CAPA Students Question Racial Validity Of “Thoroughly Modern Millie” Musical

Emily Chen

As America continues to progress in its liberality, racial advocating has also come to make a greater appearance in today’s society. Through the manifestation of current events, minority groups strive to fight for their equality and justice, one example being the Black Lives Matter movement. But on the performing stage of Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts (CAPA), is a different race under the spotlight. The highly anticipated performance of “Thoroughly Modern Millie” has been called off due to complaints about the Chinese stereotypes portrayed. In the words of students of Jasmine Luca and Tai Joselyn, “it will always be an offensive musical.”

Examples of the so called offensive material include casting a person of white race as the lead (Mrs. Meers), but depicting her skin as the color yellow and having her speak in a Chinese accent. The characters are also given stereotypical Asian names such as Ching Ho and Bun Foo. Most importantly, the musical has content that sexualizes Asian women, as they are abducted by white men and sold in the sex trade.

Many may find it disturbing that an audience might find this content entertaining, but taking a step back in perspective, no matter how open-minded one is, he or she will always feel less sensitive about a race that is not his or her own. Situations like this allow for a reality check in American society. Different races do have different skin colors, and although Asians may not have a skin tone that is prominently as yellow as a banana, it would be a little bit of a stretch to say that there is not a difference in pigment between whites and Asians. Not surprisingly, Chinese accents are just as common as the British accent so many Americans try to mock, and as an Asian myself, I can confirm that Ching Ho and Bun Foo are not names that are out of bounds  The reason why people ridicule them however, is because of the unfamiliarity of the language. And while it is totally understandable that Chinese may take offense to the sexual content, there is no doubt that some form of sex trade has existed. These race regarding mistakes are not okay, and may have been committed out of ignorance, but that does not mean that the creators of the musical constructed it out of intent to ridicule Asians. Racism is defined as the idea of a superior race, but only some of that actually deems Asians as inferior.

Yet racism is still a sensitive topic. It is not likely that racial equality will ever be achieved in terms of totality, but that does not mean that racial advocates will stop having their word. These movements are only one of the many things that contribute to the unique American aesthetic. Does the problem lie with racial sensitivity or insensitivity? When should the line be drawn?

Perhaps people of white race are casted more often however, because there seems to be a lack of Asians in the acting field to choose from. Yet restricting the Mrs. Meers role to only Asians would be as discriminating to white people as explicitly stating that Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz should only be played by a white girl. Racial advocacy should be a movement for all races and not only one. Because equality is about balance and not emphasis on a specific race, perhaps CAPA, as a public high school and all, could have chosen a musical that was less racially describing where all races would have had a shot at. Yet once these students become actors in the real world, there is no guarantee that everybody will have an equal playing field for these performances. “Thoroughly Modern Millie” will not become extinct anytime soon, and the most reasonable thing a public high school could do about it is to avoid performing it.