racism in Thoroughly Modern Millie

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

racism in 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


On March 21, 2014, this Opinion piece was printed in The Boston Globe. Here’s the kicker: it’s an opinion piece of someone who chose to be anonymous.

So, I would like to refute points by pulling quotes. Note that I have inserted these quotes. They are not from the anonymous author of this article. You can read the original here.

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

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

‘Millie’ in Newton: Turn stereotypes into lessons

MANY AMERICAN musicals are immortal pieces of the nation’s artistic heritage. Others are time capsules that capture the prejudices of an earlier era — but can still be used as educational material.

“Our son made the difficult decision not to do the show because he could not invite his grandparents, my parents,  [who are Chinese American and speak with an accent] to come and see this show. … He felt like he couldn’t participate. Who else was excluded?”

Jenny Chou, mother of Newton North High School Theatre Ink Sophomore

From Talk Back: Racism in Thoroughly Modern Millie at NNHS

Newton North High School’s production of “Thoroughly Modern Millie” sparked controversy this week, as some members of Newton’s Asian-American community objected to the play’s stereotyping of Chinese culture in the 1920s. The musical, though first staged on Broadway just 12 years ago, was based on a 1967 movie, and it shows.

“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.)” From My Take on Thoroughly Modern Millie

Yet it’s possible to present such plays in educational ways. Since rehearsals began, Newton North noted in a memo, the cast and crew held discussions and workshops about the stereotypes present. Directors worked with the school’s Office of Human Rights and Asian Culture Club to better understand community concerns and to help students recognize wider themes of racism in American media and society. The play’s program included a note explaining as much. All these efforts suggest that Newton North worked hard to stage “Thoroughly Modern Millie” in a sensitive manner.

“This is a play that — I have no other way to say it —  at its heart, in its DNA is deeply, deeply racist. Ignorant. There are stereotypes. You have the names Ching Ho, Bun Foo. Those aren’t actual Chinese names. What you have is a sort of a White American concept of what Chinese and Asians are meant to be and it’s there, laid out, for entertainment value.”

Charlene Beh, English Teacher at Newton North High School and Co-Advisor to Thoroughly Modern Millie

From Talk Back: Racism in Thoroughly Modern Millie at NNHS

Putting plays in historic context won’t entirely prevent hurt feelings; in the canon of musical theater, some groups are more likely than others to be portrayed in cartoonish ways. Still, give students some credit. High schoolers are mature enough to understand difficult themes, and audiences should be able to recognize a distinction between indifference toward racism and a production that goes out of its way to identify backward attitudes and uses them to educate students.

“I chose to move here from Hawaii and to work here and live in Newton when it could be so much easier for me as an Asian American to live out West where people don’t question my experience as painful when I experience racism, little and big.

To have people doubt the pain that I experience, that has been another thing that has been hard about all this stuff. Not intended at all, but it’s happened where I’ve had to have conversations with staff members who doubted the racism and pain that exists in the play.”

Michele Leong, English Teacher and Director of the Office Human Rights at Newton North High School and Co-Advisor of the Asian Culture Club and Co-Advisor to Thoroughly Modern Millie

From Talk Back: Racism in Thoroughly Modern Millie at NNHS


“Millie” has raised concerns at other schools. The Dalton School, a private school in Manhattan, performed a sanitized version with the playwright’s permission after initially deciding to cancel the show, the New York Times reported in January. Brookline High School performed its own revised version last month.

“I felt strongly the script was disrespectful,” said the Brookline director, Christien Polos. He and students rewrote the part of Mrs. Meers to change her from Chinese to Southern American and turned the two Chinese laundrymen into undercover police officers.

“We thought it was important to bring it in line with 21st century thinking,” he said.

From Some slam ‘racist’ stereotypes in play at Newton North in The Boston Globe


Comments from Students:

i understand that people were offended but don’t you think some are taking this a little too far? being a little dramatic? an incoming freshman is “afraid” to come to school? really?
sorry, but i’m sitting here rolling my eyes.


In the comments From Talk Back: Racism in Thoroughly Modern Millie at NNHS

Hello Z,

I just wanted to respond to you because I think the gravest concern expressed on this page is that you would feel unsafe going to Newton North. I just wanted to say, as a student, that Newton North has impressed me as an incredibly open-minded, kind and accepting school. You’d be hard pressed to find a more forward thinking high school. Evidently, you will have problems that are inherit in every high school (feeling excluded, drugs, cliques, etc.) but these problems are for the most part very limited. However, I have never witnessed any discrimination or unkindness based on race or background at Newton North. You might experience micro-agressions (being asked where you’re from and people expect you to say China or something when you’re from Boston too), but I think micro agressions are something that are at this point universal. I hope this eases your fears about Newton North.

As it concerns the play, I think I have more accurate insights as somebody who has seen its development and been privy to the process. Let me begin by saying the intention with which this play was chosen. There are a limited repertoire of plays available to a high school theater, due to a number of prerequisites. Millie was chosen because it afforded large opportunities for female roles, which I think is admirable. Last year we did How to Succeed in Businesses, which was downright sexist and had limited female roles, and nobody complained.

I want to also say that people are missing the context of this show and the point of theater. First of all, we must recognize that productions are a representation of a time in history. Last year we portrayed the 1960s, where a bunch of guys start at a women’s butt and drooled over it. Is that not offensive? The most controversial character in the script, Ms. Meers, is a WHITE woman in the 1920s attempting to portray an Asian American. How on earth would we expect her to not be racist, given the time period she was living in? The ignorance back then was even more profound than it is now, and that ignorance is reflected in the character. As such, her character is not poking fun at Asians but making fun of the stereotypes and the attitudes of white people themselves. Ms. Meers is over the top in her racism because it is making fun of the racism. In addition, the actress who played her did copious amounts of research and went out of her way to accurately inform herself about Asian American culture, and then she attempted to portray something that was evidently wrong (in order to indirectly poke fun at how wrong it was). We must remember that this show was about 10 years ago, so it is looking at the 1920s through a modern, more refined lens.

In addition, questioning the production of Thoroughly Modern Millie is in itself questioning the arts. You ask why we cold not have put on a production about a “lighter subject.” What would be the point of that? What would the arts be if there was no controversy? What would we be dedicating our time to if all we did was get on stage and dance about under rainbows and pretend everything was happy in the world? The stage, the arts are a place to generate healthy controversy and discussion. They should not be censored, lest our society end up looking a bit like that of fahrenheit 451. Thoroughly Modern Millie brought up the conversation of Asian stereotypes. It can be a hard conversation. But I don’t think stereotypes should be cast away because they are politically incorrect. We have to come to acknowledge them, know that they exist, and then be able to make fun of them and say that they are dumb (which is what Millie does). Ultimately, I feel that we need to understand the role the arts have. Often the arts are controversial – even pieces of classical music were controversial in their day.

Lastly, I, as a Newton North student, resent the negative comments that have been made about the artistic administration at Newton North. I have never met more considerate and thoughtful people than those who work in the music and theater departments. They put every ounce of their being into their jobs, staying until 11 o’clock, 12 o’clock at night to work on the production. Everything that is done in the arts at Newton North is a result of countless hours of work, of discussion and consideration. Nothing is done carelessly. Our arts department puts up shows that have controversial topics because it wants to generate that discussion and bring up these topics in an educated fashion amongst the artistic community. And when Mr. Brown, who is one of the most admirable people I have met, says he is planning a talk back tonight, it is not simply for the sake of appeasing upset parents and dismissing concerns. He truly wants to hear people’s considerations and thoughts.

I hope that this long note might help sway some people’s opinions about the production. I know that, as someone who was a part of the production, it is deeply saddening and disappointing to see such a negative response, given all the hard work put in.

NNHS Student

In the comments From Talk Back: Racism in Thoroughly Modern Millie at NNHS

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.

NNHS Student

In the comments From Talk Back: Racism in Thoroughly Modern Millie at NNHS

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.

NNHS Student

In the comments From Talk Back: Racism in Thoroughly Modern Millie at NNHS

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.


Comment from My Take on Thoroughly Modern Millie

Hey Pragmatic Mom,

May I suggest that you concentrate your commentary on teenage pregnancy, drug abuse and suicide: instead of your perceptions of Asian racism. Perhaps some thought about priorities and what really is important to our children, would help you reconsider your current unnecessary opinions.

See Jay

Comment from Thoroughly Modern Millie at NNHS is Thoroughly Racist

If the “concerned parents” want to make sure this doesn’t happen again, they should voice their complaints before these kids spend months putting a show together rather than heavily criticizing their plays the week of the show and destroying their self esteems. NNHS did How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (a show that I was in) and I didn’t hear anyone complaining about how sexist that show was.

Harry Watson

Comment from Thoroughly Modern Millie at NNHS is Thoroughly Racist


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

Thoroughly Modern Millie Talk Back Videos

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)

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.

p.p.s. Here are some related posts on my Asian American blog:

How Asian Americans Are Portrayed in U.S. Media. Who Should Be the Next Asian Old Spice Guy?

Asian Americans in Recurring TV Gigs

A Racist Bakesale Exposes Reverse Discrimination Against Asian Americans (I include this link because this is the real racist front that Asian Americans are currently fighting. All my posts on this topic are here.

Making us explain why Yellow Face is offensive is a waste of our time. I can’t believe this is still being used. In real life, has there ever been a white person pretending to be Asian? It’s only in the media and on the stage that this ridiculous premise exists.)

Survivor: Cook Islands Winner Yul Kwon and Why Media Portrayal of Asian Americans Matters


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

Photo credit: Grasshopper and Sensei, my oldest.

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