racism in Thoroughly Modern Millie

My Take on Thoroughly Modern Millie

racism in Thoroughly Modern Millie

I just returned from Thoroughly Modern Millie and I want to start by saying that the cast is incredibly talented and deserves much accolades for a well done show. The leads, particularly Maddy Waters as Millie Dillmont, Aiden O’Neal as Miss Dorothy Brown, Peter Diamond as Jimmy Smith, Kelsey Fox as Mrs. Meers and  Will Champion as Trevor, Graydon III, are particular standouts. They carry the show with their considerable musical talent, acting skills and comedic timing. I also thought the dance numbers were outstanding, the sets impressive and  the costumes breathtaking. I can see the allure of this show from the costumes alone.

That being said, I have considerable issues with the Asian stereotypes in the show.

1) There Really is No Reason Why Mrs. Meers Needs to Pretend to be Chinese Except for Gratuitous Humor

[plot spoiler warning] Mrs. Meers is a criminal hiding out so she pretends to be Chinese as her “greatest acting role” and speaks with a strong Chinese accent. As someone in hiding, it is an easy change to make Mrs. Meers a different kind of character. For example, a Southern Blonde is she is supposed to be a brunette in real life.

In real life, no one I know takes a new identity to hide out in which a white person pretends to be Asian. It’s not realistic. It’s insulting to Asians. It’s certainly comedic because it’s easy to laugh at a Chinese accent where English is not your first language and therein the comedy lies. It’s easy to laugh at an Asian stereotype.

But it’s not necessarily to the storyline and could have been easily changed.

Yellowface: Asians have not always been accurately represented in Hollywood. Many times, Asian characters have been portrayed predominantly by white actors, often while artificially changing their looks with makeup in order to approximate East Asian facial characteristics, a practice known as yellowface. Media portrayals of East Asians in the American media’s history have predominantly reflected a dominant Americentric perception rather than realistic and authentic depictions of true cultures, customs and behaviors.

And by contrast:

Blackface is a form of theatrical makeup used by white performers to represent a black person. It is often considered offensive, because it can imply stereotyped caricature of black people as in minstrel shows, and later vaudeville. The practice gained popularity during the 19th century and contributed to the proliferation of stereotypes such as the “happy-go-lucky darky on the plantation” or the “dandified coon”.

Blackface was an important performance tradition in the American theater for roughly 100 years beginning around 1830. It quickly became popular elsewhere, particularly so in Britain, where the tradition lasted longer than in the US, occurring on primetime TV as late as 1978 (The Black and White Minstrel Show) and 1981.

By the mid-20th century, changing attitudes about race and racism effectively ended the prominence of blackface makeup used in performance in the U.S. and elsewhere. It remains in relatively limited use as a theatrical device and is more commonly used today as social commentary or satire.

I think it’s an easy logical conclusion:

Blackface is offensive …

therefore

Yellowface is offensive.

But because I had multiple conversations with parents who tried to explain that Mrs. Meers is a very wicked villain and she gets her just deserts in the end so her doing yellowface is acceptable and plus she’s so funny that I think it bears repeating:

Blackface is not ok …

therefore

Yellowface IS NOT OK!

It seems that Yellowface is still acceptable in the year 2014!

 

2) The plot does not have to revolve around Asian Males Who Assist in  Selling White Females Into Slavery

[plot spoiler alert] It actually makes more sense to have a kidnapping theme, particularly since Miss Dorothy Brown could easily be held for ransom.

3) Ching Ho and Bun Foo Don’t Have to be Poor Chinese Immigrants Either

I don’t understand why they have to speak in Cantonese while singing in Mandarin either. Is this supposed to show how the playwrights have such insight into Asian culture?

This is a sub plot line and could have easily been removed. If you need henchman or henchwomen, it is an easy fix not to cast them as Asian stereotypes.

And I feel that it has already been covered in considerable detail my issues with the historical inaccuracies of the plot line.

And there was no discussion to educate the audience on busting stereotypes beyond this page in the program and a gratuitous meeting on Monday night where any peeved parties (e.g. Asian Americans) can air their grievances.

This is the page in the program:

Asian Stereotypes in Thoroughly Modern Millie

I know we had a problem when I wanted to preface this production with: “The opinions expressed in this musical do not necessarily reflect the views of Newton North High School.” We’ve all seen the classic television disclaimer alerting the audience that controversial, and even offensive attitudes remain present within the program. Without question, Thoroughly Modern Millie contains extreme negative stereotypes and offensive attitudes when depicting Asian men and women in the 1920s. However, instead of simply flashing a disclaimer along the stage before the opening number, Mr. Brown, Ms. Leong, Ms. Beh, and I worked together with the Office of Human Rights to figure out a way in which to maintain the integrity of the production, while addressing these negative images head on with the community and our students. Over the past few months we have participated in discussions regarding stereotypical images of Asian men and women in the media. We participated in panels that spoke out against stereotypes and damaging images of cultural experiences within the media. We learned about the Geisha image, and the overtly sexualized Dragon Lady. We learned about the submissive Asian male stereotype, and the Kung-Foo warrior image. Consequently, some of these images will appear within our production this evening, such as Mrs. Meers’ portrayal of the Geisha Girl, as well as Bun Foo and Ching Ho’s sometimes submissive male natures. Our hope is that awareness around these caricatures would allow us to dig deeper in rehearsals and find the true, human complexities of these previously flattened characters.

While we set out to find the authentic human complexity behind the Cantonese speaking Bun Foo and Ching Ho, we also addressed the wildly offensive Mrs. Meers and discussed the potential reasons for her racism. Mrs. Meers must be understood as the villain of the production. She is a racist and covers her own insecurities and life failures with hateful attitudes and behaviors. As director, I am extremely proud of the socially conscious work that our cast and community have carried out over these past few months. I believe that doing this production, the cast, crew and school community have become aware of the dangerous images within Thoroughly Modern Millie, and the lack of truthful portrayals of Asian and Asian-American men and women within the media today. I encourage you to continue this necessary dialogue at home with your families, using our musical as an effective conversation starter.

So please be advised, “The opinions expressed in this musical do not necessarily reflect the views of Newton North High School … in fact they strongly oppose the beliefs and attitudes found within our school culture. Furthermore, we have worked hard to analyze and revise these images in order to align them with our socially conscious mission of acceptance and open-mindedness.”

 

My Response

First I would like to post an excerpt from an email and hope to get permission to post it in its entirety:

“Asian American faculty members at Newton and the AACC have been trying to tell the director of Theater Ink, the chair of the department of Performing Arts and the principal how offensive the play is since it was first announced. They’ve made some slight changes but they still don’t get why it’s offensive and there’s no telling what the actual performances will be like.

THanks so much again for speaking up against this. [Asian American faculty members and students] have been feeling shut out and dismissed so voices from the community really help a lot. (The school officials still may not get why it’s bad, but they’ll understand bad PR and bad press, so please keep it up. I look forward to reading a review of the performance if you are able to go.)”

 

The Anti-Asian stereotypes by which you speak of do not exist in modern media: Geisha Image, Dragon Lady, Submissive Asian Male, and Kung-Foo warrior image to the extend that they offend Asian Americans. The issues of Asian Americans in media is much more subtle that.

If I may direct you to my post titled: Asian American Actors in Recurring TV Roles you will note that Asian Americans get parts that are in a very specific box: The Doctor, With a Martial Art Slant, The Beautiful Ones, Playing Regular People, Intergalactic, Comedians, Heroes on Heroes, Reality TV, and the Pioneers.

Going back several decades in TV, your concerns about Geisha Image, Dragon Lady, Submissive Asian Male, and Kung-Foo warrior image that you worry plague us Asian Americans simply are not a reality. They are not our reality.

But this is what our reality is. Asian Americans NEVER GET THE LEAD.

And you furthermore underscore this message — e.g. Asian Americans Never Get the Lead — by producing a show in which the roles for Asians are, again, in a very specific box and in a supporting role. And include outdated negative stereotypes that we thought we were through with to boot. So, in doing this show, instead of creating a meaningful and helpful racial conversation that is relevant to Asian Americans today, you simply dredge up old stereotypes and reintroduce them to the community.

Yes, it’s funny to laugh as a Chinese accent. And yes, you will hear Chinese accents in our community both in the student population and otherwise. It’s your choice to bring this comedic relief to light and it is offensive and unnecessary. It does not, as you suggest, start up meaningful dialogue that enlightens non Asians and helps Asian Americans. We don’t need that kind of help, thank you very much! In the same vein, we don’t need your “help” via Affirmative Action for college admissions either. And the broader conversation is why Asian Americans are denied a seat in the boardroom, assigned a cap on admission to top colleges and never get the lead. A more robust conversation would be around why this is so and I believe the root cause is this: Asian Americans are too successful and it’s resented.

