As Joe in the University of Kentucky Opera Theatre’s production of “Show Boat,” Blake Denson sings the show’s iconic song, “Old Man River.”
While it’s a classic Broadway show tune — often a proving ground for basses and baritones who want to demonstrate how low they can go — Denson says it also gets to the enduring pain portrayed in “Show Boat,” a musical that addresses racism on a Mississippi River entertainment boat in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
“It’s basically him coming to the realization of how bad life is, and there’s not really anything he can do about it, at that time,” Denson says. “They sing about how colored folks work on the Mississippi while white folks play. Even in the beginning, when they’re singing ‘Cotton Blossom,’ the African-Americans and the Caucasians are singing totally different lines, and that just shows the division of races during that time.”
The show includes threats of lynching, legal action for violating laws against interracial marriage and other overt and subtle forms of racism.
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“Joe sings about, ‘bend your knee, bow your head, and don’t make the angry white boss mad,’ because back then, lynching — especially on the Mississippi, especially in Mississippi. It was just a dangerous time for people of color. In some places there, in some places in the South, it still is dangerous for people of color.”
Denson wishes he could say the racism portrayed in the show is “in the past,” but it still matches the reality he lives, even as a celebrated student who enjoyed a reign as Mr. Black UK and has had lead roles in several high profile opera productions, he said.
He recalls participating is a protest two years ago where black students laid down on the floor at the William T. Young Library and seeing online comments like, “Get those monkeys out of here,” and “get that mud off the ground.”
“I was raised to know that I was a man of color, so I have always had to adapt to environments because I am a man of color,” says Denson, who grew up in Paducah. “Me, being a man of color in a predominantly white field, in a predominantly white institution, you kind of get used to that.”
But, Denson has enjoyed getting to know the director of UK Opera Theatre , Everett McCorvey, a black man who Denson says understands the challenges he faces as a student and a singer.
“To walk into my program and see that there is a man that looks like me, that I can go and talk to at any time about anything, and we have things we can relate to — it’s a blessing,” says Denson, whose primary voice teacher is Dennis Bender. “God has used Dr. McCorvey to bless so many people, and give so many people a chance.”
Denson started singing in church at Harrison Street Baptist Church in Paducah, where people would tell him, “You have such a bullhorn of a voice.” He dabbled in band a bit in high school, but decided to pursue choir. At the 2013 Governor’s School for the Arts, Denson says vocal music chair A.T. Simpson was the first to tell him he could have a career singing.
Denson auditioned at UK’s Alltech Vocal Scholarship competition on crutches, with a cast on his broken leg. But he won, setting him on a college career path that has seen him in classic operas and musicals and newer fare such as the Broadway hit “Ragtime” and last fall’s experimental “Bounce: The Basketball Opera,” in which he played the villain, deposed team captain TJ “The Future” King.
Like “Show Boat,” those shows addressed themes of race and black life in America that Denson has appreciated.
Far from a constant struggle, Denson talks enthusiastically about his UK career, including the close knit community of the opera theatre — he receives several 22nd birthday greetings from fellow cast members during a backstage interview on Tuesday — and his involvement in the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity. He gets particularly animated talking about his senior recital, leaning heavily on his beloved Italian music, and wants to have a recital back in Paducah so hometown folks can see how he’s progressed.
But he likes being able to use his art to address issues which are historical and, he says, unfortunately enduring.
“People like to say, ‘Oh, it’s the past. Forget about it.’ or ‘Why do black people always bring this up?’” Denson says. “We bring it up, because we’re constantly being reminded of it, and we bring it up because, when there’s issues, you can’t just constantly push them under the rug. They need to be addressed. This show is so iconic because it addresses the issues that happened then, and are still happening now.
“That’s why I want people to come see it. It’s a great show. We’ve worked really hard to do this. You’re going to see a lot of love and camaraderie on this stage because we all love each other.”
Rich Copley, @copiousnotes
If you go
What: The Jerome Kern, Oscar Hammerstein II musical presented by the University of Kentucky Opera Theatre.
When: 7:30 p.m. March 2, 2 and 7:30 p.m. March 3 and 4
Where: Singletary Center for the Arts concert hall, 405 Rose St.
Tickets: $40-$45 general public, $13 UK students with ID