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Play offers glimpse of past, hope for future

FORTY YEARS after its famous heart attack over black and white teen-agers dancing together on the Buddy Deane television program, Baltimore gets a healing sense of humor about race, and wonders if life really can imitate art if it rearranges a few facts and lets you dance to them.

In the orchestrated pandemonium on stage at the Mechanic Theatre on Wednesday night, the cues were lovely. There stood Mayor Martin O'Malley and former municipal bad-boy John Waters, with the cast of Hairspray scattered happily about and a cheering, howling (and unself-consciously integrated) Baltimore audience falling in love with a musical image of itself.

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History's a great joker, no? Four decades ago, the Buddy Deane Show left the airwaves, a sad microcosm of the city's consuming awkwardness on race. Wednesday night, there was O'Malley, declaring Hairspray a celebration of "the proud, integrated city of Baltimore."

It was a heartwarming moment, and gives everybody something to hope for. Forty years ago, Baltimore was struggling to cast off legalized cruelty based on skin color. Today, we sneer at the very notion - or, in Hairspray's case, laugh at it. But, even if we've learned to let kids dance together, we're not fooling ourselves - bridging the racial divide is an ongoing process.

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"Back then," Waters was saying Wednesday, "we never could have imagined a Baltimore that's come this far on race. These are people" - he gestured toward the big crowd gathering outside the theater - "who remember the truth of it, and understand the authenticity of the material.

"There's racism everywhere. It's still here. The difference is, the people who are racist now have learned not to talk about it - which might be scarier than the old way."

In the Hairspray audience Wednesday was City Councilwoman Catherine E. Pugh, who moved here from Philadelphia to attend Morgan State University. She arrived a few years after the Buddy Deane Show left the air.

"The show is wonderful," Pugh said as Hairspray's curtain descended and the cheering crowd finally began filing out. "Has Baltimore changed since those days? Well, we still live in different neighborhoods. But we're finding common ground on economic issues. It's not race, it's class and money that separates us now. When you galvanize people around economics, and you introduce people to each other in business, that's where you begin to find unity."

The Baltimore of 40 years ago was a city migrating outward. In Hairspray, several whites stumble into a North Avenue record shop that's a hangout for black teen-agers, one of whom glances around and declares, "If we get any more white people in here, it'll be a suburb."

With the 40-year suburban population boom - first white people, and then middle-class black people - came a 300,000 drop in the city's population and a change from majority-white to two-thirds black.

At City Hall the day before Hairspray's opening, Mayor O'Malley reflected on some of those changes - and how the city's diverse population has learned to live together, despite some enduring strains.

"I think there's progress," O'Malley said. "I've said all along, I think our greatest strength is our diversity, and that it's not something we should run from. And I think my [political] race was an indication that we understand that."

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O'Malley pointed to City Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr.'s victory in a racially mixed district. Mitchell, who is black, received substantial numbers of white votes.

In O'Malley's Democratic primary vote against Andrey Bundley, in which the mayor grabbed 66 percent of the overall vote, he won a majority of African-American voters. Of the 125 precincts where blacks make up at least 90 percent of the population, O'Malley won 89. He had victory margins as high as 70 percent.

"Look, there's a long way to go on race," said O'Malley, who was not yet born when Hairspray's story takes place. "But, beyond the numbers, and the crossover voters, I see positive stuff in the major indicators of the city coming back to life: people moving back into town, new construction, the increase in housing prices, the schools improving."

The last is still a conundrum. One of the first institutions to integrate (and then to resegregate), the city's public schools are nearly 90 percent African-American.

"They have a long way to go," O'Malley said, "but we're seeing progress academically. As the academics improve, you'll have more parents who want to send their kids to these schools. You make the schools better, integration will follow. And it's the same thing with neighborhoods."

Maybe. The city still has its struggles, reflective of the nation's. But we've traveled a distant road since the time of Hairspray and kids who weren't allowed to dance together in public. Today, we celebrate their little triumph - even if it's not so much history as John Waters' puckish rewrite of it. If life imitates art, the best is yet to come.


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