You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught

Having lost its Thursday evening performance due to a somewhat over-hyped snow event, the 44-member student cast of the Worthington High School “South Pacific” production forged ahead last night, intent on salvaging three of its four scheduled shows. (It continues at Memorial Auditorium Performing Arts Center tonight at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m.)

After nearly two months of rehearsals, costume fittings, dance drills and prop scavenging, everyone was more than ready to entertain a full audience–and they did so with fervor and spirit.

On the face of it, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s award-winning “South Pacific” can seem rather light and “puffy.” Female protagonist Nellie Forbush is in a ditzy dither about whether Emile de Becque is the right man for her; she first declares she’s going to wash that man right out of her hair and then, only one dreamy dinner invitation and a few moments later, drives her fellow nurses crazy by asserting she’s in love with a “Wonderful Guy.”

Although the terrors of World War II are ever lurking, the soldiers stationed on a certain South Pacific island appear to be more preoccupied with obtaining cheap grass skirts to send home as souvenirs, mocking their “Honey Bun” of a comrade Luther Billis and finagling ways to obtain female companionship on the mysterious shores of Bali Ha’i.

But it doesn’t require intense scrutiny to notice that Rodgers and Hammerstein were really using the musical as a vehicle for exposing base human prejudices.

The two primary relationship conflicts in the show result from personal prejudices. Nellie is shocked to learn her would-be husband, Emile de Becque, is a widower with two children–and that their mother was (GASP!) a Polynesian. Because Nellie’s hometown is said to be Little Rock, Ark., one can imagine the type of racial divide and segregation under which she would have grown up during the 1930s.

Similarly, Lieutenant Joseph Cable, a Princeton University graduate, believes he’s found true love in the form of a sweet young Polynesian girl, Liat. But his keen knowledge of the disapproval with which such a relationship would be viewed by his parents and peer community pushes him into a distracted depression, causing him to care little about surviving the war if such hypocrisy awaited him upon his return.

And the war itself–that looming shadow, with the Allied powers united against the Axis forces–represents humanity at its worst and lowest point, with certain countries orchestrating the genocide of particular people because their religion, or color, or practices, didn’t happen to align precisely with theirs.

Fear of the “other,” of those who are superficially different than us, is the theme truly at the core of “South Pacific.” Stripped of the fluff, that premise is laid bare when Cable angrily sings, “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught.” He opines that prejudices are not born in individuals, but taught to them by parents and authority figures who are deeply invested in ensuring that young ones see things the way they do.

“You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear; you’ve got to be taught, from year to year….you’ve got to be taught to be afraid…of people whose skin is a different shade….you’ve got to be taught before it’s too late….to hate all the people your relatives hate; you’ve got to be carefully taught,” penned Oscar Hammerstein in 1949, risking much to assert that intolerance was the root of most human conflict.

Seeing this student production of “South Pacific,” with its harmonious blend of diverse students, it’s difficult to fathom why humans are so threatened by those who do not look just like them, or by those who don’t think exactly the same way. When we consider our common humanity and focus on what we all share rather than on the insignificant elements that separate us, it’s amazing what we can mutually accomplish.

As the late Rodney King plaintively queried, “Why can’t we all just get along?”

Getting along…now that’s “Happy Talk.”