Last week, a Newton North High School put on a musical called Thoroughly Modern Millie. The script to this musical portrays some extremely racist characters who perpetuate Asian stereotypes. Consequently, many community members, many of them Asian parents, teachers, and students, expressed disappointment, anger, and frustration. There was a Talk Back a day or two after the musical was put on. I did not attend the event, nor did I even hear about the musical being put on until it was already done. However, as a member of an arts and advocacy organization, and specifically one that promotes Asian American culture and works to bring awareness and break down oppression, this was something I wanted to learn more about.
From the little research I’ve done on the musical and the process in which Newton North took to put on the musical, I have many questions. Who should we hold accountable for the fallout? Who is being targeted by the musical’s content? Who is speaking up? Who is being silenced? I found out the school tried to address the racism before and after the performance. They even wrote a letter in response to the community’s outcry. In it, the principal talked about the discussions, consulting one of their Asian teachers (ok, this felt a little like tokenizing), having the students of the Asian club talk to the director, inviting people to the Talk Back, and even asking the company who owns the rights to Thoroughly Modern Millie to see if they had another script without the racism (surprise! they didn’t). You can read the whole response here: Millieresponse While reading this, I just kept thinking, “This obviously isn’t enough!” I kept wondering why a school would choose to put on a musical knowing it would cause such negative reactions. Was this a way to open a dialogue about racism? This wouldn’t be the route I would take, but I’m not a theater director at a majority White suburban high school.
I haven’t seen the musical and don’t know anyone who participated in the production. This incident is just another reminder that racism still is a problem and should be addressed. From what I’ve learned about the fallout in Newton, I’m hoping more work can be done to raise more awareness on why people reacted so passionately. Check out some reactions from the Talk Back. What it showed me wasn’t so much people wanting to fight one another or even looking for apologies, but people from the Newton community wanting visibility around the issue–to not brush it under the rug as racism often is, especially when it comes to anti-Asian racism. I look forward to learning more about how this community will continue to figure out how to address a complex issue such as this.