racism in Thoroughly Modern Millie

Boston Globe: ‘Millie’ flap highlights how old plays are rife with stereotypes

Small wonder, then, that Asian-American audiences would object to the crude ethnic cartoons in “Millie,’’ and that, more broadly, they would consider the choice between invisibility and insult to be unacceptable in this day and age.

 

racism in Thoroughly Modern Millie

In the aftermath of the Newton North controversy, it’s worth remembering that high school productions are frequently the first experience of theater that students receive: as performers, crew members, or spectators. In other words, high school is where the theater audiences of the future are forged.

 

‘Millie’ flap highlights how old plays are rife with stereotypes by Don Aucoin in today’s Boston Globe

But the concerns expressed in Newton before and after the performances of “Thoroughly Modern Millie’’ also deserve to be taken seriously. In part, the “Millie’’ imbroglio underscores the difficulty that even well-intentioned people confront when they tackle problematic source material.

Ethnic stereotyping is popular culture’s original sin, and it’s proving a hard one to shed.

Look no further than the uproar over last weekend’s production of “Thoroughly Modern Millie’’ at Newton North High School. A storm erupted on social media and community blogs about the musical’s depiction of three characters — two of them Chinese, one of them masquerading as Chinese — who kidnap young women and sell them as sex slaves. The director of the organization that staged “Millie’’ apologized at a community meeting Monday.

Having recently seen “Millie’’ in a different production at a Greater Boston high school where my daughter was in the cast, I must say that it’s hard to detect nuanced stereotype-busting in the show.

It was the latest loud collision between the past and the present, a frequent occurrence in theater as a dated canon meets an increasingly diverse population. The very plays and musicals that outwardly seem like a good fit for high schoolers — because of their tunefulness and large casts and overall buoyancy — are often the most problematic in their depictions of nonwhite characters.

The very plays and musicals that outwardly seem like a good fit for high schoolers — because of their tunefulness and large casts and overall buoyancy — are often the most problematic in their depictions of nonwhite characters.

Consider, for example, 1949’s “South Pacific,’’ which sends an earnest antiracism message undercut by the cringe-inducing, pidgin-English-speaking character of Bloody Mary. Or 1934’s “Anything Goes,’’ whose Chinese characters are naught but walking punch lines. Concerns about negative stereotypes of Puerto Ricans in 1957’s “West Side Story’’ have escalated in the past couple of decades. (Amherst High School canceled a scheduled student production in 1999.)

Read the rest of the article here.

… she [actress Jenna Lea Scott] remarks, tellingly and poignantly, that “among my reasons for pursuing an acting career was a desire to see myself represented on the stage.”

That’s a widespread desire among members of ethnic groups who for too long have been slighted or ignored: to see themselves represented on the stage and screen, accurately and fully.

It doesn’t seem like too much to ask.

 

My Related Posts:

Thoroughly Modern Millie is Thoroughly Racist

My Take on Thoroughly Modern Millie

Talk Back: Racism in Thoroughly Modern Millie at NNHS

NNHS Responds to Concerns About Thoroughly Modern Millie

MTI Advises How to Squelch Dissent on Thoroughly Modern Millie

Throwndown NNHS: Talk the Talk or Walk the Walk? Regarding Racism in Thoroughly Modern Millie

Rebuttal to ‘Millie in Newton: Turn Stereotypes into Lessons

More Than 50% of Asian American Teens are Bullied in School

White Privilege and Thoroughly Modern Millie

 

More links:

The Boston Globe: School play’s stereotypes bring outcry and apology. “Millie” touches nerve in Newton by Ellen Ishkanian, Globe Correspondent

The Boston Globe: ‘Millie’ Flag Highlights How Old Plays are Rife with Stereotypes by Don Aucoin

The Telegraph: US high school show triggers race row by David Millward

NECN TV SegmentNECN Broadside with Jim Braude, Historical Musical Sparks Controvery at Massa chusetts High School

The Boston Globe: ‘Millie’ Fight Creates a Chilling Effect by Joan Vennochi

The Boston Globe: ‘Millie’ in Newton: Turn Stereotypes into Lessons

Rebuttal to ‘Millie’ in Newton: Turn Stereotypes into Lessons

The Boston Globe: Musical is Little More Than Staged Racism by Jeffrey Melnick (Letter to Editor in response to Joan Vennochi’s article above).

Monitoring, Exposing & Fighting Against Anti-Semitism and Racism: Thoroughly Modern Millie’ play draws controversy in Mass. over racial stereotyping

Company One: In the Intersection, Thoroughly Modern Millie Controvery at Local High School

Inside: Boston high school in trouble over racism in ‘Thoroughly Modern Millie’ 

A case study published by UMass Peter Kiang almost 20 years ago (see pages 9-13), parallels almost exactly what happened at Newton North High School. ScholarWorks at UMass Boston, We Could Shape It: Organizing for Asian American Student Empowerment by Peter Nien-Chu Kiang.

