Ethnic stereotyping is popular culture’s original sin, and it’s proving a hard one to shed.
Look no further than the uproar over last weekend’s production of “Thoroughly Modern Millie’’ at Newton North High School. A storm erupted on social media and community blogs about the musical’s depiction of three characters — two of them Chinese, one of them masquerading as Chinese — who kidnap young women and sell them as sex slaves. The director of the organization that staged “Millie’’ apologized at a community meeting Monday.
It was the latest loud collision between the past and the present, a frequent occurrence in theater as a dated canon meets an increasingly diverse population. The very plays and musicals that outwardly seem like a good fit for high schoolers — because of their tunefulness and large casts and overall buoyancy — are often the most problematic in their depictions of nonwhite characters.
Consider, for example, 1949’s “South Pacific,’’ which sends an earnest antiracism message undercut by the cringe-inducing, pidgin-English-speaking character of Bloody Mary. Or 1934’s “Anything Goes,’’ whose Chinese characters are naught but walking punch lines. Concerns about negative stereotypes of Puerto Ricans in 1957’s “West Side Story’’ have escalated in the past couple of decades. (Amherst High School canceled a scheduled student production in 1999.)
Nor is cultural insensitivity confined to high school, or to works created long ago: Just last November a touring production of 2012’s “A Christmas Story: The Musical” arrived at the Citi Wang Theatre, complete with the character of an Asian-American waiter who pronounced his L’s as R’s.
Let’s stipulate that no one should be allowed to shout down or shut down a theatrical production, however objectionable or even repugnant its content. Imposing limits on artistic expression is never a good idea. When a community gets up in arms, the perils of censorship are obvious and real, and those perils should be taken seriously.
But the concerns expressed in Newton before and after the performances of “Thoroughly Modern Millie’’ also deserve to be taken seriously. In part, the “Millie’’ imbroglio underscores the difficulty that even well-intentioned people confront when they tackle problematic source material. The stage musical actually dates only to 2002 — it was the breakthrough for one of the biggest stars on Broadway, Sutton Foster, who played the title role — but it is built on the bones of a stereotype-laden 1967 movie starring Julie Andrews.
Earlier this year, after controversy swirled around the stage musical at the Dalton School in Manhattan, lyricist and co-librettist Dick Scanlan told The New York Times that he and the rest of the artistic team had made “a deliberate political choice . . . to portray Asian stereotypes and then challenge them in order to bust them.’’ 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.
The controversy in Newton also points to a wider problem of underrepresentation that goes well beyond high school: Namely, that the authentic Asian-American experience is seldom reflected onstage, or onscreen, or on television for that matter. The cultural presence of Asian-Americans does not come close to matching the actuality of what was the fastest-growing ethnic group in the nation in 2012, reaching a total of 19 million, according to the US Census Bureau.
Small wonder, then, that Asian-American audiences would object to the crude ethnic cartoons in “Millie,’’ and that, more broadly, they would consider the choice between invisibility and insult to be unacceptable in this day and age. (For a dismaying glimpse at what was deemed acceptable in another day and age, check out Mickey Rooney’s egregious caricature of a buck-toothed Japanese-American named Mr. Yunioshi in the 1961 film “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.’’)
Of course, African-Americans, Latinos, Arab-Americans, and other groups have also weathered a slew of insults at the hands of popular culture. Their experiences also remain underrepresented on American stages, their true voices insufficiently heard.
The fundamental issue is that our dramatic literature — especially those plays staged by high schools — has yet to catch up to our growing diversity. One bright spot: the stagings of dramas from the late August Wilson’s “Century Cycle’’ of 10 plays about the black experience in the 20th century, one play per decade. It was both encouraging and moving on a recent Saturday morning to see and hear African-American high schoolers speaking Wilson’s powerful words at the August Wilson Monologue Competition, organized locally by Huntington Theatre Company.
It was also heartening to see Wheelock Family Theatre’s terrific recent production of “Hairspray’’ and note that the lead role of Tracy Turnblad — which typically goes to a white actress — was played by Jenna Lea Scott, who is Asian-American. The choice was an example of the kind of nontraditional casting that has opened up opportunities for nonwhite actors while presenting a fuller picture of the world to audiences.
She was sensational in “Hairspray,’’ but Scott, 33, has had to confront career obstacles related to her ethnicity, as she made clear in her blunt comments in her profile on the theater’s website. “It’s challenging to prove to casting directors that you aren’t just your race,” Scott said. “A play that requires an Asian actor may offer me a foot in the door, but I am often asked to portray a stereotype.’’
Those words reflect a reality Asian-American actors continue to struggle against. In 2012, the Asian American Performers Action Coalition, an advocacy group, released a study finding that from 2006-07 to 2010-11, only 2 percent of the roles in Broadway and large off-Broadway productions went to Asian-American actors.
That dismal number prompts memories of the casting controversy more than two decades ago over “Miss Saigon,’’ a musical whose portrayal of Asians has long been criticized. Jonathan Pryce, a white actor, won acclaim (and a Tony Award) for his performance in the key role of a Eurasian pimp known as the Engineer, but not before a bitter battle during which the Actors’ Equity Association maintained that “the casting of an Asian actor in the role would be an important and significant opportunity to break the usual pattern of casting Asians in minor roles.’’
More recently, the American Repertory Theater made some adjustments to the original 1935 “Porgy and Bess’’ in its 2011 production of “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess.’’ The difference mostly had to do with tone: The adaptation by Suzan-Lori Parks and Diedre L. Murray minimized the racial stereotypes and exaggerated dialect of earlier productions — changes that had the effect of deepening the characterizations and allowing audiences to focus on the powerful love story at the center of “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess.’’ The production went on to Broadway, where it won Tony Awards for best musical revival and best actress in a musical for Audra McDonald’s shattering portrayal of Bess.
Sometimes stereotypes can be deployed to effectively subversive dramatic effect, but context and intent are crucial. For instance, in 2011 Boston’s Company One presented “Neighbors,’’ an explosive satire by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, a young African-American playwright, that relied on shock effects in the form of a family of minstrel performers in blackface. By thrusting racist stereotypes in the faces of audiences, Jacobs-Jenkins forced them to acknowledge how many invidious racial assumptions are woven through our national history and the history of popular entertainment, and how many such assumptions linger in the culture today.
But an audience goes to Company One expecting provocative work, and the playwright’s intentions and message were pretty clear. The same can’t be said of “Thoroughly Modern Millie.’’
In the aftermath of the Newton North controversy, it’s worth remembering that high school productions are frequently the first experience of theater that students receive: as performers, crew members, or spectators. In other words, high school is where the theater audiences of the future are forged. On the Wheelock Family Theatre website, Jenna Lea Scott strikes a hopeful chord about that future, saying that she believes “the theatre world is changing with more new writers creating diverse roles and theatres like WFT championing non-traditional, or ‘colorful’ casting.’’
Then she remarks, tellingly and poignantly, that “among my reasons for pursuing an acting career was a desire to see myself represented on the stage.” That’s a widespread desire among members of ethnic groups who for too long have been slighted or ignored: to see themselves represented on the stage and screen, accurately and fully. It doesn’t seem like too much to ask.