Thoroughly Modern Millie: Community TALK BACK

My daughter in 12th grade tells me that the Leadership class is studying racism against Asian Americans and that my posts on Newton North High School’s musical, Thoroughly Modern Millie, is a big part of that curriculum. I’m glad. This conversation is long overdue.

I wanted to share the videos I shot of the Community Talk Back centered around Thorough Modern Millie right after the show ended at Newton North High School. The Boston Globe front page article emerged after this Talk Back.

Newton North High School Thoroughly Modern Millie Performance
Adam Brown, director of Theatre Ink at Newton North High School, invites audience to read page 59, disclaimer on racism in Thoroughly Modern Millie performed March 2014.

Newton North High School Thoroughly Modern Millie 2014 Production
Scene with Mrs. Meers about to sell girl into white slavery. 2014 production.

I would like to note that then principal Jennifer Price made promises regarding a new vetting plan that included people of color during this Talk Back that she never followed up on. There may be a new plan in place but she promised to give a written document to the public that has yet to be revealed.

I would further note that director and NNHS English Teacher Brad Jensen made further comment during the year and year after in his classroom that he did not believe that Thoroughly Modern Millie is racist in any way. This is concerning to me that an ENGLISH teacher is unable to do read between the lines and draw inferences from written material.

Finally, I would suggest Cilla-Lee Jenkins, Future Author Extraordinaire by Susan Tan for a middle grade book on micro-aggressions against Asian Americans, and mixed-race Asian Americans in particular.

I also have a post on why the picture book Tiki Tiki Tembo is racist and not recommended as a book to celebrate Chinese New Year.

Chinese New Year Books Instead of Tiki Tiki Tembo

Here are the videos:

Newton North High School Thoroughly Modern Millie Talk Back 1
Racism discussion about Throughly Modern Millie performed by Newton North High School, 2014.

Newton North High School Thoroughly Modern Millie Talk Back 2
About teaching racism in books versus theatre.

Newton North High School Thoroughly Modern Millie Talk Back 3
A white 17-year-old Newton North High School student speaks out against the programming choices.

Newton North High School Thoroughly Modern Millie Talk Back 4
Jenny Chou and her husband talk about how their son felt that he could not participate because he did not want his Chinese American grandparents to be subjected to the racism in the show.

Thoroughly Modern Millie Newton North High School Talk Back 1.5
The vetting process for selecting a musical both for Thoroughly Modern Millie and moving forward.

Thoroughly Modern Millie Newton North High School Talk Back 5

An Asian American father asks about ability to modify script. When Brown Middle School did the Sound of Music, they changed the Nazi Flag to a cross in order not offend their audience. Please note also that Newton North High School CHANGED the script to reflect that one of the Asian Characters is white. They also added in the mother of the two Asian characters at the end.

Thoroughly Modern Millie Newton North High School Talk Back 6
Joy Bautista, Academic Dean and Science Teacher at Boston Arts Academy on why Thoroughly Modern Millie hurt her.

Thoroughly Modern Millie Newton North High School Talk Back 7
Charlene Beh, English Teacher at Newton North High School and advisor to Thoroughly Modern Millie on how this process and show made her feel marginalized.

Thoroughly Modern Millie Newton North High School Talk Back 8
Why wasn’t Thoroughly Modern Millie modified to remove the racism?

Thoroughly Modern Millie Newton North High School Talk Back 9
Michele Leong, English Teacher and Director of the Office Human Rights at Newton North High School weighs in on Thoroughly Modern Millie. Co Advisor of the Asian Culture Club.

Thoroughly Modern Millie Newton North High School Talk Back 10
NNHS student speaks out about how White Privilege socialization denies Asians and Asian Americans the right to feel pain from the racism, the roles Asian Americans are offered at NNHS, and that Newton North’s letter of not doing enough concerns her.

Thoroughly Modern Millie Newton North High School Talk Back 11
On the right to feel pain from the racism in Thoroughly Modern Millie.

Thoroughly Modern Millie Newton North High School Talk Back 12
When does a play or musical cross the line?

Thoroughly Modern Millie Newton North High School Talk Back 13
Archena Szpak and why Thoroughly Modern Millie goes against the Anti-Bullying teachings in the Newton School System.

Newton North High School Thoroughly Modern Millie
Ching Ho and Bun Foo scene. Did you know that these are not real Chinese names? These are made up names.

Let me draw a parallel. Imagine if these two characters were gay men instead of Chinese immigrants. In the first version of Thoroughly Modern Millie, these characters were named Oriental 1 and Oriental 2. Asian Americans find this term offensive so let’s rename the characters Faggot 1 and Faggot 2. Then, in the rewrite, two nonsensical made up names were inserted instead to make it less offensive.

Ching Ho and Bun Foo are not real names so in our parallel, let’s call these two characters Pitcher and Catcher. I hope you can understand why Ching Ho and Bun Foo are equally racist and offensive. Saying the names in a respectful tone of voice does not eliminate the repulsiveness of the names.

These are all related posts on Thoroughly Modern Millie at Newton North High School:

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

Thoroughly Modern Millie End of School Year Takeaway

These are other articles and posts related to Thoroughly Modern Millie at Newton North High School:

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

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 

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.

The Notebook: Racism isn’t entertainment: Why “Thoroughly Modern Millie” didn’t belong on CAPA’s stage

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.” 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.


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, with two at Newton North High School. She can be found on PinterestTwitter, LinkedIn, FacebookGoogle +Instagram and YouTube.

Photo credit: Grasshopper and Sensei, my oldest.

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