Your misguided perceptions of where the issues lie demonstrates the deafness in which you hear the Asian Community speak to you. This concerns me deeply.

 

Hiroki Shibuya is an immensely talented actor and I’m sure you would agree. But you would have never cast him as the lead, Jimmy Smith. That was meant for a white man. Or Trevor Graydon III which was frankly the best, most complex  character in the script for a male. Shibuya’s choices were very limited as an actor in this musical. He had to stay in his box. Ching Ho and Bun Foo. Isn’t that right?’

For example, instead of rewriting the part of Bun Foo from that of an Asian into the part of a Caucasian, you could have done the same for the part of Miss Dorothy Brown and made her a person of color or in hajib to the same comedic effect. In fact, it would have made for a more interesting and thought-provoking musical to cast Miss Dorothy Brown in hajib.

While there were a few people of color in the musical, they were relegated to the chorus. There was, for example, no role for an Asian American female speaking part in this show. So for all the rhetoric of busting the Geisha Image and the Dragon Lady, these roles were meant for non-Asians. How ironic that your stereotype busting includes casting these stereotypes with non Asians.

That is exactly the issue that Asian American actors face today in the real world outside of Newton North but we do appreciate you demonstrating this box to us by putting on this production. And this is where the meat of the discussion that WE as Asian Americans want to talk about. Why the box? Why the limitations? Why never the lead?

In conclusion, your promises for a deep and rich conversation to “bust stereotypes” is empty rhetoric. We recognize this game too. This attempt to placate Asian Americans. This expectation for us to be invisible, voiceless and non-confrontational.

I fully realize that by posting on the racism and issues I have with Thoroughly Modern Millie that there will be payback to me and my family as we enter Newton North High School next year. It will be subtle. That much I know well. It will come in many forms. My children will pay for my speaking out. I realize this and I am willing to pay that price because by not speaking out, nothing ever changes. I have spoken to many Asian American friends in this community and while they also are unhappy with the racism in this production, they are afraid to speak up for fear of reprisal. I hope the NNHS community hears that. You have not created a safe forum to express dissent it seems.

This play will continue to be performed in high schools across the country with empty disclaimers such as the one you have written. And maybe there will continue to be invitations to discuss: Geisha Image, Dragon Lady, Submissive Asian Male, and Kung-Foo warrior image. Discussions that are outdated, irrelevant and demonstrate how little our issues as Asian Americans are understood, addressed or taken seriously.

Thank you for revealing your hand. It’s been quite eye-opening.

 

I won’t be attending your Monday evening meeting. My response is here and you are all welcome to respond. In this way, our conversation is captured and indexed onto Google and not hidden behind a door in Newton North High School’s Little Theatre. I am frankly a little tired talking about The Geisha Image, The Overtly Sexualized Dragon Lady, The Submissive Asian Male Stereotype and the Kung-Foo Warrior Image.

I need to get back to the real world, not this 1920s world that is irrelevant to me and my issues as an Asian American. I assure you that these negative stereotypes do not plague me in my daily life. It’s only when you bring it up. I think the real question is why NNHS powers that be didn’t listen when objections — the same as mine — were addressed earlier. We brought up the same issues and the problems could have been resolved in a much stronger and less controversial show.

I apologize for the timing of my posts close to the show’s opening. I only learned about this show and the Anti-Asian slant last Saturday or I would have brought this up earlier. It was not my intention to take away from the members of the cast, crew or teachers who worked so hard on this show. In fact, it’s incredibly frustrating to me that these issues were brought up earlier in a timely manner and largely dismissed.

 

Reactions on Twitter to Racism in Thoroughly Modern Millie

Arissa Oh ‏@arissaoh  12h

@pragmaticmom that page in the program – the “disclaimer” – is complete and utter crap.

Arissa Oh ‏@arissaoh  Mar 14

‘mainly, we forgot that Asian people exist, might know English, & might object to racist stereotypes about them. Oops! SORRY (not sorry)’

Arissa Oh ‏@arissaoh  Mar 14

> now you’re going to do a #sorrynotsorry racist show, Newton North High School?

Chris Lehmann ‏@chrislehmann  12h

@pragmaticmom ugh. As a school leader, I am so frustrated by the school’s reaction.

    Arissa Oh ‏@arissaoh  Mar 14

    Newton North HS (MA) is staging racist “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” doesn’t care if you’re offended http://ilovenewton.com/nnhs-responds-concerns-modern-millie/ … via @JadeLuckClub

    ‘we have heard your concerns & have educated ppl abt the stereotypes but we’re going fwd w/ the production anyway’ say smug white people

    ‘we got some Asian staff to talk to some ppl & there’s going to be a disclaimer in the program, so’ say the smug white ppl

    Newton, MA is affluent suburb of Boston, 83.7% wh, 12% Asian, 1.5% Blk. Newton North HS is 76.9% wh, 8% Asian, 5.2 % Blk, 5.1% Latino

    “Filled with frisky flappers, dashing leading men and a dragon-lady of a villainess audiences will love to hate, THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE >

    > is a perfectly constructed evening of madcap merriment.” AND RACISM!

    Thank you to this blog for warning me about the #racism I am going to have to deal w/ at my kids’ HS http://ilovenewton.com/modern-millie-racist/ …

    As if kids in a large, white HS in a large, white suburb don’t risk being alienated enough >

    Watch the clip from the 1967 film of Thoroughly Modern Millie and tell me it’s not racist, Newton North HS http://www.asamnews.com/2014/03/11/i-love-newton-high-school-stages-play-filled-with-asian-american-stereotypes/ …

    ‘we did not anticipate that ppl wd be upset that we are staging a racist show; pls come and share yr concerns so we can dismiss those too’

    Arissa Oh is a professor of history at Boston University. Professor Oh’s current project examines the origins of the practice of Korean and international adoption. Her research and teaching interests include immigration and race in U.S. history, transnational Asian-American history, and Cold War social and political history. She has a B.A. from Yale and a Ph.D. from University of Chicago. She lives in Newton, MA. You can follow her on Twitter.

    p.s. I was told that the director, Brad Jensen, would be very open to discussing my concerns. So I wanted to officially note that I emailed him a few days ago and he never got back to me.

    Nor did the response from Todd R. Young (Chair, NNHS FPA Department), Adam Brown (Director, Theatre Ink) and Jennifer Price (Principal, NNHS) get emailed to me directly.

     

    Related Links:

    Thoroughly Modern Millie is Thoroughly Racist

    Talk Back: Racism in Thoroughly Modern Millie at NNHS

    NNHS Responds to Concerns About Thoroughly Modern Millie

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

    MTI Advises How to Squelch Dissent on Thoroughly Modern Millie

    Rebuttal to ‘Millie in Newton: Turn Stereotypes into Lessons

    Thoroughly Modern Millie End of School Year Takeaway

    The Boston Globe: School Play’s Stereotypes Bring Outcry and Apology. “Millie” touches nerve in Newton by Ellen Ishkanian

    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 Massachusetts High School

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

    White Privilege and Thoroughly Modern Millie

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

    The Boston Globe: ‘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)

    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 Pinterest, Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, Sulia, Google +Instagram and YouTube.

    Photo credit: Grasshopper and Sensei, my oldest.

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    Comments
    52 Responses to “My Take on Thoroughly Modern Millie”
    1. See Jay says:

      Congratulations to the Newton High School Production of “Thoroughly Modern Millie”! What a wonderful display of talent and dedication by the actors, support staff and especially teachers, that spent many hours putting together a wonderful performance! Keep up the good work!

    2. Irene says:

      Even though I have weighed in on this matter, I also will not be attending the Talk Back on Monday evening. We “angry” Asian Americans don’t need another venue in which to vent. The target audience of the Talk Back should be any person in the audience who did not realize or does not accept that the show itself included racism. The target audience should be anyone who watched the show, read the program note, and still denies that racism is an issue. Unfortunately, I fear that those very people are the least likely to attend an optional after-the-fact meeting.

      I appreciate that the school is TRYING to address the issue, but I take offense at this excerpt in the program note:

      “I believe that doing this production, the cast, crew and school community have become aware of the dangerous images within Thoroughly Modern Millie, and the lack of truthful portrayls of Asian and Asian-American men and women within the media today. I encourage you to continue this necessary dialogue at home with your families, using our musical as an effective conversation starter.”

