December 22 — 11:18 am, 2015

Racism isn’t entertainment: Why “Thoroughly Modern Millie” didn’t belong on CAPA’s stage

capa pic harvey finkle Harvey Finkle

Last week, in response to student concerns, our school, the Philadelphia High School for Creative & Performing Arts (CAPA), decided not to perform the musical Thoroughly Modern Millie. As students who helped raise awareness at our school, we were glad for the change. At the same time, we learned important lessons from our experience in talking about racism, the arts, and student voice.

Thoroughly Modern Millie is a Tony Award-winning Broadway musical based on a 1967 hit movie, but its racist views toward Asians should earn it a new name: “Thoroughly Racist Millie.”

Millie depends on disturbing stereotypes toward Asians. The lead character, Mrs. Meers, appears in yellow face and is directed to speak in a fake Chinese accent. But since Mrs. Meers is not Asian, what do you think happens when someone mimics a Chinese accent to almost a completely non-Chinese audience? Just look at any of the YouTube videos of this character purposefully mangling Chinese. 

Two “Chinese Henchmen” characters were originally called “Oriental No. 1 and Oriental No. 2” in the movie credits, then renamed Bun Foo and Ching Ho, characters who are mocked and disrespected throughout the entire play. 

Oh, and let’s not forget how the play’s subplot is about a white slavery ring that kidnaps women for the sex trade in Asia. One of the play’s characters says, “Well, that’s one way to meet a man.”

When the play was announced, we had to ask: How is any of this modern? Millie is racist, offensive, and definitely should not have been tolerated on CAPA’s main stage. 

We organized a petition and began talking to our fellow students. We were upset about how actors for this musical were encouraged to use makeup to look like Asians. We did some research and found that blackface has been opposed by African Americans for years because of its racist history. It’s no less racist if it happens to other groups.

Our experience in trying to raise our voices wasn’t easy. At first, our school wanted to avoid student discussion and debate about the musical. Instead, it was just “on with the show.”

Eventually our school offered to “fix” the musical by editing out the most offensive parts. But you cannot make a racist play non-racist just by taking out a few words and changing characters. This is a play whose whole history is just wrong. No matter what, it will always be an offensive musical. Thoroughly Modern Millie doesn’t deserve to be cleaned up just so we can ignore its racist beginnings.

As students we opposed Millie because there were countless other musicals that could have been chosen and that would have been more appropriate for a high school performance.

More important, CAPA has a responsibility to prepare its students – all of us who love the arts – for a future in this field. Part of that training is recognizing how difficult the arts are for students of color. We don’t often find roles that value and respect our stories and voices. We don’t often get cast as leads. Schools should listen to students and help us have a dialogue when we feel shut out of participating in the arts.

We still have not had a significant schoolwide discussion about what was wrong with the musical. That’s important because some students asked why they should care if they aren’t Asian.

We should care when something isn’t right. If it hurts one group, it hurts all of us. No one can be proud of a musical like this. CAPA is one of the premier performing arts schools, not only in Philadelphia but in the nation. Racism on stage isn’t supposed to be entertainment for others.

As upperclassmen at CAPA, we want our last years here to be the best. The arts are for enjoyment, enlightenment, learning, and letting the voices of students be heard.

The struggle over Thoroughly Modern Millie shows that we still have a long way to go.

Jasmine Luca and Tai Joselyn are students at the Philadelphia High School for Creative & Performing Arts.

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