My essay on “South Pacific” in “Bigotry on Broadway,” an anthology edited by the noted author Ishmael Reed and his wife Carla Blank, officially launches this week. “South Pacific” was how Asians appeared on Broadway in the 1940s and 1950s, but it wasn’t nearly the condemnation of bigotry people like to think. It was an enabler that flashed its own toned-down racism for a mostly privileged white theatre audience of its day. And the audience got just what it wanted—toothsome tunes to forget their troubles while sipping a Mai-Tai fantasy.
But it’s a Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, Broadway’s legacy. How many times have people said that the song lyric, “You must be carefully taught” is by its nature anti-racist? Sure, you’re not born a racist, you’re taught it, great. But does that explain away the racist story line the musical is teaching us?
No wonder a new generation of theatre lovers have started to question “South Pacific.” One set of protesters even shut down a high school production in New Jersey earlier this year. Political correctness? No, just a modern reaction to a dated piece of theatre.
If you saw the 2021 Tony Awards show, you know Broadway is looking for a diversity update. But are they looking hard enough for Asian Americans?
THE TONYS TELECAST
This week, Broadway celebrated its recent reopening in New York with the Tony Awards, which is a little strange extolling the virtues of live theatre on a flat television screen.
You’re just getting 20 percent of all the vigorous fun.
Still, that’s better than the nothing we had during the pandemic.
The fact that it was happening, with people publicly masked and vaxxed, was practically a public service ad on how these kinds of gatherings could take place safely.
But the startling thing for me was how much I appreciated BD Wong, the San Francisco-born star of stage and screen.
After seeing one diversity message, implied and direct, fly by on the show, the show’s theme was clear. Inclusion. But it seemed all about black and white. There were LGBTQ shout outs, doubly so when Matthew Lopez became the first Latino playwright to win a Tony for his “The Inheritance.” It’s a play about gay life after AIDS, inspired by Lopez’ favorite novel “Howard’s End” by E.M. Forster. His acceptance speech was a mini-Ted talk on Latinx underrepresentation.
But Asian Americans? Did I miss the great and prolific writer David Henry Hwang?
I did see a male Asian playing a student in the “Jagged Little Pill” number. He was the one who shouted out, “That’s actually not ironic!”–which was funny and got a laugh. We live for those moments. As a performer, I know.
But the Tony moment for me was just seeing Wong as a presenter. I remember seeing him on Broadway as Song Liling in “M. Butterfly” and was so taken by his performance back then. He’s the only actor in Broadway history to receive the Tony Award, Drama Desk Award, Outer Critics Circle Award, Clarence Derwent Award, and Theatre World Award for the same role.
So when BD gets up on the Tony stage, it should be enough. But it’s not. We need more. In fact, when I think of Asian Americans on Broadway, I don’t think of “South Pacific.”
I think of BD Wong.
THE HAMILTONING OF BROADWAY
It’s Broadway’s style to ride success for as long as it can. And now “Hamilton” is it, the trick pony of the day. Whites can play Blacks, and Blacks can play whites. And you can hum along.
All the hip young people know the lyrics. It’s on Disney Plus. The road show has opened up around the country. When people think Broadway, now it’s all “Hamilton.”
It’s surely why “Hamilton” cast member Leslie Odom, Jr. was the emcee of the awards show. But then Lin-Manuel Miranda can’t do everything.
Ishmael Reed, co-editor of the anthology “Bigotry on Broadway,” thinks he should do more.
Reed wrote the play “The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda” to expose the “Hamilton” story as an historically inaccurate portrayal of Hamilton, who married into the Schuyler family, notorious slaveholders. That detail just doesn’t come across in the hip-hop musical.
Reed’s play had an Off-Broadway run at the Nuyorican Café in New York in 2019, but he’d still like to see Miranda come clean about the theatrical juggernaut he created. Because it’s toning down the hate that’s in the history. And it ends up glorifying Hamilton, whose family was more than knee-deep in slavery. But people are dancing and rhyming, and all is well on Broadway. Sure, putting in Blacks and people of color is a great diversity trick. But the truth still has to count for something.
That led to the book of essays that includes mine on “South Pacific.” What do intellectuals and scholars from different ethnic groups feel about our portrayals on Broadway? That’s the gap Reed’s anthology “Bigotry on Broadway” intends to fill. I am privileged to be a part of the effort.
The “Bigotry on Broadway” book launch is on Facebook Watch on Wednesday, Sept. 29. The book is published by Baraka Books and available on Amazon.
Listen to my podcast with BD Wong on his Emmy nomination for playing “White Rose.”
Listen to “Emil Amok’s Takeout” Daily at 2p Pacific, or recorded on www.amok.com.