation. “Our seats were good, and the theater was cool after the heat of New York,” wrote Cayton. He responded positively to the opening number, “New York, New York,” then launched into an assessment of the racial and political complexities posed by Osato’s appearance on stage at that particular moment in time. He perceived her as racially accommodating.

Sono Osato modeling a dress by Pattullo Modes, early 1940s. Dance Clipping Files, New York Public Library at Lincoln Center, Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations.
Sono Osato modeling a dress by Pattullo Modes, early 1940s. Dance Clipping Files, New York Public Library at Lincoln Center, Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations.

“It was a catchy tune with cute lyrics, but when the beautiful Sono Osato, who is of Japanese descent, appeared and frolicked with the American sailors, I was filled with anger and disgust,” wrote Cayton. “I care more about your people than you do, I thought, as I sat through the rest of the first act looking at the floor and wondering how soon I could escape to the bar next door.”

Cayton’s “anger and disgust” came from watching Osato engage directly and uncritically with white actors playing the role of sailors. At intermission, Cayton’s wife June, who was white, said to him: “This is the first good musical I’ve seen in years. Isn’t Sono Osato wonderful?” Cayton then recounted a tense conversation between the two of them:

“If I were half-Japanese I wouldn’t be dancing with three American sailors at a time like this,” I [Cayton] commented sourly.

“Why shouldn’t she? She’s as America as you or I.” June began to warm to her subject. “She was born in this country. She’s one hundred per cent American, doesn’t even understand Japanese.”

[Cayton replied:] ‘She’s a Jap, I’m a nigger, and you’re a white girl. Let none of us forget what we are.”

Cayton’s outburst comes across as a racial polemic. But there was deep complexity to his reaction, as he expressed solidarity with other non-white races as they confronted the hegemonic power of Caucasians. Even though his language is disturbing, it is extraordinarily frank, acknowledging the era’s venomous racism against the Japanese and the degree to which African Americans felt themselves to be backed against a wall during World War II. Cayton continued:

“I’m torn a dozen ways. I didn’t want the Japanese to win; after all, I am an American. But the mighty white man was being humiliated, and by the little yellow bastards he had nothing but contempt for. It gave me a sense of satisfaction, a feeling that white wasn’t always right, not always able to enforce its will on everyone who was colored. All those fine white liberals rejoicing because we dropped a bomb killing or maiming seventy-eight thousand helpless civilians. Why couldn’t we have dropped it on the Germans—because they were white? No, save it for the yellow bastards.”

Those multi-layered thoughts were unleashed by watching Sono Osato on stage, dancing an identity that was intended to portray her as “All-American” yet could not avoid the realities of her mixed-race heritage at a harrowing historical moment.

Headline Image: Sono Osato modeling a dress by Pattullo Modes, early 1940s. Dance Clipping Files, New York Public Library at Lincoln Center, Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations.

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