Thankfully, in recent years there has been a push within the entertainment industry to correct the depictions of Native Americans in film and television. Most recently we saw NBC's "Peter Pan Live!" make some serious edits to Tiger-Lily and the Native characters and songs.
However, there is still a lot more to be done. One such musical that has flown relatively under the radar of controversy is "The Fantasticks". That is until now.
Last week, it was reported that a group of Native American High School students walked out doing a performance of the musical at the University of Wyoming. The show contains a scene in which characters dress up as and villainize Native Americans.
To make matters worse, the students were from the University's Native American Summer Institute program which aims to welcome Native American students to the campus and introduce them to college life. Some introduction.
The production has sparked harsh backlash which has led to another summer camp canceling their attendance of the show and condemnation from the University's own United Multicultural Council.
The council stated, "The show especially demeans Native American cultures with outdated stereotypes of Native American appropriation by non-native actors wearing headdresses/warbonnets."
The University's theatre department responded with the following statement:
“With historical productions, we see a ‘point in time,’ which is different from the one in which we live,” the insert reads. “We see portrayals of characters that are painful to watch as "21st century audiences. The challenge then, in producing historical works, is to help audiences understand the context and/or story for the play without taking undue or illegal liberties with the script.”
So where do I stand on this? Having seen the show a couple times, I can honestly say that the scene in question is offensive, no doubt about it. As an Asian male, I've seen countless offensive depictions of Asian stereotypes through the years so I can imagine how those students must have felt.
I also have to question the decision-making over having those students attend the performance. Whether it was the program itself or the theatre department, someone should have probably thought about this issue before the performance and all of this could have been avoided.
I can also understand where the theatre department is coming from in their statement. It's not like they had permission to change the plot of the show and remove characters and scenes. So what should they have done instead? Not do the show? Well given that it's Wyoming, perhaps.
First of all, "Wyoming" comes from an Algonquian Indian word. It's an English corruption of the Lenape word Chwewamink, which means "by the big river flat." The Lenape never lived in the area that is now Wyoming, however, the state's name was borrowed from a placename in Pennsylvania. The state was home to the Arapaho, Cheyenne, Crow, Shoshone and Ute tribes. In 2012, it was reported that the state had one of the fastest growing Native American (or American Indian) populations in the country growing at 24% year over year.
So with all that said, the question has to be asked. Why would you perform a show that stereotypes and villainizes Native Americans in a state such as Wyoming? And to a larger extent, why do it regardless of what state you're in?
There is no doubt that there is a good amount of racism, sexism, etc in material that was originally written over 50 years ago. However, when producing these pieces in 2017, we can't violate the intent of the authors by editing their work to make it fit our sensibilities.
So my solution is to simply not produce them anymore. If you are going to take on these types of shows, at least give a second thought on who might be walking through your doors and be prepared to explain your decision.