      It sounds like they are proud that they engaged in racism in order to create a learning experience. As Pragmatic Mom mentioned in another comment on another thread, I don’t know where they got the idea that modeling negative behavior was a good idea. If they wanted to start a discussion about “the lack of truthful portrayals of Asian and Asian-American men and women within the media today”, then they should have simply watched “Cloud Atlas” and discussed the use of yellowface in that movie! They didn’t have to go to great lengths to produce an entire show just to point a finger at it and say, “Don’t do that.”

      Mostly, I am bothered that all of this came at the eleventh hour. Pragmatic Mom only learned about this show on Saturday, and I only learned about it on Tuesday, thanks to her blog. Meanwhile, teachers and students had been protesting the show from the very beginning, and nothing was done until the issue garnered negative attention outside of the high school. I want to know what the administration will do to make sure that no minority group’s voices are ever ignored again.

      • Pragmatic Mom says:

        Hi Irene,
        There are several points of irony in this:
        1) “The lack of truthful portrayals of Asian and Asian American men in the media today.” If this is truly a concern, they would not have done this production of Thoroughly Modern Millie with yellowface.

        2) That they did extensive Asian stereotyping training and yet the groups that they met with feel marginalized after their experience training them. That’s pretty concerning.

        3) The rationalization for this production (which is quite lengthy) rests on the extensive Asian stereotyping sensitivity training they did. (see #2)

        If Newton North is serious about making changes, they need to hire a person of color into this mix of decision makers. You can give a stronger prescription but if the person is blind, it won’t help. I’m tired of empty rhetorical and half promises. Apparently the discussion of the negative stereotypes of Asians introduced by NNHS’s Thoroughly Modern Millie is limited to a family discussion and assumes that the adults as well as kids attended the show, read page 49 which is not a robust primer, and now are enlightened.

        The real takeaway from the show is that yellowface is humorous and the extension to that is that an Asian person who speaks English as a second language is laughable. Speaking English with an accent is something to laugh at with the sly dig that they probably are stupid.

        • Charlie says:

          Pragmatic Mom, I’m going to start by saying that yellowface is never used in this production. The closest the show comes to using yellowface is the sterotypically Asian lipstick design worn by Ms. Meers. I personally know every actor and actress in this production and not one of them would allow that to happen. Now to address the article, you often say that things could be easily changed. That is incorrect. When putting on a production certain rules must be followed. For example, the inability to change lines and plot points freely. The rights for a production must be acquired before putting it on and the rights do not allow the script or plot to be changed to fit certain requests. I understand that the racism in this show is wrong and I believe that everyone in the Newton community does. I don’t think that there is a single person who would deny the racism in this show and if there is I certainly haven’t met them. That being said, why not change it if there is racism? For the reason I mentioned before, the musical cannot simply be changed. Thanks for reading and I hope that to some extent this relieves your rage at the Newton community that allowed this production and, if anything, direct it at the playwright or company producing it.

          • Pragmatic Mom says:

            Hi Charlie,
            When Mrs. Meers speaks in a bad Chinese accent and pretends to be Chinese (which is a preposterous notion as this is impossible and does not happen in real life), this is a form of yellowface:

            Yellowface: Asians have not always been accurately represented in Hollywood. Many times, Asian characters have been portrayed predominantly by white actors, often while artificially changing their looks with makeup in order to approximate East Asian facial characteristics, a practice known as yellowface. Media portrayals of East Asians in the American media’s history have predominantly reflected a dominant Americentric perception rather than realistic and authentic depictions of true cultures, customs and behaviors.

            The production by NNHS modified the script by casting a white actor as Bun Foo. They avoid Yellowface in this case by adding a line at the end that indicates that Bun Foo is finding out for the first time that he is adopted.

            I also want you to know that my 8th grade daughter just witnessed an incident yesterday, Friday March 14th, in which her Chinese Teacher was bullied by two classmates for speaking gramatically incorrect English. The way they accomplished it was to loudly correct the teacher for her English and then laugh in a very cruel and unkind way.

            The teacher, after bearing this humiliation all week, finally broke down in tears yesterday. My daughter’s friend who witnessed this uncomfortable incident said, “You don’t understand. [My Chinese Teacher] is as tough as nails. She never cries.”

            I would also add that 8th graders were exposed to Thoroughly Modern Millie on Tuesday, March 11th, when they were there at night to visit elective classrooms. They were all invited to come and see Thoroughly Modern Millie.

            Is there a connection? I can’t say for sure but the timing certainly indicates one. In Thoroughly Modern Millie, the audience laughs at Mrs. Meers as she pretends to be Chinese speaking with a heavy Chinese accent. It models to the audience that that it is acceptable to laugh someone who speaks English as a second language, particularly with a Chinese accent. And now, it seems that 8th graders are trying out this behavior.

            This is extremely disturbing to me but not surprising.

          • Pragmatic Mom says:

            Hi Charlie,
            What do schools do if they don’t have Asian actors to cast for the two henchmen roles?

          • ElliF says:

            Hi Charlie. You sound like a caring student, and I hope you might be willing to reflect further on these important issues. I’d like to share a few additional comments to the ones Pragmatic Mom stated so well:

            You wrote, “I personally know every actor and actress in this production and not one of them would allow that [the use of yellowface] to happen.”

            Pragmatic Mom has already responded with examples of how yellowface was actually used in the musical, so I won’t repeat those points. However, I’d like to suggest that if you read through all her blog posts on this topic, along with the reader comments, you will see that many white people have been defending the selection of this musical based on the participation of good, hardworking people.

            The implication is that “good people” and “dedicated, hardworking students and teachers” can’t be racist or make racist choices. That is not accurate, and it’s a form of thinking that is often used to distract or prevent people from talking honestly about the core, critical issues related to race and racism in our community and country.

            This kind of thinking often sets up a false dichotomy by contrasting those “good people” — the ones who selected and acted in the play — with those “angry, (i.e. bad) people” — those of us who have been trying to talk about issues of racism in relation to the selection and performance of this musical.

            You further demonstrate this kind of thinking when you stereotype Pragmatic Mom as having “rage at the Newton community.” While your intention may not have been to be condescending, insulting, or minimizing of her opinion and expertise on this topic, this is exactly what you have done by using this type of thinking and rhetoric.

            Once again, this only serves to shut down any meaningful, honest dialogue from taking place about racism at NNHS, which in turn prevents any positive, meaningful change process from starting there.

            Charlie, you also wrote about how you believe that it wouldn’t have been easy to change the play. Although limited, selective, and in my opinion, inadequate changes were made to the musical, I think you are making an important point.

            In fact, for this very reason — that legal issues which probably prevented adequate changes from being made to the musical — that I think it never should have been selected or performed in the first place.

            And that choice — to say no to a musical that portrays Asian people and history in a dishonest, racist, and harmful way — could have been made IF the high school and the Newton Schools had been committed to recognizing their lack of cultural humility and competency and had started to do something pro-active about it — including putting Asian teachers, students, and families in our community at the center of the dialogue and saying no to this musical.

            Unfortunately, the high school and system appear stuck in outdated, racist, and reactive thinking and policies which sustain the status quo.

            The time has come for the Newton Schools to stop making racist choices for and about Asian students, teachers, and families in our community. That is the real choice at hand here.

            Charlie, I hope that you and other students at North and in all the Newton Schools might make a commitment to get really educated about race and racism in this country and community. It would also help to listen to the voices of the Asian teachers, students, families, and allies who have been protesting the selection of this musical. Really listening. Responding from that more informed place might lead to the changes our community needs.

            In closing, I’ll just add that I am deeply disturbed by the racist bullying the two white students perpetrated against their Chinese teacher in Pragmatic Mom’s daughter’s Chinese language class on Friday. It sounds like something that might come out right out of an outdated, racist play… Hmm…

            • Pragmatic Mom says:

              Thank you ElliF,
              I appreciate your thoughtful response and hope that it brings clarity to those who are following this conversation. I have emailed the principal of Newton North High School and Day Middle School, as well as the Superintendant of the Newton Schools. I have also emailed all the School Committee members as well about the disturbing racist multi-incidents that took place last week at Day Middle School.

              I also relayed this incident to a Boston Globe reporter who will has been following the blog posts and comments and will be attending tonight’s (Saturday) performance. She plays to run a piece that will run, she thinks, on Tuesday.

              I will also try to contact the people that I met at the White House when I attended the inaugural White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI): http://jadeluckclub.com/innaugural-white-house-api-conference-call-with-bloggers/

              I do recall that the Obama was particularly concerned about bullying with regard to AAPI community.

              http://www.whitehouse.gov/aapi

      • ElliF says:

        Well said, Irene. Thank you for these excellent, very on-point comments.

