Skip to content

Decision to stage ‘Thoroughly Modern Millie’ at North challenged

2014 March 11
by Greg Reibman

Over on the “I Love Newton” blog, Mia Wenjen questions the decision to stage the musical “Thoroughly Modern Millie” at Newton North High School. It’s a long post, with several related links, here’s one excerpt…

While I appreciate that effort was made to educate Asian American students at Newton North High School about anti-Asian bias in the media, I am surprised that this production is embracing the egregious Asian stereotypes in Thoroughly Modern Millie.

It’s one thing to point out the stereotypes and quite another to reinforce it by moving forward without addressing the changes. It is saying to me: “Here are anti-Asian stereotypes. Look, they are quite common. That’s why we are ok with promoting them in our musical. And it’s just for a laugh so that’s ok.”

The play was also the focus of a discussion during Asian Culture Day at North, according to the Newtonite (and another article here.)

Senior Kelsey Fox explained her role in the show could potentially cause much concern among the audience. Fox is playing Mrs. Meers, a white woman who pretends to be Asian. Fox said that she will be playing a very politically incorrect and “derogatory, to say the least” role in the musical. Motivated to not offend people in the audience, Fox explained, “My job is to make sure the audience laughs at my character and not at Asian culture.” Fox has been, “learning and listening to our Asian community,” in order to limit the offensiveness of her role.



13 Responses Post a comment
  1. mgwa permalink
    March 12, 2014 11:59 AM

    I urge people to read this column – I find it unfathomable and shameful in this day and age that a Newton school could think it ok to present a show with offensive racist stereotypes and a subplot involving a white slavery ring in China.

    The snippet Greg posted does not show the full scope of the problem, as depicted in the article. This is not a question of minor problems. It’s the equivalent of having Steppin Fetchit and blackface, or evil Jews – neither of which I could see being allowed.

    In the article, it discusses how a NYC private school ended up rewriting the play to eliminate the most offensive parts. If it’s too late to replace TMM with another show, at the least there should be some major rewriting to fix this.

  2. Jan permalink
    March 12, 2014 06:48 PM

    I don’t want to criticize Theater Ink, because I’ve been to many, many wonderful plays and musicals at North, and always admired how the cast, crew, musicians, set and costume designers, stagehands, and everyone else put on such superb productions. But I’ve been baffled about why this musical was chosen since it was announced. It’s just not that great a show. Given the problems with its stereotypes and racist depictions of characters, why choose this show? The director and students seem to have discussed and thought a lot about the racist elements of the show, and have been publicizing their efforts to reveal the racism and not hide it in North’s production, and broaden the characters. But if they have to do so much talking to let the audience know in advance they don’t mean to insult people, why choose this show? I think when the film came out in 1967, the stereotypes were presented unapologetically. Now of course, the stereotypes are obviously so offensive they cannot go unacknowledged. But the show just seems dated, and if so much effort has been expended to explain how the director is trying to combat the negative stereotypes in North’s production, I wonder how successful his efforts will be. There are so many other great choices out there, that can be fun for students and send positive messages about combating racism, stereotypes, treating people with kindness, etc.. Hairspray, for example, is a perfect show for high school students! I’m sure the production numbers and cast will do a great job, I just hope it doesn’t make the audience cringe at times. I do wish them all well and hope they have a great time putting on the show!

  3. March 12, 2014 08:06 PM

    Well said, Jan. As the only Asian American elected official in Newton, I have been contacted by many Asian Americans in Newton and in the Greater Boston area who are disturbed about the decision to choose this show. I sent an email to the program directors as well as the principal to find out what the reasoning was behind it and to find out how they intend to deal with the blatant offensive stereotypes of Asians Americans that we have fought so hard to end. I look forward to sharing their response.

  4. mgwa permalink
    March 12, 2014 08:55 PM

    I find this appalling. I can’t imagine them thinking it was ok to do this if the racism were directed toward Blacks, so why is it ok when it’s towards Asians? As someone who is not Asian, I don’t think you should have to be an Asian American to see how unacceptable this is.

    Jan – I hope it DOES make the audience cringe, because it should unless they do a heck of a lot of rewriting (which seems to be how the Dalton School in NYC handled it).

  5. Jan permalink
    March 12, 2014 09:24 PM

    @mgwa, Yes, I agree of course about the cringing, I was just writing rhetorically, and I agree, it would have been much better if they changed the characters and plot they way the Dalton school did.