Resist Racism: Thoroughly Racist ‘Thoroughly Modern Millie’

Genki Speak: Racism in Our Backyard

Angry Asian Man

Village 14: Decision to Stage ‘Thoroughly Modern Millie’ at North Challenged

AsAm News: Play Filled With Offensive Images Sparks Town Hall Meeting

AsAm News: I Love Newton: High School Production Fails To Address Heavy Dose Of Asian American Stereotypes

Greer Tan Swiston: Kudos to Newton North for a thoroughly modern update of ‘Millie’

The Boston Globe: Oh, by the way, how about a round of applause for the kids? (Letter to the Editor from a grandparent)

The Boston Globe: Choice, execution of musical informed by thoughful education process (Letter to the Editor from the writers who comprise the Theatre Arts Opportunity Committee at Newton North High School.)

The Boston Globe: We miss a vital chance for understanding when we swap out ethnic characters (Letter to the Editor from a great-grandmother, teacher and volunteer)

Arissa Oh ‏@arissaoh  1h

3 white ppl on @GreaterBoston unhelpfully discuss HS prodns of “Thoroughly Modern Millie.” http://bit.ly/1ijHR9k  cc: @pragmaticmom

Pawprint: Millard West Student NewspaperThrough with Thoroughly Modern Millie

The Washington PostTwenty-Three Skiddo: ‘Modern Millie’ Doesn’t Dance

It’s an attempt, sort of, at a parody of the old-style musicals of the ’20s and ’30s, the sort jerry-built out of cheerful songs, convoluted plots, elaborate tap demonstrations and derogatory stereotypes.

IMDbThoroughly Embalmed Musical

Project MuseThoroughly Modern Millie (review)

Not Like CrazyAn Easily Overlooked Racism?

In the Spring semester at school, the Musical Theater Department put on Thoroughly Modern Millie, which was overflowing with racism in its portrayal of Asians. I must say, I was thoroughly upset about the whole thing. First, the guys playing the Asians, I believe they were supposed to be Chinese immigrants, had white face makeup and slanty eyes. I couldn’t help but think that if they’d dressed in blackface, surely there’d be an uproar (Of course, they are putting on Ragtime this year, so we’ll see how they handle that– they’re already sending out emails about how they want the black students to try out for roles because there aren’t many black people in the musical theater department *eyeroll*). That wasn’t the only bad thing about the musical, however, the villian was a white woman pretending to be Asian who pronounced her L’s as R’s, and said she used soy sauce to clean a stain. Of course, she also treated the two Asian immigrants who worked for her as if they were stupid, and the silently and humbly submit in front of her, though behind closed doors they argue in Chinese (I guess it was real Chinese), with subtitles projected above the stage. And then one of the Asian men falls in love with one of the white women in the musical, blonde hair, blue eyes, you know the deal. At the end of the musical, they get together, as if his reward for working hard and being submissive, for being mistreated, is the gift of white womanhood, the pinnacle of creation. So yeah, I was pretty pissed about that whole thing.

MyvanwyReview of Thoroughly Modern Millie

Someone sent me video of a local comedian’s youtube video of a character I’ve seen him portray once before. To call it infantile and racially insensitive would be a gross understatement. For the targets of his ridicule, it’s every bit as offensive as a mean-spirited performance in blackface. But because it’s against one of the few groups for whom bigotry, hostility, and ridicule is still acceptable (Chinese Americans and others of Asian and/or Pacific Island descent), it’s seen as okay by most and even encouraged by other local comedians. Kevin Marshall’s America

Zak KeithHollywood Asian Stereotypes

Racism against Asians is often “unawares”—a form of racism that flies under the radar due to its widespread acceptance as the norm. Its interactive dynamic resembles that of an unwritten social contract. Asians in the West are expected to accept patronizing remarks and racist taunts so demeaning that perpetrators would think twice before dishing them out with such unwavering consistency to any other minority group, such as Latinos or African Americans. Asians who object to such treatment are typically met with befuddlement and offense at their audacity to make an issue out of it.

miasmall

Mia Wenjen blogs at PragmaticMom: Education Matters, here and occasionally at her Asian American blog JadeLuckClub. She resides in Newton with her husband and three kids, the oldest of which will attend Newton North High School this fall. She can be found on PinterestTwitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, Sulia, Google +Instagram and YouTube.

Comments
3 Responses to “Boston Globe: ‘Millie’ flap highlights how old plays are rife with stereotypes”
  1. Romantic Dad says:

    What do you think of this article:

    Kudos to Newton North for a thoroughly modern update of ‘Millie’

    http://newton.wickedlocal.com/article/20140317/NEWS/140316799

    Her conclusion of ‘I can see that Theatre Ink went the extra mile and even addressed many of the more subtle issues.’ is contrasting to the majority of the sentiment expressed on this forum. What do you think is the difference?

    • Pragmatic Mom says:

      Hi Romantic Dad,
      It’s pretty clear that Greer has her “politician” hat on and is trying not to offend anyone.

  2. Leah says:

    Great job Mia bringing to the forefront these issues. Hopefully in the future Newton and other schools will consider the underlying messages of the plays and use them as learning opportunities for students.

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