One of the high schools nearby decided to do The King and I for this year’s musical. I raised an eyebrow at this; the school is at least 90% white. The play is problematic at best (it’s never performed in Thailand), but when it’s performed by a bunch of white people, that crosses all the lines. I do think the standards are different, maybe, for a high school, but I still don’t think it was a great choice.
I’ve been asking around a little bit, and the consensus about the production is that it was “as respectful as possible,” and I am sure that’s true. They had a Thai alumnus of the school consulting and even bringing costume pieces from Bangkok. They didn’t wig the children or, from what I could tell in production photos, mess with their eyes to look more Asian.
I’m sure it couldn’t have been more respectful and yet, it’s not like there is a dearth of plays about white people. Or plays that aren’t about racism (which this one definitely is).
My plan was to be respectfully silent on the whole thing, as it’s not a school where I work anymore, and I’m sure they were doing the best they could. I wasn’t planning to see it, but I also wasn’t planning on telling anybody else not to. But then Silas’ friend invited him to go see it, and I didn’t want to say no–and I wasn’t able to prepare Silas with my concerns, either. So off they went to what was, by all accounts, an excellent production. The show ran over three hours, and they behaved more or less throughout it.
When they got home, I asked Silas what the play was about. His summary killed me:
“There was this guy who had a lot of patriarchy, and this lady came and smashed it for him.”
This is …. a pretty legit interpretation. When the racism is made less obvious by a cast full of white people and the colonialism is dulled by being eight years old and having only the most vague understanding of this bit of history, what’s left is the patriarchy.
He also had an interesting response to Tuptim’s story: “This one slave girl was given to him as a gift. Can you imagine giving a person as a present? Who does that?”
He also had this to say about the play-within-a-play (I promise, this is a direct quote, and my favorite part is that he thinks I haven’t ever seen a play-within-a-play):
“They staged this play–that is, the actors playing the characters were being in a play that was kind of inside of the play of The King and I. So it was like the characters were being actors and they were playing other characters. So it was a play about a slave who runs away from a wicked master, and the slave girl was planning to run away in real life. Well, not in real life, in the play. But not in the play in the play. She was trying to tell the king, metaphorically, that she was going to run away, but he was dumb and didn’t get it. Even though he watched the play. I mean, the character in the play–the actor was playing the character of the king, in the play, and the king was watching another play that was happening in the world of the play.”
So, I guess he got something out of it. And the music is beautiful, and the costumes were gorgeous, and some patriarchy got smashed, so. Win?