Despite its huge popularity over the 100 years it has been around, “Peter Pan” has always raised concerns in some quarters. The musical adaptation of J.M. Barrie’s 1904 play and 1911 novel, which gets a live production Thursday on NBC starring Christopher Walken as Captain Hook, is one that takes us to an imaginative world that includes mermaids and talking animals.
The show also includes among its fantastical characters a tribe of American Indians portrayed in stereotypical — some say offensive — terms.
“What’s appalling about ‘Peter Pan’ is that everyone else in the play speaks perfect English, but when it comes to the Native Americans, the tribe, it’s the ‘ugga wugga’ song, which is made-up gibberish in the third person,” said playwright and choreographer Larissa FastHorse, a Lakota who grew up in South Dakota. “The play puts Native Americans in that realm of the fantastical, as if we were extinct. But we’re here, alive and creative, not better or worse than anyone else.”
FastHorse consulted with the Children’s Theatre, which plans to stage “Peter Pan” next spring and which wrestled with how to portray Tiger Lily, an Indian character, and the tribe. Artistic director Peter Brosius worked with director Peter Rothstein and new play director Elissa Adams to make changes to the script in consultation with some Indian artists.
They came up with an idea to change the tribe into a group of powerful, diverse girls known as the Pounce. They are a counterpoint to the show’s famous Lost Boys.
Theater officials were at first fearful that the licensing company would reject the suggested changes. Instead, Music Theatre International, which controls the performance rights of “Peter Pan,” is considering adopting them for all future productions that it licenses.
“When I said yes to the piece about a year ago, we said obviously we have to tackle this,” said Rothstein. “We had some hard conversations, and it’s been good to re-imagine him for the 21st century. It’s been worth the endeavor.”
The controversy over “Peter Pan” is part of a trend. As the country undergoes rapid demographic and cultural changes, classic and newer shows have drawn scrutiny for content and ideas that some say are out of step with the sensibilities of a 21st-century America.
“Miss Saigon,” which was on a national tour that landed at St. Paul’s Ordway Center a year ago, was faulted for its portrayals of Asian characters, while the Minneapolis Musical Theatre’s production of “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” last summer at the New Century drew protests.
Nationally, Mary Zimmerman’s adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s “The Jungle Book” at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre drew condemnation for passing along Kipling’s racialist and misogynistic views, while La Jolla Playhouse’s musical adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Nightingale” was skewered for being set in China but featuring a cast whose leading characters were not Asian-American.
“We’re not calling for censorship,” said playwright and director Rhiana Yazzie, founder of New Native Theatre. “We’re asking people to look at these works for what they are, and to include us as living, breathing people in their thoughts. There are lots of shows that people could be doing in blackface, but they don’t do them much anymore. And when they use blackface, it’s usually for a pointed purpose. We’re asking for similar consideration about our humanity.”
Yazzie wrote an open letter about “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” last summer and is pleased that at least two productions of “Andrew Jackson” were scotched — at Stanford University and the University of California-Riverside.
“There have been shows done by people who are not Native but have been respectful,” she said, pointing to George Ryga’s “The Ecstasy of Rita Joe” and John G. Neihardt’s “Black Elk Speaks.”
Last spring, pioneering avant-garde troupe the Wooster Group did a Shakespearean adaptation called “Cry, Trojans! (Troilus and Cressida).” The production, staged in Los Angeles, likened the Greek killing of the Trojans to U.S. treatment of Indians.
“What appeared to most befuddle the show’s detractors — and incense local Native American performers — was director Elizabeth LeCompte’s provocative decision to represent her Trojans as ersatz Hollywood versions of 19th-century Plains Indians and have them deliver their speeches in cadences that suggested B-movie ‘Injun’ dialogue,” wrote the L.A. Weekly.
That production also incensed FastHorse.
“It was supposed to be an homage, but it’s really an insult to Native Americans,” she said. “It was really horrifying and incredibly upsetting.”
FastHorse and others hope that the example set by the Children’s Theatre’s approach to “Peter Pan” will be followed by other companies as they take up similar scripts.
“What Peter and Elissa did was really special, very smart,” said Yazzie, who also consulted with the Children’s Theatre. “Some people are attached to these stories, I get that. We just want them to be done in ways that don’t negate or obliterate our humanity.”
Ty Defoe, a Wisconsinite, serves as the diversity and inclusion fellow at the New York-based Theatre Communications Group, the nonprofit professional theater industry organization.
He sees classics with retrograde ideas as opportunities for national growth.
“What the Children’s Theatre is doing is taking the first step to acknowledge the true history of a piece like ‘Peter Pan,’ which has elements that are so dated but which has good things, too,” he said. “We can use a show like ‘Peter Pan’ to address issues of diversity, inclusion and equity. It is a jumping-off point, a learning stone, in a pool of ideas so that our children and grandchildren don’t have to go through the same things.”