‘Thoroughly Modern Millie’ show at Newton North High School sparks controversy

When the movie starring Julie Andrews premiered in 1967, it was proclaimed “thoroughly delightful” by The New York Times and praised for its flapper costumes, dancing, humor, and singing.

Forty-seven years later, a stage version of “Thoroughly Modern Millie” performed at Newton North High School is triggering a backlash from some Asian-Americans who say the musical’s racial stereotypes are hurtful and unacceptable.

“We would never do anything anti-Jewish, or anti-
African-American. Blackface is unthinkable, but yellowface is utterly fine,” said Newton resident Mia Wenjen, whose Pragmatic Mom blog brought attention to the debate.

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At a community meeting in Newton Monday night, the theater director apologized. “I’m sorry, I am so, so sorry you are feeling the anger you are feeling,” said Adam Brown, director of Theatre Ink, which staged the play over the weekend. “We blew it. I’m sorry.”

Though the play’s brief run is over, the controversy raises questions about whether certain American musicals conceived during a different era — “West Side Story” often comes to mind — have any place in today’s theaters.

It’s a difficult question that is the subject of much current debate, said Carol J. Oja, the William Powell Mason professor of music and American studies at Harvard University, who said there are no easy answers.

“Being sensitive is really important,” she said, noting that several Broadway classics such as “Show Boat,” “The King and I,” and “Flower Drum Song” also contain racial stereotypes that are troubling to today’s audiences.

Oja said directors can take a number of steps to help actors and the community understand the context in which these works were written, and to lessen the negative implications. “If the stereotypes are kept intact, they have to be done with a lot of teaching,” Oja said.

Another option would be to go through and rewrite parts that are offensive, as Brookline High did in its production of the play.

But that approach, Oja said, runs the risk of eliminating an entire generation of American history.

“If the shows are all sanitized, then you lose track of our history,” she said. “If we start erasing every troubling part of history, we run the risk of repeating it.”

The outrage in Newton, playing out on several community blogs and on social media, revolves around three characters in the 2002 Broadway show, based on the 1967 film. Ching Ho and Bun Foo, are two hapless Asian laundrymen controlled by Mrs. Meers, a character with chopsticks in her bun, who speaks in a farcical Chinese accent as she uses the men to kidnap unsuspecting young girls staying at her hotel to be sold as sex slaves.

Nearly 17 percent of students in Newton’s public schools are Asian, said David Fleishman, the city’s superintendent of schools. Residents who identified only as Asian made up 11.5 percent of the city’s population in the 2010 US Census.

Newton North principal Jennifer Price said Monday that administrators have learned through the experience and stressed that the school in no way condones racism.

“We can say very clearly, it is not what Newton North believes in,” she said. “We very much at this school are so proud of the diversity. It defines us.”

She added: “As a white school administrator, I can try to understand, but I cannot truly understand what the Chinese members of our community felt. . . . Our biggest regret is that any member of our community felt marginalized.”

The play was nearly sold out Saturday night.

At Monday night’s meeting — which drew about 60 parents, students, teachers, and administrators — many said the decision to perform the play brought back feelings of anger that they had learned to hide.

For some, the toughest part of the experience was having their feelings invalidated by a community they said does not understand the discrimination felt by minorities in America.

“You have bullied a whole community of Asian-Americans, just like that,” said one man.

Brown said he understood the complaints. “I’m glad we are here having this conversation, but it hurts,” he said. “I thought we could figure it all out and make it work. I know it’s too late. We’ve hurt people. We can sit here and say, ‘It’s theater, it’s OK,’ but it’s not.”

The show’s director, Brad Jensen, who teaches English at Newton North, said before Monday night’s forum that a great deal of effort was made as far back as October to use the script to teach students about the racial stereotypes depicted by the characters.

“We tried to fully develop the characters,” he said. “The two men were not just Mrs. Meers’s henchmen, but fully developed human beings who struggled with their decision to go along with her plans.

“It’s not a perfect show, and we knew that,” Jensen said.

Kelsey Fox, a student who played the character of Mrs. Meers in the Newton North production, said all the students involved with the show have learned valuable lessons.

“We started a conversation schoolwide, and we learned how to listen,” she said.

“At the beginning of this process, we didn’t know how to be the best allies to our classmates; now we do, we understand the history.”

“Millie” has raised concerns at other schools. The Dalton School, a private school in Manhattan, performed a sanitized version with the playwright’s permission after initially deciding to cancel the show, the New York Times reported in January. Brookline High School performed its own revised version last month.

“I felt strongly the script was disrespectful,” said the Brookline director, Christien Polos. He and students rewrote the part of Mrs. Meers to change her from Chinese to Southern American and turned the two Chinese laundrymen into undercover police officers.

“We thought it was important to bring it in line with 21st century thinking,” he said.

In Newton, Jenny Chou, a Chinese-American who grew up in the Midwest, said in an interview that the Newton North performance not only brought back memories of discrimination from her childhood, but it meant watching her son make the decision to sit out auditions for something he had long looked forward to.

Chou said she and her husband, who is British, wondered why their son, a sophomore at Newton North, was not more excited about upcoming auditions for “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” a show they knew nothing about.

Their son had been in last year’s performance of “How to Succeed in Business” and is an involved member of the theater community at the school.

“Finally he said to us: ‘I’m not sure about this show, I’m not sure I’d want Ama and Agong to have to see it,’” she said, referring to his grandparents, Chou’s parents, who had recently moved to the area. In the end, he decided to be a part of the stage crew.

Chou said she attended a performance, and found it difficult to sit through, reminding her of her university professor father being told to go back to China because of his accent.

When her son decided not to participate on stage in the show, Chou said she privately met with the theater department staff, but she did not speak out publicly.

“Maybe there is some work that can be done in the greater Newton community to make people understand why this is troubling for some people and why it should be troubling for more.”