        The more NNHS and the Newton Schools try to excuse their selection of this anti-Asian musical by disguising it as a “learning opportunity,” the more they are demonstrating their lack of understanding of white privilege and racism. There is a lot of privileged, white entitlement driving this process at North.

        The lack of commitment in the Newton Schools to real anti-racism work is very disappointing and very harmful to the well being of the entire school and broader community. If North and the Newton Schools think this is preparing their students to study and work successfully in the multicultural world of 2014 and the future, they are sadly mistaken.

        • Pragmatic Mom says:

          Hi ElliF,
          They should make note that their own learning opportunity ended up alienating and marginalizing the very people they sought out to learn from. I don’t know they expect this to go any better in a different setting such as at home when the parties discussing it might not have even all attended the production. This is such empty rhetoric.

    3. Arissa says:

      Here are some thoughts that I tweeted yesterday in response to this blog’s very informative posts about NNHS, its decision to stage “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” and its response to concern from the community. As far as I’m concerned, here’s NNHS’s smug and facile attitude towards the people who are bothered: “We have heard your concerns & have educated people about anti-Asian stereotypes but we’re going forward with the production anyway. We got some Asian staff to talk to some people and we’ll throw some text in the program, so we consider this taken care of. We did not anticipate that people would be upset that we are staging a racist show; but please come on Monday and share your concerns… so we can dismiss those too and pretend that we listened.”

      Only when they encountered pushback from people in the community did NNHS try to address the racism of the show. And how did they do that? By recruiting a few Asian staff members and teachers, and “educating” the production staff and actors about Asian stereotypes. How did that education go? “These are Asian stereotypes, and they are bad so you should try to avoid using them… BUT we are going to stage a show that uses them unapologetically.” And do the people in the audience have that same “education” before every performance, or do you think that that wimpy explanation in your program was sufficient?

      As someone who has extensively studied and written about Asian American history, and taught at the high school and college levels, I know that a couple of “education” sessions and a disclaimer in a program do *nothing* to counterbalance, or even mitigate, the harm that perpetuating these kinds of stereotypes does. These are old, persistent stereotypes for a reason: because institutions and people – like NNHS and the people behind this show – indicate that they are acceptable, even normal. These are not stereotypes that are just up in some theoretical cloud. They have actual material, psychological and emotional consequences for Asian Americans in Newton and – yes – for the Asian American students at NNHS.

      Newton is 83.7% wh, 12% Asian, 1.5% Blk. NNHS is 76.9% wh, 8% Asian, 5.2 % Blk, 5.1% Latino. It seems a good part of the school’s “diversity” is bussed in. Based on names alone, none of the administrators or counseling staff are Asian American. As if kids in a large, white HS in a large, white suburb don’t risk being alienated enough, NNHS has not only staged a racist show, but amply demonstrated its lack of regard for the Asian, Asian American and people of color in its school community and broader community.

      Essentially, NNHS’ attitude boils down to this (which I also tweeted): “Mainly, we forgot that Asian people exist, might know English, and might object to racist stereotypes about them. Oops! #sorrynotsorry, as our students would say.” I hope NNHS itself will get educated about racism so that nothing like this ever happens again.

      • Pragmatic Mom says:

        Hi Arissa,
        Thank you so much for joining our conversation. I think your hashtag pretty much sums up the Newton North High School administration attitude exhibited so far: #sorrynotsorry. That really resonates with me. In fact, your comment really resonates with me.

        I will find your tweet to retweet: Mainly, we forgot that Asian people exist, might know English, and might object to racist stereotypes about them. Oops! #sorrynotsorry

        Your tweet sums up perfectly how we are feeling!

      • ElliF says:

        Hi Arissa. You rock! Meant to thank you earlier, but am finally getting to it now. Thanks so much for your powerful and witty comments!

        • Pragmatic Mom says:

          Hi ElliF and Arissa,
          Yes, thank you for your voice Arissa! There are very few of us willing to take a stand and we really appreciate your voice. Incidentally, I gave your (Arissa) information to the Boston Globe reporter with regard to this story so I am hoping that she contacted you as well. The piece is expected to run Tuesday. And I hope you saw the link on Angry Asian Man as well.

    4. nfsnewton says:

      Mia, thank you for raising these issues that we should all think about. As a family/intergenerational group, we feel its important to always try to have a good understanding about the messages that we are delivering to our community and to our children through our performance. Your blog on this subject certainly show us why this is so important! We appreciate that you have spoken up about this musical – there are likely many more who feel the same way but are not comfortable speaking up.
      Monique and Stephanie from NFS

      • Pragmatic Mom says:

        Thank you Monique and Stephanie for your comment. I think the big takeaway for me is that most people are not comfortable speaking up about any controversial issue whether it’s the sexism in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying or the Anti-Asian racism in Thoroughly Modern Millie. If these performances are truly to be learning experiences, there needs to be change so that people feel comfortable raising their voices about shows that they feel offended by. I heard from many that many moms in particular were offended by the sexism in How to Succeed but historically, this was accurate. But … to my knowledge no one ever voiced this to the theatre department.

        That’s strange, isn’t it? Thank you again for weighing in!

    5. ECB says:

      Hi PM – I appreciate your continuing coverage of the controversy surrounding the play and even more, attending the play to see what the production was like. I do hope that you will change your mind about not attending the forum on Monday though. My sister agrees that the “Talk Back” that’s happening on Monday isn’t an ideal approach, but it is an important first step in opening up a school and community-wide conversation on Asian and Asian-American issues. These issues are all but invisible in the eyes of many students, faculty, administrators, and staff. The faculty, staff, administrators, and students who try to raise awareness around these issues find doing so very challenging for all of the reasons folks who are involved in progressive issues can imagine: a lack of knowledge about these issues, the way the stereotype of the model minority has taken hold, etc.

      It would be more helpful than you can imagine if a large group of concerned people from the Boston area came to lend their support and offer their perspectives and wisdom. My sister and Ms. Leong had a part in making sure the “Talk Back” happened, and our biggest concern right now is that nobody comes. Their sense is that if there’s a low turnout, Theatre Ink and the administration may very well come to feel that the problem was not so urgent and was just limited to a few voices that are outliers.

      • Pragmatic Mom says:

        Hi ECB,
        It was my impression that I would be treated to a lecture about stereotypes in theatre … a historic analysis of the racist stereotypes that justify this production. I really don’t feel the need to learn about racist stereotypes having lived through them both personally and through my parents.

        My mother was part of the group of Japanese Americans who were forced from their homes into concentration camps to “protect them.”

        My father immigrated from China and spoke English with an accent. He was a math professor and did teaching stints in small towns in Texas and Tennessee before taking a tenured position in Southern California.

        I have very little interest in musical theatre in general. I would have never attended Thoroughly Modern Millie for entertainment value; I only went to review the racist elements in it as a result of the blog posts.

        It was my impression that this Talk Back was the deep discussion on stereotypes in the production for the audience so that they might have rich conversations at home. It is not presented as a forum to discuss the racism in the NNHS production and what NNHS intends to do in the future both to combat racism within the walls of Newton schools nor to prevent another racist or sexist production from being done.

        If NNHS wants to clarify the purpose of the Talk Back, I might consider going. But honestly, I have done my best through multiple blog posts to explain why Asians and Asian Americans find this production offensive. If it’s not clear, I don’t think that talking will have any impact. The lens might be more powerful to look through “with a keener eye” but it won’t help if the eyes are blind.

        “On Monday night, March 17th, we will hold a “Talk Back” to further learn and share perspectives surrounding the arts and stereotypes, especially those presented in Millie.”

        If no one shows up, they could also interpret the Talk Back as ineffective in their goal to use a racist musical to teach the audience about “bashing stereotypes.” They should realize that they missed their teachable moment a long, long time ago.

      • Pragmatic Mom says:

        Hi ECB,
        I have thought about it and honestly I have spent too much time on this issue already. It should be CRYSTAL clear what the racist and offensive elements are in NNHS’s production of Thoroughly Modern Millie. There was a letter from a NNHS student with concrete ideas for moving forward.

        I would personally encourage NNHS officials to work on creating a more welcoming community. Cyberbullying seems to be an issue as I am experiencing it here on my blog from NNHS students. Also, creating a truly open forum to discuss racism that acknowledges the issues and listens to both sides. Screening musicals also seems to be a big problem. I would recommend adding people of color to the evaluation committee and choosing by casting votes. It seems some voices are heard louder than others at NNHS. That’s a pretty clear message to me.

        I know there are members of the Newton School Committee who will be attending. They got you covered. I really need to catch up with my real life.

