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Examining 1920s xenophobia with ‘Millie’

| Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Beginning Thursday, the Pasquerilla East Musical Company (PEMCo) will raise the curtain on its mainstage production, “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” a show about a small-town girl who arrives in 1920s New York with big dreams of living like a modern woman. Although the production team and cast has worked to make our “Thoroughly Modern Millie” go beyond clichés, it is also important to recognize the role that stock characters — characters whose essence stems from cultural or social stereotypes — play in Millie’s journey.

The flapper girl stands out as the most recognized trope in “Millie” and the one most associated with this show, but other tropes are just as crucial. Upon arriving in the city, Millie meets other aspiring young professionals who stay at a women’s residence run by Mrs. Meers, a middle-aged Chinese woman, as well as Ching Ho and Bun Foo, her bellhops who recently immigrated from China. Unbeknownst to Millie and her friends, Mrs. Meers is actually a washed-up actor, David Crumpler, masquerading as a woman and blackmailing Ching Ho and Bun Foo into working for him. The plot seems absurd but, in fact, it aligns with historically accurate attitudes and fears of the 1920s.

The United States in the 1920s was not only a modern and romanticized place. For Chinese immigrants, America was simultaneously a country of widespread employment opportunity and legalized discrimination. Beginning with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, Chinese immigrants (like Ching Ho and Bun Foo) and Chinese-Americans were routinely marginalized and forced into terrible work situations with the hope that an employer-sponsor (like David Crumpler/Mrs. Meers) could bring their families to America.

As a history major and director of the show, sophomore Katie Mackin could not ignore this background when bringing Ching Ho and Bun Foo to life. They are determined, loving and hard-working, not malicious, in their actions. That they are Chinese only serves to illustrate the American xenophobia of the 1920s.

By contrast, David Crumpler is the only character choosing to play a stereotype in the show. He tries to be a “dragon lady,” a domineering, older Asian woman, but fails horribly and offensively. We as an audience laugh at him, as he offers a satirical portrait of the very xenophobia that permeated U.S. society in the 1920s.

To further emphasize this role-playing, we chose to cast a male to pose as Mrs. Meers — the script allows for either a “David Crumpler” or a “Daisy Crumpler” to fill the part. We felt that choosing a male character to masquerade as a woman strengthened the fact that this character is highly aware of the stereotype he portrays. This awareness helps David characterize his Mrs. Meers and further intimidate his employees. He also teaches the audience about the legally tolerated and even enforced discrimination of the time, an often-forgotten aspect of American history.

We hope this approach creates some laughs during the show, but we also see this as a chance to teach a little about our own country’s history. Racial and ethnic discrimination, as well as discrimination of immigrants, still very much persist today, and we welcome conversation about those topics through “Millie.”

To that end, the PEMCo producers and director of “Millie” invite you to join us for a panel discussion, “This Is 1922: Stereotypes and Satire in Theatre,” immediately following the Thursday performance in Washington Hall. Tickets to the show are on sale now in the LaFortune Box Office, and we encourage everyone to see the show before attending the panel. The panelists will include Jason Ruiz, associate professor of American Studies, Lionel Jensen, associate professor of East Asian languages and cultures, and Cecilia Lucero, assistant professional specialist in the First Year of Studies and faculty advisor to “Show Some Skin.” We look forward to hearing your thoughts and contributing to the discussion of inclusion on campus.

Katie Mackin
“Thoroughly Modern Millie” director

Jon Olansen
PEMCo executive producer

Evie Bauman
PEMCo producer

Meg Gegick
PEMCo producer

The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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