Sunday, March 20, 2016

Peter Pan: Time to Grow Up to 2016

I had the opportunity to see a friend's children on stage recently, as their school put on a production of Peter Pan, the 1954 musical version.  The children -- my friend's, and all the children participating -- put on a truly fantastic show, from the sets and costumes to Peter and the Darling children flying about the stage, singing and dancing.  They created and performed the full musical theater experience.  The senior that played Captain Hook turned in a particularly impressive performance, infusing his character with the perfect balance of venom, cowardice, and campy humor.  The singing across the cast impressed me with their range, confidence and emotion.  I loved to see the smallest cast members from the lower school earnestly playing their parts. Overall, I would not be surprised to see some of these kids go on to livelihoods in the theater. But I left the theater uncomfortable all the same. My discomfort with the show stems not from the performance of the kids in any way; they were excellent, and their hard work displayed professional results.  My unease instead comes more from the choice of Peter Pan itself, the choice to use the 1954 stage version without updating that could have made it more palatable to a more racially sensitive climate of 2016.

In the, oh, 30 or 40 years since I've seen any rendition of Peter Pan, most of its details had evaporated from my memory. There was Neverland, and Peter and the Lost Boys and never growing up, and, of course, the ticking of the crocodile, but that was about all I had retained. What I had forgotten is that when the Darling children leave London and arrive in Neverland, the Lost Boys are avoiding not just Hook's Pirates, but also Tiger Lily and her Indians. And that's where I felt pulled into the creepiness of 1954: crowds of kids, mostly white but some of color, were dressed up in faux warpaint and feathers. Tiger Lily and Peter Pan's big song, when they agree to be allies, is Ugg-A-Wugg; as you might guess, it's not exactly an homage to the complexity of any Native American language or culture. As much as I wanted to support the young thespians, the representation of Native Americans made me cringe.  

White privilege often comes with a portion of obliviousness, and here I'll guess it is that blindness at work, a failure to see, rather than a more direct hostility and dismissal of concerns. Perhaps those that decided on the choice of this musical simply didn't see the problems. Peter Pan was a raving success in 1954, a classic, so why not run with it? But it seems odd to me that they didn't research the production history at all, and see that, in fact, people had noted the racist issues interlaced in the musical, and made changes.  In 1994, a school production was canceled because of concerns (see NYTimes article here). Just recently, in the 2014 NBC production on television, they decided to re-write "Ugg-A-Wugg" and changed the title to "True Blood Brothers" (an interesting discussion with the Chickasaw composer Jerod Impichchaachaaha' Tate, the adviser on changes to "Ugg-a-Wugg," is available here). As the article "The Racist History of Peter Pan's Indian Tribe" by Sarah Laskow notes, "There's no real reason for a tribe of Native live on Neverland, where they are impossible to excise from the story. But it's almost as impossible to depict them in a way that's not offensive."

As a former resident of Washington, DC, a town whose football team is still called the Washington Redskins, it's not as if I am not completely unaware of the casual racism applied to Native Americans, or, in some contexts, virtually any other non straight-white-male-Christian group.  Much of the time, if I say anything, I'm viewed as that humorless liberal that takes things too seriously.  We are after all in the era of Trump, where it is unpopular to be sensitive to political correctness (or indeed, apparently, basic human decency -- but I digress). Here's the thing though: if you say nothing, if you don't note the language and presentation, if you let "tradition" stand, then all the -isms keep on going unchallenged, and nothing changes. So in my quiet writerly way, I am trying to say more when I can, even when its socially awkward.

More than musical success, more than acting accolades, what I want most for the children that were on that stage -- particularly the girls and young women and people of color, or any kids with any hint of "otherness" -- I want them to feel that every voice matters. Part of their responsibility as they grow into adulthood is to acknowledge the ways in which their choices can help, and can hinder, the progress of society as a whole toward a more true equality.

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