        This is what NNHS needs to say:

        “We regret chosing Thoroughly Modern Millie because the steps we took to mitigate the offensiveness were inadequate. By doing this production, it created a firestorm of controversy. We hope that other high schools when considering this musical will choose, instead, the newer version modified for The Dalton School and now available through MTI. Had we chosen this newer version, though we would have had to delay our performance dates, we would have avoided offending teachers, students, parents and members of our community. For this, we deeply apologize.”

    6. As a school leader, I am deeply disappointed that the administration of Newton North HS did not listen to the concerns of the community and cancel the show or use the Dalton version of it. This was an opportunity for the school to listen deeply to its community and act from a place of empathy and care. It is both frustrating and sad that the school did not leverage that opportunity.

      • Pragmatic Mom says:

        Hi Chris,
        Thank you for joining the conversation. I have say that I am amazed how much resistance there is to the idea that Asians and Asian Americans find yellowface offensive. There seems to be much confusion about it here in Newton, MA though not so in NYC.

        It is incredibly frustrating to say over and over again that yellowface is offensive and yet hear this questioned over and over again. I really am floored by this.

    7. Michael says:

      You say: “In real life, no one I know takes a new identity to hide out in which a white person pretends to be Asian. It’s not realistic.”

      In real life, no one I know tap dances and sings their inner most feelings.

      I’m not saying your other points aren’t valid, but you start with your poorest argument.

      • Pragmatic Mom says:

        Hi Michael,
        My point is that MTI says to use “historical reference” for pushback to the racism in Thoroughly Modern Millie regarding the characters and plot.

        http://ilovenewton.com/mti-advises-squelch-dissent-modern-millie/

        But you are right, there are stronger arguments for what is offensive about Mrs. Meers character and thank you for pointing that out. I think I found her character to be so offensive not as an evil person but for depicting Asians in an offensive way that, as an Asian American, I didn’t even know where to begin.

    8. NNHS Student says:

      I go to NNHS right now. (I wasn’t a part of this show). I think it’s important to understand that this how was written for 1960s hollywood, and then adapted for the stage in the 2000s. The songs and the music are outstanding and the plot hilarious and has many twists and turns. I bet that’s why this show was chosen. It happens to have some very racist material in it yes, but no one is saying that’s okay. No one at north is saying that we can now be mean or racist to asians at our school. NNHS instead put on a great show full of talented actors who are heart broken and distressed to have hurt people. I think that next time if you have an issue about the show you should say something earlier on. 3 days before the show on a blog doesn’t give anyone time to do anything about your complaints. I go to NNHS and I can tell you right now no one is trying to cause anyone any pain or discrimination.

      • Pragmatic Mom says:

        Thank you NNHS Student. Your kind response is really appreciated. I think your voice is an important one to all the rising freshman coming to NNHS and your message of acceptance here is much appreciated and I am sure making kids feel better. Thank you again for leaving your comments! It feels great to know that NNHS students really do care.

        I hope you understand that I am the blogger not Z and that I wrote my blog posts 2 days before opening. It was not to hurt the students but it was when I learned about it. I know that other adults in the NNHS community had raised the exact same issues two months prior but only small changes were made, unfortunately, which were not effective in mitigating the hurt that was caused unintentionally.

        I thought the show was wonderfully executed on all levels by students and staff. I am just so sorry that the script you were working with was problematic. You are all a wonderfully talented group and I look forward to seeing your next show.

        • NNHS Student says:

          Also NNHS did not use yellow face in the production.

          • Pragmatic Mom says:

            Hi NNHS Student,
            Yellowface is when a white person pretends to be Asian.

            Asian characters have been portrayed predominantly by white actors, often while artificially changing their looks with makeup in order to approximate East Asian facial characteristics, a practice known as yellowface. Media portrayals of East Asians in the American media’s history have predominantly reflected a dominant Americentric perception rather than realistic and authentic depictions of true cultures, customs and behaviors.

            Mrs. Meers pretending to be Asian is yellowface.

            Here’s an interesting link to this discussion from Broadway World:
            http://www.broadwayworld.com/board/readmessage.php?thread=974942#

            And here’s a response I want to pull out of the thread:

            For some reason, racial humor about Asians is still often accepted today when the same types of jokes about any other ethnic group is frowned on. Maybe it’s because they don’t whine as much about it. Or maybe it’s because they don’t care because they know they will own the planet in fifty years, anyway. In any event, I was a white Ching Ho. To the wrong people, my performance probably would have seemed offensive, but I feel like it fit in with the rest of the show, making fun of the stereotypes of the time. It was fun and people loved the characters and weren’t confused. They liked seeing these kids they knew doing something so outrageous, speaking in a different language that they had to learn, etc. The laughs would not have been as good if we had genuine Asians. It goes without saying that in a high school show, the audience of friends and parents isn’t really looking for the same thing an audience at a professional show would have.
            ————-

            Has anyone seen Ching Ho and Bun Foo played by Caucasians? Did it really work? It seems that since Mrs. Meers is “pretending” to be Asian, having two white guys pretending to be Asian also just calls attention to itself. The question comes up in our play selection as we really have NO Asian male actors — especially who can also sing and dance.
            ————-

            It will certainly raise the audience’s eyebrows.
            ————-

            Seen it done before. No one I know raised an eyebrow, but I guess it depends on how you feel about color blind casting.
            ————-

            In my HS production both were played by white actors. I think it added to the production, because it was so funny.
            ————-

            I’m not Asian, so I can’t speak to any possible offense that might be taken.
            ————-

            But I’ve always thought that part of the joke was that they were Asian and she wasn’t.
            ————-

            Exactly, Reginald. That was my point. If the joke is that Mrs. Meers is pretending to be Asian, doesn’t it kind of kill the whole point if the two guys are also (to the audience) white guys trying to play Asian?
            I don’t think this is an example of “color blind” casting — as the two guys would simply HAVE TO BE played as if they were Chinese. I think of color blind casting as not playing up the race of the character.
            ————-

            I think you’re right. You just end up with three oddly deluded (and strangely dressed) people.
            ————-

            I just finished a production of Millie, neither of our actors playing Ching Ho and Bun Foo were asian. I understand it does add to the joke, but if you have the actors to do it the do so. Are all the people Siamese in high school productions of the King and I?
            ————-

            The Youth theatre production I saw, they were played by two Caucasians. It didn’t bother me or the audience in the slightest, as they were loving their double-act.
            ————-

            I understand it does add to the joke, but if you have the actors to do it. So don’t do the show. Would you do Ragtime if your school had no black students?
            ————-

            When my school did it, we did it with two non-Asians.
            ————-

            Yeah it’s not what the show calls for, but one of them was quite large, which added to the hysterics. They learned the language and it was still very funny.
            ————-

            I think the danger is that it can become the wrong kind of joke.
            ————-

            ugh… i hate this… why don’t you guys just do Miss Saigon and cast Kim by a white girl… or do Flower Drum Song with an all white cast… i get that it’s high school but what’s the deal with schools doing shows they know they can’t cast just so their white students get to perform a role… God forbid an asian or any minority wants to play a generally performed white role because that would cause an uproar…. whatever.. i guess it is what it is…
            ————-

            There’s absolutely nothing wrong with color-blind casting; it’s admirable.
            ————-

            The problem in this particular instance is that the characters are already dangerously close to what Alec Mapa calls a “ching-chong” kind of joke. To cast white actors in yellow face pushes it dangerously close to offensive territory.
            ————-

            “To cast white actors in yellow face pushes it dangerously close to offensive territory.”

            Okay, with this phrase you’ve just convinced me. I couldn’t imagine someone casting a white guy in a black role where ethnicity is an intrinsic aspect of the character.
            ————-

            For some reason, racial humor about Asians is still often accepted today when the same types of jokes about any other ethnic group is frowned on. Maybe it’s because they don’t whine as much about it. Or maybe it’s because they don’t care because they know they will own the planet in fifty years, anyway. In any event, I was a white Ching Ho. To the wrong people, my performance probably would have seemed offensive, but I feel like it fit in with the rest of the show, making fun of the stereotypes of the time. It was fun and people loved the characters and weren’t confused. They liked seeing these kids they knew doing something so outrageous, speaking in a different language that they had to learn, etc. The laughs would not have been as good if we had genuine Asians. It goes without saying that in a high school show, the audience of friends and parents isn’t really looking for the same thing an audience at a professional show would have.

            • NNHS Student says:

              Yes but that’s part of the plot. And as I think has been made clear, is not something we had the power to change. When you put on a show the script is kinda set in stone… I get that that character is offensive but saying we used yellow face isn’t really true. We honored the script.

