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VPR's coverage of arts and culture in the region.

Greene: Broadway Revisited

Stephanie Greene
The New England Youth Theater in Brattleboro is inviting the community to a discussion of stereotypes in classical American musicals.

You’re watching a production of an American Musical theater classic. The melodies are glorious, but the dated stereotypes are so intrusive they feel like a stone in your shoe. Racist or sexist bias makes it impossible to enjoy the play.

And it’s not just a question of cutting objectionable lines. Rebecca Waxman, a director at the New England Youth Theater, or NEYT, says that theaters license plays from giant licensing companies that by contract prohibit changes in the script. Directors do occasionally omit a word here and there, but a whole scene or even a speech, never.

Furthermore, Waxman observes that putting on a play with sexist or racist themes is especially complicated for educational institutions. NEYT recently staged “The Drowsy Chaperone”, a parody of American musical comedy of the 1920’s that debuted on Broadway in 2006. It’s a play within a play. But when it came time to block a scene in which Chinese stereotypes were presented, the student actors flat out refused to do it. Waxman’s explanations that the stereotypes were being lampooned didn’t cut it for the cast, who protested that their younger siblings would be coming to the production, and they wouldn’t pick up on the parody. As an alternative to presenting actors in yellow face, Waxman’s solution was to play a recorded music file of the actors' voices against a closed curtain, thus avoiding both extensive insult and a licensing breach.

Another common problem is trying to put on a racially inclusive work with an overwhelmingly white company. And for this, Waxman cites an Encores! Forum on the topic in which one panel director objects to cleansing a script to the point of there being no conversation. He recalls African American playwright August Wilson, once saying that stereotypes should be “explored, not ignored”.

Waxman thinks having a conversation about stereotypes after a play may be helpful – if the discussion doesn’t get stymied.

A more long term solution might be to pressure the licensing houses to ease up on editing rules.

Clearly it’s a balancing act.

And it’s a pretty good bet that the conversation this coming Sunday afternoon at Brattleboro’s New England Youth Theater will be lively.