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.
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.
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.
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.
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.