Race & Theatre: That Awkward Moment When You Realize Your Show is Racist

Tess Nakaishi

  • Washington Columnist

One of theatre’s most wonderful features is its ability to breathe new life into old works. The downside is that sometimes these older works represent outmoded ideas and prejudices, particularly concerning race. As modern artists, how are we to respond when faced with potentially being affiliated with a show which contains racist content due to being produced at a time when such attitudes were common?

American theatre, sadly, has some of its roots in a deeply racist practice, minstrelsy. These shows made fun of African Americans and portrayed them in extreme stereotypes which usually placed them as the butt of the joke. To add insult to injury, these shows did not even use black actors. Instead, white actors donned blackface to entertain audiences with silly imitations of non-white people. During the 19th century and even into the 20th century, renditions of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin were some of the most popular plays. While the novel was anti-slavery, it also contained characters which became the basis of many black stereotypes and minstrel acts. Thus, even content meant to support the freeing of slaves became twisted to profit off the entertainment value of ridiculously racist stereotypes.

Today, the world is much different and yet not as improved as some want to believe. Minstrelsy is now recognized for the atrocity it is, and yet white actors continue to portray non-white characters, sometimes still using makeup to do so. And we still are faced with relics from the past which may be fabulous works of art in their own right and yet are undeniably racist from a modern perspective. There are many potential examples, but for the sake of argument I will focus on the musical Thoroughly Modern Millie. This is a fun, high-energy musical focusing on a young woman during the 1920’s flapper era who is “thoroughly modern” in wanting to pursue her own dreams and marry for love instead of money. The villain, Mrs. Meers, is a jealous former actress who dresses in yellowface and ships young white girls to lives of prostitution in China. Her henchmen, Ching Ho and Bun Foo, represent typical bumbling, cowardly side characters. The play redeems itself slightly compared to the 1967 film version (which is really quite a painful experience) by allowing Ching Ho to win the love of a white girl, but the change in ending doesn’t hide the stereotypes pervading the play.

I worked run crew for a production of Thoroughly Modern Millie when I was in high school. The company was a youth theatre with a largely young cast including some parents and other older actors. Ching Ho and Bun Foo were both played by white men. While this production did not exploit the stereotypes and actually did its best to portray Ching Ho and Bun Foo as more heroic and capable than is often the case, it was impossible to ignore the level of racism inherent in the script. I wondered especially if this was a good example to play out before so many young, impressionable people. In fact, Thoroughly Modern Millie is very popular among high schools and other youth oriented theatre groups. I can understand why because it is truly a very fun, upbeat show. To this day I still find myself tapping my toes to “Forget about the Boy.” Yet it is undeniably problematic in the race department, despite being a great show overall. What to do?

One solution might seem to be altering the script to make it more politically correct. While this could be used to trim racist language from shows and such, I can’t help but shudder at the thought of tampering with someone else’s intellectual property so loosely. Unless a play has become public domain, the author owns the rights, and so legally changes to the script should not be made without the playwright’s permission. And most plays exhibiting racist tendencies cannot be “cleaned up” without major changes anyway. Cutting out a word here or there is unlikely to really change whatever undertones the play may contain. 

Ultimately, there is little we can do other than have clear ideas of our morals as theatre artists. Prejudice is somewhat subjective. What may seem like a forgivable relic of a different time to one person may seem harmful and hurtful to another. It is important, above all, that we respect these opinions and are open to having dialogues regarding these differences of perspective.

That being said, if a show has content which just seems wrong to you, whether or not it deals with race, then you probably shouldn’t do it. If the role or pay tempts you, it might be easy to concoct elaborate justifications of why you should compromise your beliefs. But if we continually support shows we do not fully approve of, we are only strengthening the ability of our country to turn a blind eye to racism. Minstrelsy and other racist theatre trends still haunt our modern theatre, and it will never die unless we are willing to take a stand for what we think is right. 

There are a lot of ways this kind of resistance could manifest itself. As artists, we vote with our participation. If there is a show you think is flat-out prejudiced and incorrect, then don’t bother auditioning or buying a ticket. It isn’t worth your bother, and if you let yourself get seduced by the allure of being involved, your moral defenses might just break down. If you are a white person being offered a role intended for a person of color, I would implore you to seriously consider if you are comfortable taking the role. In most cases, I would say such offers should be just turned down. However, casting according to race can be a very complicated issue, particularly in less diverse areas of the country. As a mixed race actress, I find myself called on to play all manner of races, so I often find myself torn between capitalizing on my versatility and demanding more authentic casting. Using makeup to change the color of one’s skin is something I am fervently against, since I believe using yellowface, redface, or even just extreme spray tans makes us no better than our minstrelsy performing ancestors. Sometimes actors of color then find themselves offered roles which are race appropriate but ask them to play stereotypes. It is an unfortunate reality that non-white actors often have to choose between perpetuating harmful caricatures or not working. The point is, casting and race have a very tense relationship, and it is up to each of us to determine where we wish to draw the line. And if you do choose to accept a role you recognize as flawed in its portrayal of race or ethnicity, you can work with your director to portray it as honestly and stereotype-free as possible.

There is only so much which can be done, so we should take the responsibility of doing everything in our power.

I loved my time working on Thoroughly Modern Millie. I would not ask for that show to be erased from existence, knowing the joy it has brought to people, but I do wish its race relations were more respectful. These two feelings are not mutually exclusive. We can continue to work on shows with flawed portrayals of race as long as we do so consciously and with the intent to move beyond the past. On the other hand, it is up to each of us to decide what is acceptable and what isn’t, and if a show lands in the unacceptable category, there is no reason to lend your support. There is no denying the long history between racism and performance art. Instead of ignoring our flaws, let us try to slowly dissolve them, day-by-day, as we approach each work of art with our personal integrity close at hand.  

Photo: The Actorsingers, Inc. production of Thoroughly Modern Millie