Jesus, Santa, and Now "Sound of Music's" Mother Abbess?

Roundup: Historians' Take
tags: theater, plays, Race, African history, religious history

Shannen Dee Williams holds a Ph.D. in history from Rutgers University. She is the 2013-2014 postdoctoral fellow in African-American studies at Case Western Reserve University and is currently revising her book manuscript, Subversive Habits: Black Nuns and the Struggle to Desegregate Catholic America after World War I. When completed, Subversive Habits will be the first historical monograph on African-American Catholic sisters in the twentieth century.

Earlier this month, veteran stage actress Audra McDonald gifted audiences with yet another sublime performance in NBC’s live remake of The Sound of Music.

While the overall production received mixed reviews, critics across the country heralded McDonald’s portrayal of Mother Abbess and her soul-stirring rendition of “Climb E’vry Mountain” as the television week’s top highlight, with Time calling her "the show-stealer of the night."

Despite such acclaim, McDonald’s portrayal of the majestic Mother Abbess was not without its detractors. But negative reviewers had nothing unflattering to say about the five-time Tony Award winner’s acting or vocal abilities—instead, their opposition was chiefly rooted in the portrayal of the often-overlooked Mother Abbess as a black woman....

To say that there could not have been a black nun in a European convent in the modern era not only demonstrates a profound ignorance of the long and rich history of black Catholic nuns in the Atlantic world, but also reflects the egregious limitations of the white American racial imagination, which has for centuries equated blackness with moral debasement and vehemently denied the existence of “a virtuous black woman.”...

Read entire article at Religion Dispatches

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