Making your living as an artist has never been an easy path, but it was particularly difficult in America from the late 1940s to the early 1960s during the Second Red Scare perpetuated by Joseph McCarthy, when the government kept hundreds of musicians, writers, screenwriters, directors and actors out of work because of their alleged ties to or sympathies with the Communist Party. Artists simply suspected of Communist beliefs or spreading Communist propaganda in their work could be labeled as Reds and placed on a blacklist with other entertainers by the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) — evidence or no evidence. Refusing to testify to the committee could also get you in trouble too and identified as a Communist sympathizer. If you were an entertainer with liberal leanings working at that time, it was very difficult to fight against the country’s growing fear of communism — and even harder to work.
With her new show Blacklisted!, local singer-songwriter and cabaret performer Carla Gordon shines a spotlight on some of the artists who were silenced during this terrible time. The 90-minute show, which was written and directed by Gordon, who also performs several songs in the show, also features Chicago cabaret performers and musicians Joan Curto, Beckie Menzie (musical direction), Paul Motondo, Wayne Richards, Rabbi Barry Schecter, Robert Sims and Three for the Road & Friends.
In a delightful combination of storytelling and musical performance, the ensemble performed songs written or covered by blacklisted artists like Charlie Chaplin, Lena Horne and E.Y. “Yip” Harburg, who wrote “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” The show also includes heartfelt tributes to the musical Fiddler on the Roof and Chicago’s Studs Terkel. We don’t just get to hear music by artists who were silenced during the Blacklist era — we also get to hear the stories of how each artist struggled and fought against the government’s — referred to as the “HUAC boys” by Gordon — bullying tactics and thinly veiled anti-Semitism. The show’s ensemble effortlessly ties in their own personal connections and stories with each featured artist, and these personal notes contribute to some of the most emotionally resonant moments of the show.
About 60 years after a countrywide terror over Communism led to hundreds of artists losing their jobs and reputations, Blacklist! is more than just a remembrance of those individuals; it’s an expression of gratitude to all of the artists who refused to be silenced and manipulated by the government so that artists today can perform freely.
“Some of our artists would have been blacklisted today and we would not have been able to perform for you today,” Gordon said at the end of the series of performances, before closing out the show with an original song she wrote with ensemble member and composer Wayne Richards called “A Prayer for America.” Said Gordon, “I wrote the song out of profound gratitude that no one keeps our songs from being heard.”
The next showing of Blacklisted! at Skokie Theatre on April 10 is sold out but there are still tickets available for the May 10 show. Buy tickets on the Skokie Theatre website.