The History of Racism in Central Theater

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Vineela Ravilla

In middle school, I had never cared much for assemblies, but there was one I always looked forward to – the one where they pulled us out of class to watch the school musical for the year. So, when I heard that they were selling tickets to the school musical, Anything Goes, in my freshman year, I eagerly bought one and on the night the show was going to play, I marched my way into the theater and settled down for what I thought would be a magical experience. 

I was wrong. 

Anything Goes is a musical that, at its most basic, is about romantic troubles on an ocean liner. If that sounds like the most dry and depressing recollection of Anything Goes that you’ve ever read, it’s because I lost most of the ability to follow the plot when two white actors came up on stage in clear yellowface, wearing winged eye makeup and speaking in exaggerated poor English, a disgusting caricature of Chinese people. I had always known, in the back of my head, that the population of Hunterdon Central was majority white, and that this extended to the theater department, and the school board. I would have never considered myself as someone who felt comfortable or very safe in the school environment, but I had never felt so blatantly disgusted as I did that night. 

For those who don’t know, yellowface is when white actors play East Asian characters, using makeup to make themselves look “more Asian.” These characters are often exaggerations of East Asian characters, heavily relying on tired-out stereotypes. This practice was fairly common in the earlier days of film, but as time has gone on, it’s been more and more frowned upon—and rightfully so! 

A musical production is a months-long affair, and it’s startling that in this entire process, there seemed to be not even a moment of consideration for how to treat this problem. Was there really a need to choose this specific musical, thereby declaring how little Central thought of its Asian students? And if it had to be this specific musical, why was there no thought given to, at the bare minimum, removing the accents, or the yellowface, or literally doing anything different to prove even a speck of decency. 

Chicago, and subsequently, Evita, though most were never able to see that performance, were dominated by a white cast. They were better than Anything Goes, but better because the bar is at the core of the Earth. White-washing in Evita has been common since its inception, and the musical itself is steeped in a colonist gaze. But my focus today is much more preoccupied with the announcement that the school musical for this year is South Pacific

South Pacific. South Pacific, a musical that explores the subject of interracial marriage, and features, once again, an Asian character who speaks in broken English and comes off as offensively stereotypical. South Pacific, a musical that frankly tackles the subject of race, and prejudice, in a school which has yet to truly do so. And while it should be applauded for discussing white supremacy, I can’t say that the musical is free of racism or bias. 

All of this, after the creation of the “Racism, Equity, and Diversity” committee which promised, for once, actual change. All of this, now that I’m a senior, now that people should know better, should have already known better even when I was a freshman. All of this, after the lack of consideration that went into Anything Goes, and a lack of acknowledgement for the wrongdoing, and the harm caused by it. 

Maybe my predictions are wrong, and the casting will be appropriate, and the play will go spectacularly. But I cannot say that I am optimistic about any of these things. I cannot promise that someone will not purchase a ticket to the musical like I did, hoping for something good, something magical, only to realize how little Central truly cares. No one deserves that kind of betrayal—not me, not you, and least of all the people who have already had to bear with so many injustices.