            • Pragmatic Mom says:

              Mrs. Meers is actually Daisy Crumpler, a failed stage actress (though she doesn’t admit it to herself) who is living a yellow-face performance as Mrs. Meers. The audience see her speaking to Bun Foo and Ching Ho in an American accent several times.

            • Pragmatic Mom says:

              What was disappointing was that there was no teaching around the racism during the play which is what I had asked for days before the performance. If there had been more context beyond page 59 which was inadequate during the play it would have mitigated a lot of the offense.

          • Pragmatic Mom says:

            I pulled this out for you NNHS Student:

            Mrs. Meers is actually Daisy Crumpler, a failed stage actress (though she doesn’t admit it to herself) who is living a yellow-face performance as Mrs. Meers. The audience see her speaking to Bun Foo and Ching Ho in an American accent several times.

            ——————

            This is the link from StubPass: http://www.stubpass.com/theater/thoroughly-modern-millie-wiki/

            ——————

            Differences in the Stage Show

            The soundtrack differs greatly, with only ‘Thoroughly Modern Millie’ and ‘Jimmy’ featuring.

            Millie is not British, but from Kansas.

            Jimmy and Millie do not get along initially, and Jimmy is portrayed as a much more hedonistic playboy than the simply fun-loving Jimmy in the film. Furthermore, Millie does not desert her desire to be a Modern in the finale — it is her independence which Jimmy finds attractive.

            Mrs. Meers is actually Daisy Crumpler, a failed stage actress (though she doesn’t admit it to herself) who is living a yellow-face performance as Mrs. Meers. The audience see her speaking to Bun Foo and Ching Ho in an American accent several times.

            A sub-plot features Mrs. Meers coercing Bun Foo and Ching Ho into working for her, with promises that she will bring their mother over from Hong Kong, though she does not plan on honouring this deal.

            Millie spills champagne on Dorothy Parker (and subsequently “cleans” it with Soy Sauce) instead of Catherine Tremayne. Furthermore, Muzzy chats with George Gershwin about his symphony, for which Gershwin has encountered writer’s block. Muzzy then immediately sees Dorothy Parker and comments that Parker looks ‘a rhapsody in blue’ much to Gershwin’s delight.

            Bun Foo and Ching Ho’s roles are greatly expanded (much more than merely being credited Oriental #1 and #2.) Bun Foo is more determined to work for Mrs. Meers, while Ching Ho falls in love with Dorothy.

            It is Muzzy and not Jimmy who plays the bait for Mrs. Meers. Muzzy checks in under the anagrammatic pseudonym of Zazu Rosy Shmevmen

            After being rescued by Ching Ho, Dorothy realises she is actually in love with Ching Ho, and that with Trevor it was just puppy love.

          • Pragmatic Mom says:

            I would love your explanation of why Mrs. Meers is NOT yellowface.

            It would have been less of a yellowface issue for Mrs. Meers if the women in her hotel suspected that she was in disguise and had some kind of whispered conversation that they doubted that she was Chinese. This could have been added into the script and then the yellowface would have been less of an issue but because all the actors on the stage never doubted her ridiculous disguise, then the audience had to go along with that premise as well. And that’s when the yellowface became front and center.

          • Irene says:

            I am so glad that current students at NNHS are weighing in and expressing their opinions here in this discussion.

            However, I am deeply troubled by the mere fact that even one student has now denied that yellowface was used in the production. This means that despite the school’s assurances and best efforts, they did not sufficiently educate the entire student body about the forms of racism inherent in this show, and why they are offensive.

            • Pragmatic Mom says:

              Hi Irene,
              I don’t think NNHS thinks Mrs. Meers is offensive or was in yellowface because there was an elaborate backstory to her character. And, therein, lies the conflict and the reason why Newton felt comfortable doing Thoroughly Modern Millie as is while Brookline or The Dalton School did not.

      • Pragmatic Mom says:

        And I’m truly sorry for the hurt caused to the cast and crew. They were innocent victims as well. They were in no way at fault and they gave brilliant performances. It is not their fault at all or in any way. It was not their fault that this was the script that they were given.

    9. Roberta Driscoll says:

      First of all, I want to commend the cast, members of the stage crew, and the orchestra players for their hard work- I thought the play was wonderfully done, from the acting and singing (which was top-notch) to the music and the stage set. As a parent of a child involved in the production, please let me say that, at least for some, the commentary that has resulted about the play has been deeply hurtful. You can say that your criticisms are not directed at the kids, but believe me, some of them have taken your comments as an indictment of their participation in this production.

      I am incredibly disappointed, but, sadly, not surprised, by the volubly negative reaction the community has had to the play- why aren’t we all able to look at this in its context of a period piece, one that was written and performed initially when we, as a society, were not as sensitive to issues of race and gender, rather than as an endorsement of negative behaviors and mindsets? The play has certainly generated discussions about issues of race and ethnic stereotyping, and isn’t that really the point of art? And, for those members of the community who are outraged over Millie, I ask, what we should do instead? Pretend that these opinions never existed? Should we edit away the controversial bits, like Brookline High did, by recasting Mrs. Meers as a “southern woman”? (Of course, the notion of a southern person selling others into slavery should be as controversial). Does this mean schools shouldn’t participate in productions of Fiddler on the Roof (stereotypical of a period of Jewish culture), or Our Town (lacking strong female dialogue), or To Kill A Mockingbird (blatantly racist)? No Diary of Anne Frank? No Sound of Music? Surely, West Side Story should never see a high school stage?? Are we to limit school productions to sanitized topics that don’t touch on any issues of importance, like race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, politics? Hopefully not- hopefully, instead, NNHS continues to produce (and maybe will begin to stand behind their production of) plays that generate respectful dialogue of issues that are important to us all, and hopefully we can engage in those discussions without crushing the spirits of the kids involved.

      • Pragmatic Mom says:

        Hi Roberta,
        You do realize that the 2002 musical version of Thoroughly Modern Millie is the sanitized version from the film and the book. In this version, they removed the anti-Semitic wedding scene in which songs were performed in fake Yiddish.

        Should the musical have kept this in as it did reflect the anti-Semitism of the 1920s?

        I think the 2002 version was trying to sanitize the original … are you saying that the film version should have been kept fully intact? It’s just that the 2002 version was done in ignorance. It attempted to make Oriental #1 and Oriental #2 into fuller characters by calling them by names. But the author didn’t seem to think that making up Sing Song Chinese fake names was an issue.

      • Pragmatic Mom says:

        Hi Roberta,
        Would you object to the Brown Middle School’s version of Sound of Music in which they removed the Nazi flag from the scene so as not to offend anyone and replacing it with a cross on a flag instead?

        What do you think of that change? An overreaction? It’s historically accurate to have a Nazi flag flying during this period piece.

      • Irene says:

        “[W]hy aren’t we all able to look at this in its context of a period piece, one that was written and performed initially when we, as a society, were not as sensitive to issues of race and gender…”

        We are. That is exactly one of the reasons for concern. Because this story was written at a time when people were not at all sensitive to racism against Asian-Americans, we now have to take responsibility for it. Do we engage in the racism that was acceptable in the past by continuing to promote the negative stereotypes on stage, or do we prove ourselves to be above racism and choose not to engage in it?

        “…rather than as an endorsement of negative behaviors and mindsets?”

        By engaging in racism – e.g., promoting negatives stereotypes and employing yellowface – the negative behaviors and mindsets that were written into the original version of the story are being propagated, even if not endorsed.

        “The play has certainly generated discussions about issues of race and ethnic stereotyping, and isn’t that really the point of art?”

        I agree that a lot of great discussion has been generated. However, if that was the goal, then NNHS could have simply shown the 1967 movie version of “Thoroughly Modern Millie”, or watched clips of existing stage productions on YouTube, and then discussed the inherent racism in classrooms. They didn’t have to go to great lengths to stage a production – marginalizing and offending community members in the process – just to point a finger at it and say, “That type of behavior is wrong. Don’t do it, even though we did.”

        In regards to the list of other potentially questionable productions… As an Asian-American with personal experience with racism against Asian-Americans, I don’t purport to fully understand the plight of Jews and African-Americans or Latinos. I trust that within those communities, they probably do have their own opinions on shows like Fiddler On the Roof and West Side Story. If NNHS ever considered staging one of those shows, I would hope that they would learn from this experience, seek out members of the appropriate minority groups, invite them to share their perspectives, and take their voices into account.

