People’s Light’s ‘Aladdin’ lets an unwelcome genie out of the bottle

A panto for the Trump era

On Thanksgiving weekend, I saw the People’s Light holiday panto, Aladdin, by Samantha Reading and Peter Pryor, with music and lyrics by Michael Ogborn. I hoped to get into the holiday spirit with some lighthearted laughs and wholesome family entertainment, but what I found was just the opposite. 

Samantha Funk sings her heart out as the unfortunately named Princess Mai Tai. (Photo by Mark Garvin.)

Panto, or pantomime, is a Christmastime musical comedy designed for families. Traditionally based on nursery stories and fairytales, it incorporates songs, slapstick, topical jokes, some cross-dressing in the form of a “dame,” local references, audience participation, and mild adult innuendo. The story of Aladdin — added to the Arabic collection of folktales dubbed One Thousand and One Nights by a French translator — has been a panto staple since 1788 in England and other parts of the English-speaking world.

At People’s Light, this panto hews closely to tradition and includes all the usual elements: song, dance, pop-culture references, some new video-game references, a magic-carpet ride. It even addresses displacement and big development projects with a location called “Fantasy Funland.” Aladdin, played by Camilo Estrada, even sings a Spanish song, surely a win for diversity.

Sobering up

I admit I laughed along with many of the jokes and was happy to see diverse casting among the leads. But my heart sank when I saw Samantha Funk, an Asian-American woman, playing “Princess Mai Tai.” What was a Polynesian princess doing there? Did Pryor and Reading see all Asian/Pacific Islander cultures as the same?

I get the joke, but as a Chinese-American woman, I have been the subject of those jokes. They evoke memories of years past, when my ethnicity and culture were distilled down to food or drink. I could just as easily have been watching Princess Dim Sum.

Fu Manchu, the creation of British author Sax Rohmer, was the villainous face of the
Fu Manchu, the creation of British author Sax Rohmer, was the villainous face of the "Yellow Peril." (Photo via Creative Commons/Wikimedia.)

Watching the only Asian-American onstage sing her heart out in this role, I heard childhood taunts of “ching chong wong” and “sum ting wong.” Seeing this theater filled with laughing children, I could imagine their excitement carrying over to school the next day.

Perhaps they’d shout to an Asian-American classmate, “You are Princess Mai Tai!” That classmate, bewildered, would wonder, “What just happened? Why am I Mai Tai?” And her journey of never being American enough would begin. Much like that little girl, I ask People’s Light: “When will I ever not be Princess Mai Tai?”

Reviving the "Yellow Peril"

There’s still more. The show’s villain is named “Fu,” as in Fu Manchu. He has the full getup: villainous slanted eye makeup, a  vaguely mandarin hat, even the mustache, just like the Fu Manchu of yesteryear. He’s also played by a white actor, Christopher Patrick Mullen. As always, the audience boos on cue when he appears, and the villain says “F-U, not boo, F-U, get it?”

I get it. I get it like every person who doesn’t have an English-sounding name gets it. My name is to be mocked, ridiculed, and used as a low-hanging fruit of a joke for your amusement — I get it.

Why is this villain so distasteful? Because he’s a result of the Yellow Peril, which originated in the in the late 19th-century United States. When Chinese laborers immigrated here to build our railroads, they were called “filthy yellow hordes” by whites. In Los Angeles, this racism provoked the Chinese Massacre of 1871, when 17 Chinese men were lynched by 500 white men. This same ideology led to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which wasn’t fully repealed until 1943.

A Facebook ad showed Christopher Patrick Mullen's Fu. Responding to audience concerns, People's Light changed the character's makeup. (Image courtesy of Melissa Dunphy)
A Facebook ad showed Christopher Patrick Mullen's Fu. Responding to audience concerns, People's Light changed the character's makeup. (Image courtesy of Melissa Dunphy)

Fu Manchu was the icon who kept the the Yellow Peril alive and served as inspiration for villains in comics, movies, and the public mind. Sinophobia still thrives here, from the top down; just view our president’s campaign tweets. With all this in mind, what exactly is People’s Light teaching young audiences who watch Fu?

Art imitates life

The United States is a multicultural nation, and representation matters. The messages theater sends also matter, particularly in a children’s show.

Especially considering Aladdin’s bastardized roots, Middle Eastern voices should have been represented in this production, either in the front or back of the house. Further, it’s hard to laugh away the story's setting while knowing of U.S. interference in that region, which has resulted in outrageously high numbers of civilian deaths in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

In our political climate, when the president has just tweeted a series of anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim videos, what are we teaching the children who watch this production? Are we saying the erasure of brown voices from brown stories is acceptable? Exoticising other cultures is appropriate? Perpetuating Asian stereotypes is fine?

My response to these questions? Hey, People’s Light: F-U!  

To read Gina Pisasale's response, click here.

To read Mark Cofta's review, click here.

Our readers respond

Michael Cheung

of Media, PA on December 05, 2017

So my ex-friend on Facebook shared this article on his wall and I made some not-so-positive comments on it. The next thing I know, I was unfriended and blocked by him. So this is the only channel for me to respond to comments on mine.

First off, I didn't mean to offend anyone. Everyone has the right to express their opinion. As an Asian (Chinese) who grew up in Hong Kong, I don't have any problem with the play naming an Asian genie "Mai Tai." She is Asian— they'd better not name her Jacqueline Smith! I had been called "Fu Manchu" by different people in Pennsylvania. I usually don't get mad at them because I understand their education levels and experience with the Chinese culture. However, I considered People's Light one of my local theaters, where I went and watched a couple of productions in the last two years. The reason that made me comment on Facebook, which I kind of regretted, is that I don't agree with the article tying the production to politics, like everything nowadays.  It's a play for the holiday; loosen up!

M.J. Sauderton

of Frazier, PA on December 05, 2017

I found this production disappointing for similar reasons. I think some people dismiss cultural stereotypes onstage when something is supposed to be a comedy. "It's just entertainment! What's the big deal?" Well, minstrel shows used to be funny, too. Audiences have evolved since then. I know there are a lot of Asian families in Malvern. I wonder what they would think if they saw this show? How many non-Asian children and families will see this and think it's OK to stereotype entire cultures for a few forced laughs at cheap jokes?

Unfortunately, it's not the first time I've heard about racially and culturally crass stuff happening at this theater, both onstage and behind the scenes. I won't be back. The show wasn't even good. A couple of the older actors were just going through the motions, and the action was so slow. I thought the comedy was corny, not clever. Not like a panto or musical comedy at all.

Samantha Funk

of South Bend , IN on December 06, 2017

You don’t know me. You don’t know my family. You don’t know where we come from. You don’t know my background. You don’t know my experience. You accuse “stereotype” yet are so quick to assume who and what i am.

Author's Response

You are right: I don't know you. And I apologize for jumping to the conclusion that you are Asian American. As I saw it that night, I saw a non-white person on stage being named a Polynesian cocktail  in a fake Arabian location for laughs. In no way did I try to speak of your experience. I am just trying to describe mine.

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