Making a Broadway musical that attempts to carry sociopolitical tonnage on its butterfly wings is an enduring challenge. You want to fill the seats, you want to win the awards. You want critics to declare your importance, but you don’t want to scare away the tourists. Just as, in the military, one frequently encounters small men with expansive definitions of what constitutes sufficient reason for a scrap, theater folk who may suspect themselves of a frivolous essence have a need to prove to the world that they are deep, soulful, serious. And what better signifies sound moral foundations, not to mention fluency with the prevailing cultural idiom, than a disquisition on forced subjugation? As the kids say, slavery is trending.

Yet while slavery is perhaps more central to the American conversation than it has been in many...


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