The curtain has come down on a suburban Boston high school’s production of “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” but the controversy over the play’s racially insensitive portrayal of Asian-Americans lingers.
The musical had a March 13-16 run at Newton North High School, angering some Asian-Americans who found the musical’s racial stereotypes hurtful and unacceptable, the Boston Globe reported.
“We would never do anything anti-Jewish, or anti-African-American. Blackface is unthinkable, but yellow face is utterly fine,” said Newton resident Mia Wenjen, whose Pragmatic Mom blog brought attention to the debate.
According to the Boston Globe, the theater director apologized at a community meeting the night after the show closed.
“I’m sorry, I am so, so sorry you are feeling the anger you are feeling,” said Adam Brown, director of Theatre Ink, which staged the play over the weekend. “We blew it. I’m sorry.”
The show is based on a movie starring Julie Andrews that had its premiere 47 years ago.
Two characters Ching Ho and Bun Foo, are hapless Asian laundrymen controlled by Mrs. Meers, a third character with chopsticks in her bun, who speaks in a farcical Chinese accent as she uses the men to kidnap unsuspecting young girls staying at her hotel to be sold as sex slaves.
The Globe quoted Kelsey Fox, a Newton North student who played Mrs. Meers, as saying that all the students involved with the show have learned valuable lessons.
“We started a conversation school-wide, and we learned how to listen,” she said. “At the beginning of this process, we didn’t know how to be the best allies to our classmates; now we do, we understand the history.”
The show’s director, Brad Jensen, who teaches English at Newton North, said before Monday night’s forum that a great deal of effort was made as far back as October to use the script to teach students about the racial stereotypes depicted by the characters.
“We tried to fully develop the characters,” he told the Globe. “The two men were not just Mrs. Meers’ henchmen, but fully developed human beings who struggled with their decision to go along with her plans.
“It’s not a perfect show, and we knew that,” Jensen said.
Newton North Principal Jennifer Price said Monday that administrators have learned through the experience and stressed that the school in no way condones racism.
Nearly 17 percent of Newton’s public school students are Asian.