  6. March 13, 2014 08:39 AM

    I have not yet seen the production, but I am making inquiries to rectify that … if I can sit in on a rehearsal before production night (this weekend), I will. It seems terribly irresponsible not to have adapted the script to the extent that doesn’t rewrite history.

    As a former elected official of Asian descent (sorry to have abandoned you, Amy!), and a parent of a NNHS student … I have been trying to find an opportunity to view what they’ve done with the production. I was only beginning to get an inkling of the issue when I heard my daughter’s friend was going to be “holding up translation boards”. I was only directed to the above cited link yesterday.

    The 1920’s was a period of gross racial, class and gender discrimination. So many strides have been made in breaking down those barriers to the point where there are those who are unaware or have forgotten what we, as a society, have had to overcome. However, we did not even endeavor to fight those prejudices until after the 60’s … so not only was the time period of the musical a time of racial discrimination, but the time period that the musical was written was not sensitive to those matters either.

    I explain this, because I differentiate between changing the story and changing the way the story is told. I have less of a problem that the musical talks about the slavery ring in China … because it happened. That is a part of American History and as shameful as it is, Americans did this and it was accepted by the society at the time. That some of our ancestors came to this country this way is also a part of our past. We should know this. My family came as more recent immigrants, but I feel it is important to know how others had suffered before us. For me to understand that some members of my Asian American community DO have that as a part of their family history. I get that.

    However … there is no excuse not to adapt HOW the story is told. I have a greater problem that “gobbly gook” noises are being passed off as “Chinese” (and apparently require translation) and that “make-up” could somehow make someone look Asian or that the offensive behavior is somehow championed as a virtue. This is why it is important to see *how* NNHS has chosen to produce this show. That there seems to have been no effort to adapt the script is very troubling. I am hoping that that is not true.

    I, too, will let you know what I find.

  7. March 13, 2014 09:09 AM

    So, I did find some recordings of one of the songs “Muqin” which, not knowing the story, I could make out from what I can understand (I am only able to understand SOME of the Chinese being sung … hard to understand things in song form) it seems to be about thinking of mother and her cooking and I think sunsets from home? Anyway, at least that production was using real Mandarin words. I found a couple versions of that song and they all seem to be using Mandarin in parts of the song. I’m going to guess that most of the performers aren’t Mandarin speakers.

  8. Holly Ryan permalink
    March 13, 2014 09:29 AM

    As a member of the Newton Human Rights Commission and a member of a community that is still stereotyped today, I see why this is offensive. I too have a son at Newton South and know how hard they work on productions. So it is time for a teachable moment. I would like to see the students, not the adults, before each performance talk about the time in history the play was written, why the depiction of the Asian community is wrong, and why this play would not be accepted today. This could be done in Five short minuets and possibly a short discussion after the performance.

  9. March 13, 2014 09:58 AM

    Another teachable issue with this production, is to point to the parallels to the human trafficking that is happening in the world today. In fact, such human slaves (mostly women) are being shipped here to the US, STILL.

    It continues to be able exist as long as we continue to think of people as “us” and “them” and not consider every individual as someone’s daughter, someone’s sister … some body’s innocent.

    In Modern Millie we get to know the girls and see them as people. Every girl that reaches our shores through human trafficking has a story, a family and a dream as well …

    The attention of these two dimensional portrayal of the evil characters in this play is being highlighted by their ethnicity, when they should be differentiated by their actions … which comes in the form of all nationalities and ethnic groups.

  10. Jan permalink
    March 13, 2014 10:26 AM

    Well, said, Greer, excellent points about differentiating from the history and stereotypes. Good idea, Holly. I know that the cast and crew did have a meeting at the outset of rehearsals to discuss ethnic stereotyping. But I think the next step of revising the script would have been a good idea.

  11. March 15, 2014 08:37 AM

    Just to close the loop, another thread has started citing the response from Principal Price which came out not long after Alderman Sangiolo instigated her inquiries.

    Go HERE

  12. ally permalink
    March 24, 2014 05:53 PM

    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.

  13. mgwa permalink
    March 24, 2014 07:31 PM

    Ally – I haven’t seen a single person blame the kids who were in the show. Question the judgment of the adults at NNHS? Absolutely. But no one in this thread has said anything negative about the kids.

Leave a Reply



Note: You may use basic HTML in your comments. Your email address will not be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS