When you’ve got the respect of white and colored, you can ease a lot of things. I can’t settle the issue. If I was that good, I should be President of the United States. But I can help to ease the tension by gaining the respect of both races all over the country.
Nat King Cole, quoted in Ebony, April 1965
Before Friday, I was vaguely aware that Dule Hill had a stage career in addition to his work on screen. Similarly, my limited awareness of Nat King Cole was that his singing had reached both sides of segregated audiences. Instead of going to stores on Black Friday, my family and I went to the matinee performance of the new play Lights Out: Nat “King” Cole at People’s Light in Malvern, Pennsylvania. Among the most intergenerational and racially diverse audience I have seen since Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend 2017, I spent Black Friday learning about one black artist’s struggle in the entertainment industry through the work of a current black artist among a multicultural cast.
Dule Hill’s character Gus on the USA network show Psych filled a gap for me between The Cosby Show and black-ish. As I progressed through graduate school with a cohort of Turner Fellows, I appreciated seeing on television an educated black man with a stable job. I also emailed USA Network to thank them for featuring other rarely seen roles in addition to Gus: a widower living with a chronic mental disorder (Monk on Monk), a professional Indian woman wrestling with an arranged marriage (Divya on Royal Pains), and a blind veteran working in a CIA office (Auggie on Covert Affairs). I had not taken note of the times Hill sang or danced on the TV show, but his skill and talent in embodying Cole amazed me as I watched from the sixth row of the theater. In particular, the tap dance duet between Hill and Daniel J. Watts (as Sammy Davis Jr.) reignited my latent zeal for this art of evoking the sounds and patterns of a snare drum with one’s feet. The sweat from Hill’s athleticism and intensity of emotion washed away the skin-lightening powder character Cole was forced to add before and during the breaks of the staged broadcast show.
Television is glad to have me as a guest but not as the star of my own program.
Nat King Cole, quoted in Jet, March 4, 1965
Inspired by Friday’s performance, I read more about Nat King Cole and his career. Although he may have been as publicly soft-spoken on racial prejudice as his voice was mellow, he donated performances and hundreds of thousands of dollars to civil rights causes, was attacked during a show in my hometown Birmingham, Alabama, filed a lawsuit against hotel discrimination in Illinois, and integrated an unwelcoming Los Angeles neighborhood.
…The artist who has the power of music in their hands, they can feed that power into either our greater or lesser selves.
This weekend I also learned that before the parts of their careers I had previously encountered, Cole was an accomplished pianist, and Hill was a successful tap dancer. This month as I prepare for a talk on protest song and compose choral and chamber music, I realize that how, where, and for whom I make music will change throughout my career, mostly by my choice. I cannot be aware of the legacy of these choices, but like Cole and Hill I can keep creating with the intention of doing good for society.