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Musical is little more than staged racism

What is most shocking about Joan Vennochi’s argument about the “Thoroughly Modern Millie” controversy in Newton is her attempt to substitute censorship for the issue that belongs at the center of this discussion: racism (“ ‘Millie’ fight creates a chilling effect,” Op-ed, March 20). It is not only “some Asian-Americans” who “were insulted” by characters in the play; the blatant stereotypes rankled many who understood the continued harm that can be done by staged racism. The fact that one of the songs in “Millie” is based on a blackface song popularized by Al Jolson in “The Jazz Singer” makes it especially clear that this contemporary play is rooted in a bad old American tradition.

Vennochi tries to frame “Millie” as a relic of another time and a wonderful opportunity to teach “students about the racial stereotypes depicted . . . within the context of history.” But this musical first hit Broadway in 2002, and is about the 1920s. Are we to understand that the Newton educators who embraced this teachable moment did so in order to talk with their students about anti-Asian racism in the early years of the 21st century? Or in the 1920s? Both?

Given that the plot deals with enforced prostitution (also known as “white slavery”), I especially wonder how this would have all gone if the students had performed a musical, complete with overdone Yiddish accents, about what historian Edward Bristow has called the “conspicuous” role played by Jews in the global trade in women. Parental reaction to that historical reality would likely have made for some rich drama.

Jeffrey Melnick