April 10, 2019

Racist Content in PHS Musical Provokes Strong Responses From Community

By Donald Gilpin

Princeton High School’s (PHS) production of Anything Goes last month received glowing reviews, but its racist humor and derogatory, stereotypical depictions of Chinese characters tainted the experience for many.

Written by Cole Porter in 1934 and performed by PHS in a 1962 revised version — other more recent versions also exist — the classic musical comedy contains problematic content in several scenes.

“We need to do better than urging a nearly all-white cast to uncomfortably play two-dimensional Asian characters who only exist for a slew of racist jokes and a plot point that could certainly do without any Chinese involvement,” wrote PHS junior Michaela Guo, in “A criticism of the spring musical” in the March 23 edition of The Tower student newspaper.

She continued, “The musical takes on a crafty mix of the use of East Asian women as objects of sexual curiosity for white men and the tired joke that all Asian people look the same so their culture must all be the same. There is no excuse for ignoring racism at any level in a musical without any acknowledgement of the offensive content it contains.”

Guo, who is a managing editor of the newspaper and was a member of the pit orchestra for the musical, noted the discomfort of both cast and orchestra. “We were extremely uncomfortable in seeing the problematic scenes,” she wrote. “The cast in particular expressed their discomfort multiple times over the jokes and costumes.”

Guo concluded, “In certain parts of the musical, the title was taken a little too literally. Anything goes — including racism.”

Princeton Public Schools (PPS) Superintendent Steve Cochrane and PPS Visual and Performing Arts Supervisor Patrick Lenihan addressed the issue in an April 4 letter to members of the PPS community. 

Emphasizing the district’s commitment to “creating an environment that is welcoming to all and free from racial bias or stereotypes,” the letter acknowledges, “Recently, we missed the mark in fully upholding that value.”

The PHS musical, it notes, “included scenes that perpetuated an antiquated and damaging stereotype of Asian culture and particularly of Asian women. Members of our community were understandably hurt or offended by these scenes or, perhaps, had their own implicit biases reinforced. For this, we are truly sorry.”

The letter reasserts the PPS’ commitment to an inclusive visual and performing arts department, to diversity, greater equity, racial literacy, and bias-free schools.

“We are grateful for the individuals who brought their concerns to us about the musical, and who are willing to engage with us as we continue to learn,” the letter states. “To that end, we are meeting this week with students from the PHS orchestra classes to listen to their thoughts, experiences, and suggestions. We will also be meeting next week with members of our Chinese community.

“Other meetings and conversations will follow. In addition, district leaders, as well as our performing arts faculty, continue to meet to reflect on what we are doing to promote equity and diversity in all of our arts programs district-wide and, specifically, to address avenues for increasing the cultural richness and on-stage diversity in productions of future high school musicals.”