HMTC changes fall production due to appropriation concerns

Hanna Hornfeld , Staff Writer

Last Friday, theater teacher and director Joseph Timkó confirmed to members of the Horace Mann Theatre Company’s (HMTC) fall production that the rumors which had been circulating throughout the week were true: they would not be performing The Good Person of Szechwan (GPS). Concerns about the play’s use of racial stereotypes in its portrayal of Asian characters left cast members unsettled, leading the theater department to change it from Bertolt Brecht’s 1941 drama to Alan Ayckbourn’s Comic Potential.

GPS tells the story of Shen Tei, a prostitute living in the Chinese province who demonstrates moral and religious righteousness despite the shame and condemnation she endures from society.

Brecht, a German playwright, had a profound interest in East Asian societies, but knew very little about real Chinese customs and culture. Consequently, certain aspects of the play quickly became problematic among the cast, as they contained offensive racial tropes, cast member Yana Gitelman (11) said. “Before I even read the script I was slightly concerned,” she said. “Brecht wrote a play about Chinese culture as he saw it, and I don’t think he saw it in a very real way.”

HMTC Co-president Dylan Chin (12) feels that the play portrays a very stereotypical image of Chinese culture that has not aged well over time and can be seen as insensitive today, he said. “The play had fanciful ideas of what it means to be Chinese,” said history teacher Isaac Brooks, the production’s dramaturg. “We’re talking about a pre-WWII German trying to write about being a Chinese sex worker, which I think was out of his depth.”

HMTC Co-Publicity Officer Jordan Ferdman (11) questioned how much research Brecht had put into aspects of the play such as the characters’ names and the representation of Confucianism, she said. “A big issue was that GPS had these problematic elements, but whether or not to gloss over them wasn’t a decision that was up to us, as white people, to make,” she said.

Chin agreed that the play does a poor job of representing Chinese culture, but he feels that the people who complained about the show were not in the demographic to do so, he said. “I don’t think it’s up to white people to be offended for someone else,” he said. “I can understand where they’re coming from, but if Asian people have an issue with it, they can very well go and talk about that.”

Brooks understands where the students’ unease was coming from, as he has seen productions of GPS that were respectful and others that were not, he said. “It definitely can become a vehicle which is used to make fun of or stereotype people,” he said

A major concern among some cast members was the potential for the play to become offensive, especially having non-Chinese people portraying Chinese characters, Gitelman said. Ferdman expressed a similar sentiment. “I questioned how the show would be received,” she said, “I also questioned how I would reckon personally with portraying a Chinese character as a white person.”

Co-Director of the Office for Identity, Culture, and Institutional Equity (ICIE) John Gentile believes it is important to take into consideration the long history of cultural appropriation in art and the media. Today, actors must be aware of and avoid repeating this history, which ranges from white actors playing Asian characters in the earliest days of cinema, to Scarlett Johansson’s portrayal of a Japanese character in the 2017 film Ghost in the Shell, he said.

“When you move outside those who self-identify within a particular group it can be dangerous for them to speak on behalf of a lived experience they don’t know anything about,” said co-Director of the ICIE Candice Powell-Caldwell. “That’s when you start to risk stereotypes and generalizations.”

To avoid these issues, the HMTC considered setting the play in Germany instead of China, but that raised problems as well. Actor Spencer Kahn (12) felt that changing location and character names felt disingenuous to the text, he said. “It seemed like any way we tried to approach the play, there was an issue,” Ferdman said.

There were other worries about the show besides cultural appropriation and misrepresentation. Ferdman feels that given the hyper-sexualization and fetishization of East Asian women in modern culture, a play that portrays Chinese prostitution like GPS does is inappropriate, she said.

Cast member Mekhala Mantravadi (10) was concerned by some sexist aspects of GPS, such as the portrayal of a man who objectifies and mistreats Shen Tei as a hero, she said. “It is important to do shows with these types of issues so we can be aware of how things were in the past, but it still made me uncomfortable,” she said.

After reading the play and learning its history, some students voiced their concerns to faculty members, including Gentile. He then directed those concerns to Dean of Students Michael Dalo, who then took them to Head of Upper Division Jessica Levenstein, he said.

When Levenstein learned about the concerns surrounding the production, she realized that something had to be done in order to prevent it from causing harm or tension in the community. “I’d like our plays to serve as occasions to celebrate the enormous talents and efforts of our students and faculty rather than causes of stress and discomfort,” she said

Levenstein held a meeting with the Theater Department and asked them to reconsider the fall production’s play,. By the next morning they had decided to put on Comic Potential. “They were extremely understanding, accommodating, and sensitive to our school’s needs,” she said. “I was incredibly impressed by how quickly they were able to refocus on an entirely new play.”

Although he knew there would be challenges, Timkó initially chose GPS because he believes it is one of the great plays of the 20th century, he said. However, he understands the reasons for changing the play and feels it was for the best. “After learning of the students’ reactions and discussing it with the administration, we felt that this is perhaps too sensitive a subject to deal with right now.”

Ferdman thinks changing the play was a good decision, she said. She had previously feared that the cast and audience wouldn’t be able to fully appreciate the show if they were distracted by its controversial subject matter, she said.

Mantravadi feels that GPS might have been too sensitive for a school environment, but it was bittersweet for her to see it go, she said. “It showed you the not-so-perfect things in society,” she said. “It feels like we’re ignoring the vices in society, like how some women have to turn to prostitution and how poorly they are treated as a result of it. We could have figured out a way to make it work, but I love the new play.”

Comic Potential is a sci-fi romance and comedy about a TV producer working with robot actors in the future, and it is wildly popular among the cast, Ferdman said. “When we were reading the script together, everyone was laughing every two pages,” she said.

Timkó chose Comic Potential in part because he felt doing something lighter and funnier would help brighten people’s moods. “We’re having a great deal of fun with it,” he said. “The cast seems to love it.”

“Maybe in the future, with more time and research, we will be able to put on a play that brings up racial challenges in the way that GPS did, but for now, Comic Potential is a wonderful and happy play,” Brooks said. “It’s going to be great.”