Tony-nominated shows shatter stereotypes of the American South

Shucked, set in a fictional rural town, and Fat Ham, set in the modern South, bridge cultural divides and offer an affirming portrayal of the region on Broadway.

Billy McEntee
Billy McEntee

The United States has long seen cultural divides between its North and South. However, this Broadway season, Tony-nominated shows remind audiences that the Bible Belt is not a monolith — many peoples, traditions, and politics inhabit the American South.

“There are a lot of queer people that live in the South,” said James Ijames, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning play Fat Ham, a riff on Hamlet that centers Black queerness in a culture of toxic masculinity, is now nominated for the Tony Award for Best Play. “There are a lot of people that are surviving down there. If I can give them a mirror of what their life is, that means a lot to me because I didn't have any mirrors.”

Fat Ham is not alone in gifting a reflection: While Ijames’s show offers Southern, Black queer folks visibility on stage, Shucked (up for nine Tonys including Best Musical) is also showing Midwesterners and Southerners — traveling from afar to see these shows — that they, too, can be the main characters in a story and not the butt of its jokes.

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“I'm from Texas, from a rodeo background, so I know the people — my kinfolk are scattered all over that stage at the Nederlander,” said Kevin Cahoon, who is nominated for Best Featured Actor in a Musical for his side-splitting turn as Peanut. Cahoon may be earning laughs as Cob County's witty jack of all trades, but he also knows Shucked can reveal more than just corn puns and an entertaining love story.

“When I was researching the role and thinking about these country comedians that came out in the Dust Bowl of the Great Depression, like Minnie Pearl and Jerry Clower, they were speaking to rural America,” Cahoon shared. “Rural Americans were not seeing themselves in popular culture. So to see a simple, truthful, honest, heartfelt representation — I've had so many people at the line signing at the end of the night say, ‘We're from Nebraska, we're from Ohio, we're from Iowa, and we have never felt like we had been seen in a Broadway show like we are being seen in this.’ That’s special, and it's what keeps Broadway alive, right?”

Tony-nominated librettist Robert Horn has similarly witnessed the show’s gravitational pull.

“Every night, people come up to us and say, I never thought I'd see myself represented on a Broadway stage,” he shared. “I felt that way when I saw Rent for the first time. I was like, here I am, a gay man. I've never really seen musicals [like] that. Granted, there were some dark themes in that because of the times, but I felt seen and represented.”

Horn, whose own in-laws are from the South, wrote Shucked from a knowing but loving place. He knew a way to bridge gaps would be to create a story that “never condescends,” he said. “It never looks down on these characters. It never makes them tropes — they really are characters in the community and you take that journey with them. It was really important to me not to make fun.”

He named his mother-in-law as one person who helped him find the heart of his characters and reframe one Southern stereotype, religiousness, in a positive light. "She's got this devout faith, which I don't," Horn said. "I am envious of the fact that she has something that she believes in that gets her through dark times.

"A lot of that is what inspired me... [The characters have] this belief in each other, this solidarity, this family that truly comes from their faith."

Horn’s effort to create “a deeper message,” in which, he said, “you can't just do comedy,” parallels Ijames’s in Fat Ham, where a family barbecue becomes a powder keg for unearthing past traumas and a homophobic lineage.

“Black stories are important in and of themselves, queer stories are important in and of themselves, Southern stories are important in and of themselves, and so the combination is important,” he said.

Shucked also wins hearts by exploring the combination of identities. “I'm married to a Southern man whose family is Southern Baptist, very conservative, and I’m a Jew from Brooklyn,” Horn said. “But we break bread. I love my in-laws and I love my family. They’re just different. Not worse, not better. They're just different. And I wanted to connect those two worlds.”

Get Shucked tickets now.

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Top image credit: The Broadway cast of Shucked. (Photo by Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman)
*In-article image credit: The Broadway cast of Fat Ham. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

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