Last weekend, over 40 Chinese-American protesters gathered in front of Huntington High School opposing the school’s performance of the musical Thoroughly Modern Millie. The group stated that the musical is racist against Chinese people. In response, the Long Island school’s Superintendent has announced that the show will never be performed in the district again.
For those of you not familiar with the piece, the musical is set in the 1920s in New York City. The main character, Millie Dillmount, is a rural Kansas transplant who moves to the Big Apple for love and ends up outing a white slavery ring coordinated by a white woman(Mrs. Meers) disguising herself as a Chinese woman. Her two “henchmen”, Ching Ho and Bung Foo, are written as Chinese and only speak Chinese throughout the show, often with projected subtitles.
Members of the Chinese community in Huntington argued that the musical not only exploited stereotypes of Chinese people but also created false narratives about human trafficking. Gordon Zhang, chairman of the Long Island Chinese American Association, released the following statement:
“ 'Thoroughly Modern Millie' is a highly discriminatory and racist musical that insults the Chinese and Asian communities with its outlandish and offensive stereotypes and insulting tropes. The plot of the musical is historically fallacious and unjustifiably depicts Asians in the most horrible light. Laughter at an ethnic group’s expense is not an art form; racism on stage is not entertainment."
While the protests were going on at Huntington High School, a dozen more protesters gathered outside Division High School in Levittown, NY, which were also performing the show.
In response to the complaints, Superintendent Tonie McDonald stated the following:
“Saturday’s last scheduled performance was the district’s final showing and the district reiterates that 'Thoroughly Modern Millie' will not be performed in the future.”
My feelings toward this musical have always been complicated, to say the least. On one hand I love some of the music. “Gimmie Gimmie” and “What Do I Need with Love?” remain some of my favorite audition pieces and “Forget About the Boy” is one of the best ensemble performances I’ve ever seen live. With that said, as an Asian-American, Millie is always a tough watch for me.
I feel the same about the characters of Ching Ho and Bung Foo as I do with Ching and Ling from Anything Goes or Mr. Yunioshi from Breakfast at Tiffany’s or any other depiction of Asians by early-mid 20th Century entertainment, they’re hard to watch. For instance in the original Millie film, these characters had no name and were simply called the cringe-inducing “Oriental #1 & 2.”
While I understand that Mrs. Meers is the villain of the piece and therefore, donning yellowface is a part of her villainy, that doesn’t soften the blow of watching a white woman talking in broken English and displaying every Asian stereotype imaginable. And if you’re the type of white person who feels the need to tell an Asian person not to be offended by any of this, well you can go right ahead and fuck yourself.
But what many need to understand is that these are problematic roles, whether they’re played by Asian actors or not. When they’re played by white actors, it’s obviously offensive and an example of “yellowface”. In case you were wondering that that looks like. It looks like this:
Or that (Good Lord):
I think you get the point. Roles like Ching Ho and Bung Foo, if played at all, should only be played by Asian actors. But even that has its issues.
Something I commonly hear when Asian actors play these types of roles is that if they try to find the humanity in these characters and play them accurately, then they can work. But my question is, why should Asian actors be tasked with doing that? Why is it an Asian actor’s responsibility to try to make a racist role look less racist?
Whether you’re a school or community theatre or professional regional theatre, casting a show like Thoroughly Modern Millie is a challenge and it has to be done very carefully. While I would love to see the show rewritten, that’s not going to happen. While I would love to see less theatres produce this piece, that’s not going to happen. So in the meantime, please cast it correctly. It also wouldn’t be a bad idea to bring in Asian community groups for guidance on how to portray these roles. Understand that a piece walks the line of being entertaining and highly offensive. So having the right steps in place to handle it with care should always be available.