        And there really is a big difference between a show that IS racist, like Thoroughly Modern Millie, and a show that CONFRONTS racism, like To Kill A Mockingbird. Of course, To Kill A Mockingbird does include racial slurs, and it depicts racism in order to confront it. But again, if NNHS wanted to stage To Kill A Mockingbird, I now have faith that African-American members of the community would be invited to share their perspectives before any final decisions were made about production.

    10. Roberta Driscoll says:

      I didn’t see the 2002 movie, and there was no wedding scene in the version of the play NNHS performed, so I don’t think I’m able to comment,having no first hand knowledge of either issue. What I’m saying is that, unfortunately, issues of racial stereotyping exist, and we do a disservice to our kids in pretending that they don’t. Rather, we should address them head on by engaging in respectful discussions about the accepting and embracing the differences among and between cultures, races, religions, gender identities, political views, etc. And yes, I would object to removing the Nazi flag from the Brown production, because the issue of Nazi occupation is central to the story line in Sound of Music (otherwise, what are they running from? Wolves?). Why change it? If the idea is that the children are too young, or intellectually immature, to grasp the difficult context, then choose a different play. Why not use the play as a vehicle for learning and for change, in an orchestrated manner that involves the kids, the school and the community? Or, we could just rewrite the challenging pieces so as not to offend anyone, and the conversation goes nowhere. Unfortunately, this debate has turned into an indictment of NNHS, the theater ink program, Adam Brown and others, which doesn’t help anything.

      I, too, have feelings about the way my culture is portrayed. I’m Italian-American, and unfortunately American culture typifies us as mobsters, and gangsters, who are morally corrupt. I just don’t think censorship is the answer. If NNHS wants to stage My Cousin Vinnie or Moonlighting next year, I’ll be in the front row supporting my son. Then we’ll have a conversation about it.

      • Pragmatic Mom says:

        Hi Roberta,
        Thoroughly Modern Millie is a 1967 American musical film directed by George Roy Hill and starring Julie Andrews. The 2002 musical is their sanitized version of the movie. When you say that you don’t want anything sanitized, are you therefore suggesting that the musical should have been faithful to the movie?

        Here’s the clip to the Jewish wedding in the movie:

        http://teruah-jewishmusic.blogspot.com/2008/01/thoroughly-modern-mille-julie-andrews.html

        “For the record, the Jewish wedding scene in Thoroughly Modern Millie is well known for being a bit of a non-sequitor added because the authors of the film were Jewish and were having a bit of fun. As was I.”

        Here’s more commentary on it:

        “First, I want to make clear that none of the main characters is textually Jewish. But midway through the film, Millie reminds Miss Dorothy that the two of them have a wedding to attend, and then this happens: [video: Julie Andrews as Millie singing a Yiddish song (“Trinkt le Chaim”–the only lyrics I could find are here and I am uncertain of their accuracy, I apologise) at a wedding. There is an extended dance break partway through] I should state that I am not Jewish either, and know relatively little about Jewish traditions (and I want to thank Amadi for talking to me about this scene). But this scene is not only exceedingly voyeuristic (witness Miss Dorothy midway through, where she bemusedly exclaims “it’s…Jewish!”), it gets some extremely important aspects of Jewish wedding traditions wrong (in particular, the lack of a Chuppah for the bride and groom).

        But I question why this adaptation even came to be, more than thirty years after the film first premiered. Why it was felt that a film this transparently problematic could—or should!—be turned into a stage show, other than the general momentum stage adaptations of movies have been gaining in the past decade. And lastly, I question whether the changes they made really solved the problem, and I am forced to conclude they almost certainly didn’t. ”

        http://bitchmagazine.org/post/stage-left-thoroughly-modern-racism-or-the-problem-with-millie

        I also wonder why outdated stereotypes should be front and center and, indeed, even relevant such that we should be teaching around it. Wouldn’t current stereotypes be a more fruitful discussion?

        I don’t this this discussion is an indictment against Theatre Ink, only a cautionary tale of not listening and dismissing an important point of view that was voiced at least two months before the show aired. It’s also about cultural sensitivity and the ability to see from another’s point of view. This is also an issue around bullying and the mixed messages that are sent to the students and the community. Finally, we warn against marginalizing a minority group, which already has a high teen and early 20s suicide rate due to excessive pressure to succeed.

        p.s. I saw movie My Cousin Vinny a long time ago. Can you please refresh my memory on the references in that movie to mobsters, mafia and gangsters?

        • Roberta Driscoll says:

          Again, if your issue is with the fact that NNHS produced this play, with the objectionable parts included, I’m not really sure how commenting on parts of the movie that were not in the play is relevant?

          As for My Cousin Vinny, many of the characters (who are believed to be criminals and are in fact on trial) have Italian surnames (Gambini, Vito), are thuggish and dumb (Vinny needs 6 tries to pass the bar exam), dressed in black leather (the men) or skin-tight skirts and mile-high heels (the woman), each of whom speaks in the tone of voice and manner of vocal inflection typically attributed to Italian-American characters (think “ba da bing”)…. does the description raise any parallels for you?

          • Pragmatic Mom says:

            Hi Roberta,
            My point refers back to yours:

            “why aren’t we all able to look at this in its context of a period piece, one that was written and performed initially when we, as a society, were not as sensitive to issues of race and gender, rather than as an endorsement of negative behaviors and mindsets?”

            The musical Thoroughly Modern Millie is considered the SANITIZED version of the musical film. It was rewritten to mitigate some of the more egregious offensive parts. This is not a period piece. It’s not historically accurate.

            As for My Cousin Vinny, you are absolutely right to bring up egregious stereotypes.

            I’m not sure that having Italian surnames is offensive if, in fact, these are real names and not made fake names like Ching Ho and Bun Foo.

            The men are thuggish and dumb and that is not great but the end does present Vinny as being a successful trial attorney. He might need six tries to pass the bar exam but he does great cross examinations in court as I recall. Lisa, however, is presented as a strong and underestimated character.

            The costumes are sexist and racist. That’s not great. I agree.

            The characters speak in Italian-American accents. Do they exaggerate the accents? If so, that is offensive. But in the case of the play, the accents are not even authentic, in fact, the joke is the accent.

            So I just did a google searh for “racism” and “My Cousin Vinny” (the same thing that I did for Thoroughly Modern Millie when I wrote my first post) and I found this:

            1) http://www.moviestack.com/posts/222029-racist-movie

            “Racist Movie!!

            When they roll into town (Alabama?) & Marissa Tomei says there are probably no good Chinese restaurants around what is she insinuating? That whites are superior to Chinese or that Chinese are only found in parts where there is a ceratin standard of living? Come on!”

            2) http://archives.jrn.columbia.edu/coveringed/schoolstories10/2010/05/grits-and-respect-lessons-from-my-cousin-vinny/index.html

            “As the conversation continued, students began pointing out moments in the film that played on stereotypes–Southerners’ obsession with grits, their focus on respect or continued distrust of “The North” more than a century after losing the Civil War.

            Thus, the student’s question. Are Southerners truly proud of their grit-making abilities, or is the emphasis on respect and grits in the film merely a stereotype? And further, if it is a stereotype, when does it cross the line between funny and offensive?

            One student thought using stereotypes as a joke crosses the line. “You’re being racist,” he said, though he argued the stereotypes in “My Cousin Vinny” don’t actually cross that line. ”You can’t be racist to a region,” he said. “Southern isn’t a race.” ”

            3) http://www.wicasta.com/blogs/why-my-cousin-vinny-annoys-me/

            “For some reason, every time I prepare instant grits I think about the line in My Cousin Vinny where a character says, in a fairly terrible fake Southern accent, “No self respectin’ Southerner uses instant grits.” Apparently no one checked with Southerners about this, because I’ve yet to meet a Southerner who doesn’t, or hasn’t, eaten instant grits. And the irony that the line was delivered by a Northern actor is lost on most people.

            If you really stop and think about it, there are only two Southern characters in the movie who aren’t total morons. The sheriff and the prosecutor. Oddly enough, both of those characters were the only principle characters that were played by Southern actors (Bruce McGill, the sheriff, is from San Antonio, Texas, and Lane Smith, the prosecutor, is from Memphis, Tennessee). All of the other principle Southern characters are played by Northern actors, with consistently terrible accents, and those characters are all played as stereotypically dim-witted Southerners.

            They generally think of Southerners as inferior somehow. In fact, the dumber those Northerners generally are, the more convinced they are that they’re smarter than Southerners overall.

            4) http://mailer.fsu.edu/~njumonvi/cinema.htm

            “Most movies set in the South, he complains, are full of bad accents and simplistic racial attitudes.

