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The Boston Globe

Opinion

JOAN VENNOCHI

‘Millie’ fight creates a chilling effect

Art can offend, whether it’s a sculpture of a man in his underwear or a musical featuring characters named Ching Ho and Bun Foo.

At Wellesley College, some students said Tony Matelli’s life-like work, entitled “Sleepwalker,” triggered fear of sexual assault. In Newton, some Asian-Americans were insulted by characters who depict laundrymen in the play “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” which was recently performed at Newton North High School. The two characters work for a woman named Mrs. Meers, who wears chopsticks in her bun and speaks in an exaggerated Chinese accent as she persuades them to kidnap young girls who are then sold as sex slaves.

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Afterwards, the play’s director, Adam Brown, apologized for the anger it stirred up. Now, in the aftermath of the controversy, you have to wonder about the chilling effect on future high school productions of that play and others.

“It is a slippery slope,” said Jim Palmarini, director of educational policy at the Educational Theatre Association, a national nonprofit organization with approximately 90,000 student and professional members. “You start with one thing, and, before you know it, there are plays that are objectionable for every possible reason you can imagine.”

“Thoroughly Modern Millie,” which was based on a 1967 film, opened on Broadway in 2002 and won six Tony Awards, including Best Musical. It played overseas, including a production in Hong Kong. The play is set in 1922, and tells the story of a young girl from Kansas who comes to New York City and ends up in the hotel run by Mrs. Meers. The two laundrymen are Chinese immigrants who are trying to earn enough money to bring their mother to America.

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Palimarini calls it “a great show” with “a terrific score . . . It’s got some heart to it.” He understands the issue of insulting stereotypes and agrees the characters could be recast as something other than Asian. But noting a decision at Brookline High School to change “the Chinese madam” to a Southern one, he suggests that character might be offensive elsewhere in the country. “Why not make her from Brookline?” he asked.

No one wants to be labeled racially insensitive. But people who believe strongly in freedom of expression should be concerned when community sensibilities begin to chip away at it.

“West Side Story” is on the objectionable list because of its depiction of Puerto Ricans. Feminists could object to Shakespeare’s “Taming of the Shrew.’’ Ruchi Koval, the blogger behind “Out of the Ortho Box,” which is dedicated “to bringing Orthodox Judaism out of the box,” once humorously tagged “Fiddler on the Roof” as her “unfavorite movie” because, among other reasons, “the rabbi is a fool” and “Yentl the matchmaker is a caricature.” She also conceded it’s “a masterpiece and a classic” — but maybe someone else is offended by Tevye’s Yiddish accent.

Censorship is a big problem for drama teachers. Craig Mason, co-owner of Theatrefolk, a company that publishes plays specifically designed for student performers, said that at many schools, scripts must be vetted before they can be performed, and what’s considered appropriate is “wildly unpredictable.”

“The issue with schools is that they’re not just dealing with students. They’re dealing with all the parents who are going to come and see the show. The heat from parents causes fear that spreads through the system,” said Mason.

Last October, a high school teacher in Scottsdale, Ariz., was suspended after parents complained that he had his students read aloud from an Edward Albee play about a man who falls in love with a goat. High school productions of “Rent,” which tells the story of young artists and musicians struggling to survive in New York during the HIV/AIDS crisis, often generate pushback from parents.

Sexuality is often deemed inappropriate for teenage performers. Indeed, in another school system, the plot of “Thoroughly Modern Millie” — which revolves around kidnapped girls sold for sex — might be considered offensive.

In Newton, time was spent teaching students about the racial stereotypes depicted by the characters within the context of history.

Adults should remember that art reflects reality at a given moment in time. And while the past can be uncomfortable to recall, it’s better for the next generation to learn from it rather than forget about it.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.

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