My last post reflected on seeing a small company’s intrepid presentation of “The Pearl Fishers” this past Saturday, and a meditation on the presentation of race in new productions of historically difficult works that wear the imprint of racist pasts. On Sunday I went to see the big player in the DC theater scene present Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes”, similar problems resounded in voluminous echos throughout this piece and I was reminded that the issue is not something entirely unique to opera.
In contrast, this is a company with tremendous resources, and much mind and (wo)man power dedicated to thinking about the programming and presentation of the works on their season. Despite all that, I found the result shockingly offensive, and perhaps even more offensive knowing the care which went into trying to “correct” the piece’s problematic book, and that this was the best result possible.
“Anything Goes” originally has two Chinese characters (named Luke and John after the Evangelists, once they have been saved from lives of drink and gambling), who are extremely small parts and who speak with heavily stereotypical Chinese accents in English. The resolution of the plot rests on them being thrown into a cell on the ship, the clothes being exchanged for the lead characters who then pretend to be Asian until revealing their true identity and spoiling a wedding. The solution here was to have the roles played by Asian actors, and to (marginally) expand the roles to portray John and Luke as very white-washed/”Americanized” guys who put on the accent in order to deceive people (unclear why), and they were then included in more dance and vocal sections then they would be otherwise.
I hadn’t seen the show in over a decade and didn’t really remember the plot, and I didn’t read the notes until after the performance. So when I watched the show I assumed what I was watching was the original version. It was offensive, no problem in the narrative was fixed by this solution, and when I read the copious notes following the performance dedicated to the care taken to correct this flaw in the work, I was shocked that they believed this to be a solution.
I want to be clear that the production was of a fairly high level, and the performances were earnest and fun. I also think the team producing the piece is earnest in the attention they’ve given to this issue, I applaud them having the conversation even if I find the solution woefully discomforting.
I’ve been trying to explore my feeling on this. First I wanted to try and understand why I felt offended. I attended the performance with my husband who is Singaporean by birth. The theater was full of what I’m sure were lovely people laughing at the “hilarity” of these put on accents. I wanted to know how that made him feel. We went to the show because it contains some of his favorite music, it was a gift for him and something to which he had been looking forward. He told me poignantly that he suddenly felt as if he was not included, as if he was “othered” and singled out from a group to which up until then he felt he had belonged. I think this must be exaggerated at this theater since the entire audience is so visible, it was a sea of white faces laughing at a painful racial stereotype (and even in the end when it is white characters appropriating an exaggerated accent..that doesn’t make it better).
Would it be worse if these were white actors playing Asians? Maybe, probably, but that clearly such care went into deciding to use Asian actors Asian roles, but not into thinking about the real problem of offensive source material makes it perhaps more repugnant. Its also inconsistent in a production whose notes proclaim this company’s use of “cross-cultural” (colorblind?) casting. Holding that policy, and yet so clearly having insisted on Asian casting for those two role shows an understanding of the racial problems, and an inability or unwillingness to deal with them seriously, and an inconsistency in the policy itself. Part of my hesitancy with that approach to casting is that we know as an audience that relationships between African American singers and white stock brokers or English dandies would have been laden with problems, and pretending that the racial politics of the first half of the 20th century didn’t exist is also rather offensive. This show was written in 1934, do we really as an audience just forget the mass internment of Asian Americans less than a decade later? Really?
I have to say, finally, maybe this work just doesn’t need to be performed, but definitely not in this version. How difficult would if have been to change the script to not have John and Luke be Asian at all? Is there any reason they should have been? Not really, and with that tweak I would applaud two Asians giving dynamite performances in the roles, and would have seen no inconsistency in the company’s casting policy.
The appropriateness of including certain repertoire, and the way in which it is included, is relative to the times and contemporary body politic. Why does music make us yearn to be wilful against what we so obviously know? At this time no one would ever think of staging David Belasco’s play “Madame Butterfly” with its hideous approximation of Asian accents in English. And yet we continue to try and find ways to produce Puccini’s opera with fidelity to script and score, and only cosmetic changes to put lipstick on that pig. And at this time “Anything Goes” should not be performed in anything close to its original version (and this was not far enough from it). It was bad lipstick on a very unattractive pig. And more it was, albeit through negligence and not malice, mean and hurtful.
These are big issues, and I don’t have any answers. In fact, I often feel like I only have more and more questions. Please let me know your thoughts and experiences.