            “Not that the South’s a perfect place, a model for the world today, but it’s changed,” Nunez said. “Those kinds of movies are referring back to a cliched view of the South.” ”

            5) https://www.lotsofessays.com/viewpaper/1712417.html

            Stereotyping is used in the movie both as a comic device and as social commentary. When the two accused boys, Bill and Stan, make their one allowed phone call to Bill’s mother, he tells her, “We think they’re trying to set us up as patsies, Ma. You know how corrupt it is down here. They all know each other” (“My Cousin Vinny”). Not satisfied with this explanation, Stan adds, “The Klan’s here. They’re inbred. They sleep with their sisters” (“My Cousin Vinny”). When the deputy glares at him, he softens the statement slightly “Some of them do” (“My Cousin Vinny”). The implication behind the humorous stereotype is that Southerners are racist, corrupt, small-minded cretins unlike the nice, family-oriented Italians in Bill’s family.

            ———-

            I stopped after page 1 of Google results, but I think you might be the lone voice to object to Italian American stereotypes in My Cousin Vinny and I don’t disagree that you don’t have basis to object to the movie. You certainly do.

            If you read the really long comment streams on these posts on Thoroughly Modern Millie, I was accused of being a “single voice.” Is your issue with My Cousin Vinny “single voice”? Are there parallels to Thoroughly Modern Millie? Yes. Why aren’t there more objections? This is a really great point and one that I ask of why there were no objections to How to Succeed in Business?

            Do you feel that the stereotypes presented in My Cousin Vinny are not harmful to you as an Italian American and that is why you can support it (along with your fellow Italian Americans who have not spoken out?)

            We, as Asian Americans, feel that the stereotypes in Thoroughly Modern Millie are damaging to us NOW and that is why we are objecting.

          • Pragmatic Mom says:

            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

          • Pragmatic Mom says:

            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.
            Zak Keith: Hollywood Asian Stereotypes

    11. ally says:

      In my opinion, knowing this show quite well, if the cast of TMM was to change the content of this show, not only would that most likely be illegal, for they bought the rights to the show, and are not actually allowed to change it, but it would also be running away from any problems this show does bring to the table. It is an outdated, politically incorrect show, yes. But it is also filled with beautiful music and great opportunities for a cast. The choosing of this show was not made for any other reason then the fact that its music and (most of) its plot are great. And the students at NNHS put so much effort, time, dedication, and work into this show, as was evident to anyone who actually had the integrity to see the show before basing their opinions off of no knowledge whatsoever.
      In putting on this production, NNHS faced the challenges that may arise, head on, with dignity and courage. They do not in any way enforce the stereotypes that arise through this show, and they are aware of how incorrect these stereotypes are. But the stereotypes should not define this show. It’s about a young girl who is chasing her dreams, and the cooky path she follows in order to achieve them. That is the main plot line. People are being so rude to these kids, who truly were educated on this subject and who care about how the Asian-American community feels. They are heartbroken over how everyone is treating them, and solely hating on their production, a production the children spent months on.
      In conclusion, I feel you should all be ashamed of how terribly your treating the children, as well As Adam Brown, Brad Jensen, and even Mr. Young, for they could not predict how people would react, and they all put their blood, sweat, and tears into creating a magical performance, one that is not even being acknowledged because you all are only criticizing the parts of the musical which the directors at North had no control over. They chose a show they thought would fit their students, and it did, and it was a fabulous show. Congrats to North and their courage in tackling such a difficult mission, your students are beyond talented and that talent is not acknowledged enough for how terrific it is.

      • Fin21 says:

        Ally, Your comments strike close to home for me for many of the reasons you bring up. One never wants to criticize a child’s hard work, and encouraging musical and dramatic talent is a crucial part of education for some students. In fact, it seems that PragmaticMom and many commenters have gone out of their way to specifically recognize the efforts of the cast and to isolate their criticisms to the play’s content. Of course there will be spillover, and surely that will upset some members of the cast, but from there nonetheless does appear to be a good-faith effort to protect the students involved.

        However, it is hard to extend the same charity to the staff, administrators, or adults who chose this play. You mention the music and dramatic roles TMM brings; is there a dearth of similar opportunities in other plays? Clearly not. Any heartbreak by the children involved in this production has not been caused by the critics, but rather by the staff who months ago bungled the requisite cost-benefit analysis of producing this play.

        Schools should not shy away from controversial themes, especially with older students. Lord of the Flies is a violent and disturbing book, and also one of the most profound works that teens will experience, for example. However, there is a higher duty of care required when a school takes the educational experience public, such as with a school play. Asking young people to personify an offensive and racist role is a step that should be taken only when the benefit is clear and compelling, a rationale that does not seem to exist in Newton North’s production of Thoroughly Modern Millie.

    12. Stephanie says:

      Thank you so much for writing this blog post. I had some serious questions about race in TMM, and this did a great job at thoroughly addressing how this musical is racist in so much complexity. It is unfortunate that such a popular musical includes the racist subplot and insists on racist portrayals of people of color. Those in education HAVE A RESPONSIBILITY to be better about how they deal with these issues. There is no reason why action had to be restricted to discussion and thought. High school productions of musicals are commonly edited to exclude offensive material such as sex, harsh language, or drug use — racism should absolutely be held to the same standard of offense. I would argue it has more negative impact on the lives of students than swearing or sex.

      I have no idea how this situation ended up, nor do I live in your town, but to call this out and trying to make your environment a better place, especially for your children, is incredibly brave and admirable. Thank you for doing the necessary work and speaking the truth. Even though there may be backlash in the shortrun, I can only imagine this makes for the best mom material possible.

      • Pragmatic Mom says:

        Hi Stephanie,
        Thank you so much for your comment! I was told that our high school does not believe in editing material; they prefer to stay true to the script. That being said, my high school did modify TMM by making one of the Asian henchman into a a white character who is adopted by the Chinese other of the mother Asian henchman. Not sure why this change was considered appropriate to be honest.

        To fill you in on what happened; the show went on. There was a page in the show booklet buried towards the back in which the play directors indicated that this show is offensive. There was no discussion about the racism in the play either before, during or after for the audience though the cast went though extensive additional awareness training. The funny thing was though, the cast did not think their production was racist so I’m not sure how effective it actually was.

        The school principal held a talk back after the show ended and many people from the community attended both in support of the show and/or deeply offended by the racist material presented. The principal spoke thoughtfully and indicated that she would have a plan in place to address both how shows are selected and how the school was going to deal with the aftermath of the damage the play caused — Asian American students and teachers were under fire for being “overly sensitive”. The school year ends this Friday, but still no written plan has been presented that I know of. That’s really a shame because there was a real teachable moment here that was lost.

        I would imagine that my high school will scrap any plans to do similar shows like Anything Goes or Flower Drum Song. Who knows though? Anything can go!

        p.s. Takeaway lesson is that this issue only got attention when it got boarder media attention. This story made the front page of our local newspaper, The Boston Globe, and ultimately, it went international landing on The Daily Telegraph. I’ll keep you posted on the written plan when it emerges.

        • Stephanie says:

          It’s really depressing to hear how superficially this has been handled, from start to finish. Why don’t the administrators, faculty, and staff at Newton understand that racism is an issue of violence–physical and social–that effects a significant portion of its student body each day? Why isn’t this issue important to them? It sounds like they keep saying it’s important and then doing nothing.

          The other thing that gets me is how this is being compared to musicals like The Flower Drum Song while making a case about how it’s important to “preserve” culture of yesterday so we “don’t repeat it today.” But TMM was adapted to a musical in the 21st century, and the high school version even more recently. Why are people using racist musicals of half a century ago to justify racism in a musical that’s younger than the high school kids performing in it?

          As a person who runs an arts program for high school students, this scenario seems totally mishandled from start to finish. I can’t believe they’re not even doing anything now after the outcry. Shows you how much they care about the well-being of their non-white students. I’m so sorry.

          • Pragmatic Mom says:

            Thanks Stephanie,
            What is so strange is that Newton has an 11.5% Asian American population and the high school has 9.5% Asian Americans as well. It’s not like we are invisible. I think the schools have swung so far towards special needs and inclusion that issues like racism have fallen by the wayside as if it doesn’t exist, but, of course, it still does.

            This past year, there have been 3 high school suicides, this racist play and a Newton high school student who has rattled cages by writing pro-democracy notes while on semester abroad in mainland China. http://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2014/06/05/newton-student-reprimanded-over-pro-democracy-messages-during-china-semester/5WrQ0viYPZTnCNfi6folwK/story.html

            I wonder if there is some commonality to these incidences. Perhaps racism when not addressed simmers right below the surface and rears its ugly face with terrible outcomes. I don’t know.

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