The Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts has dropped a planned staging of the musical Thoroughly Modern Millie after students complained about racist portrayals of Asians in the play.
Two students — Jasmine Luca and Tai Joselyn — described the controversy in a Tuesday essay for The Notebook, saying the play should be re-named Thoroughly Racist Millie.
“Millie depends on disturbing stereotypes toward Asians,” the duo wrote. “The lead character, Mrs. Meers, appears in yellow face and is directed to speak in a fake Chinese accent. But since Mrs. Meers is not Asian, what do you think happens when someone mimics a Chinese accent to almost a completely non-Chinese audience? Just look at any of the YouTube videos of this character purposefully mangling Chinese.”
Here’s an example from a 2009 staging of the play:
Joanne Beaver, CAPA’s principal, told Philly Mag this morning that Millie is being replaced by The Music Man. She said a “small group of students” protested against Millie, and that school officials had prepared a plan to deal with the play’s more problematic aspects. Instead, the school chose to scrap the play entirely.
Beaver said the school is working with the Anti-Defamation League on a policy “so these these kinds of concerns don’t come up again.” She added: “One of the things we have to agree upon in an arts community, is that in any arts area there’s always a chance someone could be offended by what’s in the art.”
Luca and Joselyn were offended. They started a petition opposing Millie, and said they opposed offers to “fix” the play through editing.
“CAPA has a responsibility to prepare its students – all of us who love the arts – for a future in this field,” the two wrote. “Part of that training is recognizing how difficult the arts are for students of color. We don’t often find roles that value and respect our stories and voices. We don’t often get cast as leads. Schools should listen to students and help us have a dialogue when we feel shut out of participating in the arts.”
Beaver suggested she was ready to move on from the controversy.
“We’re excited and moving forward” with The Music Man, she said. “That’s the beginning and the end of the story.”