'Thoroughly Modern Millie' play draws controversy in Mass. over racial stereotyping

20 Years Ago, Identical Racism Reaction in Boston Suburb

Anita, a Chinese immigrant senior, described the reaction of the Drama Club Students as: “Why are the Asians making a big fuss? It’s just a play.”

We were going through the play point by point, and there were lines that specifically Cara was going over, and people were asking what’s wrong with that? She was trying to explain and they wouldn’t understand.

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.

In this case study, the school (renamed “Westlake School”) is a “wealthy suburban public” high school in the western suburbs of Boston. It could be Wellesley, Weston, Needham … or Newton.

The case study  is here. I’m pulling out quotes from this to demonstrate the chilling similarities to show how little has changed during the last twenty years.

 

Written in the 1930s, [Cole Porter’s musical] Anything Goes, includes two characters names “Ching” and “Ling” who are portrayed as subservient gamblers in need of Christian conversion and described in the script as “two Chinamen.” They and other characters speak in pidgin English, like “so sorree no sow wild oats in China, sowee wild rice” and imitate Chinese nonsense syllables such as “Confucius say, Wa ho ding so le tow.”

Concerned about the high public profile and the legitamacy that the musical would lend to racial stereotypes, Asian Pacific American students challenged the play’s demeaning references to Chinese men and women as well as to Chinese language and music.

Students’ demands included”

“No Pidgin English,”

“No Fake Asian Languages,”

“Change the Names of Ching and Ling,” and

“Cut out the word ‘Chinamen’.”

Referring to the school’s student handbook, the students stated, “If this racist behavior [slurs], is not tolerated in the school halls, it should not be tolerated on stage for a public school play.”

Anita, a Chinese immigrant senior, described the reaction of the Drama Club Students as: “Why are the Asians making a big fuss? It’s just a play.”

Wendy, a Chinese immigrant junior, similarly recalled:

We were going through the play point by point, and there were lines that specifically Cara was going over, and people were asking what’s wrong with that? She was trying to explain and they wouldn’t understand.

In a letter to an Asian Pacific American parent who had expressed concern about the play, the principal articulated the school’s official view:

While canceling the show would have been a option, I felt it would have been more educationally sound for the students and teachers to engage in dialogue about the concerns and feelings that they had about both the negative stereotyping in the play and the dangers of censorship in an educational community.

The show did go on. As a concession to the [students who complained], however, a statement on the back inside cover of the program booklet for the musical acknowledged that some in the community had found the play racist and offensive. The statement also explained that the English and Social Studies department had facilitated class discussions about Asian American stereotypes in order to understand the socio-historical context of the play.

Based on their direct experiences, Asian Pacific American students found their issues, concerns, and perhaps even their very presence, to be marginal at Westlake School. In questioning the judgement of a senior faculty member and forcing a school-wide examination of bias in one aspect of the curriculum, their efforts were quickly undermined both by adults who labeled their intent as censorship and by Non-Asian peers who viewed them as “overly sensitive.”

Wendy recalled:

It’s like the day we were having that discussion in English class, and everyone was focusing on me, like looking at me saying, “Don’t you think we shouldn’t censor stuff?” They were looking straight at me like “what’s the problem?”

 

Studio-East-Modern-Millie-Web-Home_0

My Posts:

Thoroughly Modern Millie is Thoroughly Racist

My Take on Thoroughly Modern Millie

Talk Back: Racism in Thoroughly Modern Millie at NNHS

NNHS Responds to Concerns About Thoroughly Modern Millie

MTI Advises How to Squelch Dissent on Thoroughly Modern Millie

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

Rebuttal to ‘Millie in Newton: Turn Stereotypes into Lessons

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

White Privilege and Thoroughly Modern Millie

 

Other Links:

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 Massa chusetts High School

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Resist Racism: Thoroughly Racist ‘Thoroughly Modern Millie’

Genki Speak: Racism in Our Backyard

Angry Asian Man

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arissa Oh ‏@arissaoh  1h

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

Pawprint: Millard West Student NewspaperThrough with Thoroughly Modern Millie

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

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

IMDbThoroughly Embalmed Musical

Project MuseThoroughly Modern Millie (review)

Not Like CrazyAn Easily Overlooked Racism?

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

MyvanwyReview of Thoroughly Modern Millie

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

Zak KeithHollywood Asian Stereotypes

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

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