Courageous Conversations in Staging Winter Musical

Seeking to establish our theater program as a vehicle to promote student awareness, cultural competency and courageous conversations in both an entertaining and educational manner, KO formed a collaborative musical committee to tackle the staging of Thoroughly Modern Millie. Members of the committee include Director of Diversity, Inclusion and Cultural Competency, Joan Edwards, Dean of Students Will Gilyard, Upper School Head of School Dan Gleason, International Coordinator Naogan Ma, Choral Director Steve Mitchell, Creative Arts Department Chair Todd Mitchell, Director of Theater Kyle Reynolds, and School Counselor Chastity Rodriquez.

Like many musicals (West Side Story, Hairspray, Grease) which deal with controversial material, Thoroughly Modern Millie presents feminism and racism in the 1920s flapper era. A quick Google search of recent performances of Millie shows the controversy surrounding the stereotypical portrayal of Asians in this musical. (The play’s villainous Mrs. Meers impersonates a Chinese woman who attempts to kidnap young women and traffick them to the Far East.) Rather than sidestep the issue, the collaborative musical committee decided to lean into discomfort and pose that the production is an opportunity to explore the challenges. The desired outcome, according to a presentation at a recent faculty professional development workshop included to “create strategies to cultivate our productions in a mindful manner that is proactive in the before, during and after the process of artistic presentations to our community.”

Reynolds opened a recent faculty meeting with an engaging musical “Jeopardy” where the faculty had to name musicals with the sensitive subject matter. One slide posed the question: Can’t we just do Annie again? Reynolds offered thoughtful reasoning behind his choice for Millie as the featured production this year. He felt that Millie not only shows the 1920s history (Chinese immigration, human trafficking, flapper era feminism) but also its correlation and relevance to the present day. The play forces the audience to bravely name unrealistic and inaccurate stereotypes and to engage in discussion regarding portrayal, acknowledgment, rather than endorsement.

Reynolds looped our international students into the production since two of the characters in the musical are Chinese (Bun Foo, Ching Ho) and one character pretends to be Chinese. The play presents an opportunity for our international students to portray a powerful and historically accurate story as well as a chance for the students to play roles rooted in Chinese culture who also speak Cantonese and Mandarin. After the groups of international students viewed Thoroughly Modern Millie, they discussed the portrayal of the characters, asked to alter the Chinese characters' hairstyles and include costuming to reflect authentic Chinese culture.

Actress and opera singer Janelle Robinson who was the first African American woman to play the role of Miss Flannery in Millie, spoke at an assembly regarding the show and representations of race in musicals, in which people of color were portrayed in a degrading light. When dealing with offensive subject matter as an actor she said, “Our job as an actor is to tell the story. You are making a commitment to your craft. A lot of stuff comes at you that’s controversial. You need to decide what works for you and your integrity. In telling this particular story, you are enlightening the audience and igniting them to have more conversations...The play allows you to talk about racism and sexism that is still happening in today’s society.” She asked the audience members who will be our next leaders to decide what type of future they want for the world.

Prior to the show, all the advisory groups will engage in two workshops. Session one reflects on the purpose of theater: What makes a “good” play?; How do you think art can influence change? Session two deepens our understanding of the power of stereotypes. What is the difference between portraying (to represent dramatically, as on the stage) a stereotype and endorsing (to approve, support or sustain) a stereotype? Following the musical, advisee groups will debrief about what aspect of the show made them laugh and what made them uncomfortable. The groups will also draw comparisons between the aspects of the time period (the 1920s) and how they mirror what they see happening in 2020.
Located in West Hartford, CT just steps from Blue Back Square, Kingswood Oxford is a private school inspiring co-ed day students in grades 6-12 with a college preparatory curriculum. Empowered students become clear confident communicators, resourceful problem-solvers, and ethical leaders. KO: where unlimited potential meets endless opportunities.
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