A discussion of Huntington High School’s play this weekend provoked tears, pride, anger and applause at Monday’s meeting of the Huntington school board.
The high school staged Thoroughly Modern Millie on Friday and Saturday, provoking some accusations that the play contains racist elements and should not have been chosen.
A group of Asian Americans protested outside the school Saturday, saying the show played to racial stereotypes, with roles that include a white character who pretends to be of Asian descent to pull off an evil scheme, characters named Bun Foo and Ching Ho and a subplot involving white slavery and China.
Productions elsewhere have included characters in yellowface makeup and fake Chinese accents, two elements the district said their production did not include.
On several social media sites, protesters posted video or comments about the play and encouraged people to object to its selection.
At the high school performance, several protesters bought tickets to the play and joined the audience, holding up cellphones to record the performance. Parents said Monday night that some students felt intimidated by the protesters and one member of the cast described comforting another performer who had broken down in tears shortly before the play began.
Superintendent James W. Polansky and several school board members said the performance was not intended to offend anyone and addressed both the complaints and the sense of pride the district had in their students’ work.
“There are apparently multiple perspectives on the theme and content of the play.,” Polansky said. “Students and staff worked hard for months to put on an exceptionally high caliber production. Not for a moment was their artistic intent to disparage any individual or group. Much effort was put into and research done by HHS Drama Club members to perform their roles with integrity, and in alignment with rights granted and playwright recommendations. I believe the comments made at the meeting by these young people spoke volumes in this regard.
“All are committed to viewing this situation an educational opportunity – one that allows for open and productive discussion on any of the issues presented. Unfortunately the timing of and manner in which the concerns were expressed negated some opportunities to engage in such discourse, and casted a shadow on what should have been nothing short of a positive and enjoyable experience for everyone involved – directors, cast, crew and audience members included,” he said.
Audience members and school officials said a public-service announcement was made at a performance to emphasize that the choice of the play was not intended to offend anyone.
Several Asian-American adults who spoke Monday night praised the students and their performance while objecting to the play itself. “Respect should be equally extended to all racial and ethnic groups,” one speaker said. “We also want to know what measures will be adapted to review future theatrical performances.”
But Michael Schwendemann, the drama club’s faculty adviser, said the play contained satire, “humor to expose people’s stupidity or vices,” and that “Satire is tricky.”
A contingent of about 30 students involved in the production came to the board meeting, with several speaking up on behalf of the play and its selection and some suggesting that some of those who objected hadn’t seen the performance.
After one student denounced opposition to the play as ignorant and another student began speaking at the lectern, a few of those who objected to the play got up to leave, leading to complaints that they were being rude. One woman stood up to insist she had seen the play, which led others to also call out from the audience, prompting school board president Jen Hebert to warn the crowd not to do so and to bring them to order. Some members of the audience wept as one of the cast members, also nearly in tears, spoke to the board.
And an Asian-American cast member said, “Asians have been portrayed incorrectly time and time again. This is not one of those times.”
Parent Sima Ali said recording the play was against the rules and said the protesters had sat in the front row of the performance, recording the show and intimidating the young actors on stage. “It does not make the students racist because they chose to participate in this play,” she said. “I feel the children are being wrongly punished for it.”
Another parent said that some of the play’s participants were accused of being racist when they returned to school on Monday.
The play tells the story of Millie, who moves from Kansas to New York City in the 1920s to make her fortune. It was first performed as a movie in 1967, starring Julie Andrews and James Fox, and later on stage. It has undergone revisions in character description, such as renaming the roles of Oriental No.1 and Oriental No. 2 to the invented Chinese names of Ching Ho and Bun Foo. The merits and racial elements of the play have been debated for years, with some actors defending it while others criticize the characterizations of Asian Americans.
Polansky also gave a presentation on the school budget, which will come up for a board vote on Monday.