Having seen the Spring 2017 Theatre Department production of Islands, we the board of Second Shades strongly condemn this production and the values for which it stands.
First of all, only five out of ten of the performers (including an understudy) are undergraduate Wesleyan students, and so we question the validity of this production at an educational institution. Faculty productions are meant as educational opportunities for students to grow and mature as theatre artists through collaboration with experienced theatre faculty. However, resources designated for these emerging artists have been allocated to a production that heavily features hired, professional performers. It is important to note that the production had to hire these performers in part because many students dropped out, many of whom are students of color who did not feel comfortable participating any further in this racist project. Given the outcome of the production’s casting, we are left to believe that the creative team spearheaded by Ronald Jenkins did not do enough to actively seek out actors of color, specifically of Indonesian descent. Furthermore, we question the efficacy of Ellen Nerenberg’s leadership and oversight as the current chair of the department, given the lack of introspection and self-awareness within this production.
The Theatre Department website states that “courses and productions reflect the interdisciplinary interests of our faculty and majors.” If the production of Islands truly mirrors the values of our community, it does great disservice to the students of color and international students who have contributed to the theatre community at Wesleyan.
Although the production does feature people of color, white characters dominate the play. This dynamic is exemplified by the choice of having an actor who plays a white colonialist join ceremonial acts as part of the Indonesian community. Although we understand that an actor may be asked to take on multiple roles in a given production, the way it is handled here is tasteless. Not only is this an instance of whitewashing, it is even more insensitive as it places the body of a white European colonialist character in a colonized Indonesian space, and asks for the audience to embrace him as part of the Indonesian community depicted. In another instance, the only white woman in the ensemble dances above the rest so that the audience’s attention is drawn to her, clad in Indonesian clothing. In addition, her costume is more colorful than the rest of the ensemble members, distinguishing her further from the performers of color. Similarly, the understudy for the narrator Enrique is a white student. Allowing a white performer to understudy and potentially play the role shows a blatant disregard for the original ethnicity of this historical figure. This is whitewashing.
We also question Enrique’s role as the representative voice of a play about Indonesia. Despite being Magellan’s slave, he was a skilled translator who in some accounts also led Spanish colonialists to a massacre. He was an important figure in early Southeast Asian history, but in the play, he is reduced to a parody. He says of himself, “I am just a slave,” a mere nobody. The decision to use a clownish archetype for Enrique—the only prominent character of color— evokes the imagery of Sambo. Although the play attempts to highlight Enrique as the first person to circumnavigate the world, his use as a narrator in a performance that is solely dedicated to one island in Indonesia was awkward at best. The show condenses the richness and complexity of a people and their culture to its most profitable export, the export that Westerners value the most: the nutmeg. Characters exclaim they are nothing without the nutmeg. Although Islands attempts to shed light on the exploitation of the Rhun for its nutmeg, the play itself does not give the community any depth outside of its relationship with nutmeg. This decision is reductive, colonialist, and ironically exploitative in itself, as the show congratulates itself for depicting colonialism without actually challenging these power dynamics within the production itself.
Early on, a character makes a joke about how the nutmeg is an aphrodisiac, as it “makes your nuts mega.” This sets the predicate for the misogyny and hypersexualization of Asian women present in the play. There is only one part of the 90-minute show that places an Indonesian woman in the focal point. The character delivers a monologue in which she describes sucking on a nutmeg to relieve her insomnia. This is utterly reprehensible in its insensitivity, given the horrific sex trafficking of young Asian girls that occurs in real life. Even if the sexual innuendo was not intended, the production should have been more aware of the ramifications of such a monologue. The show claims to examine molestation and rape under colonialist rule, yet the women of color are reduced to part of the background.
The show establishes the white European colonialists as those in the wrong. However, the puppet of the colonialist is brown, which reeks of colorism. How convenient that the giant symbol of evil white European colonialism is represented by a brown-skinned puppet!
The show exploits revolutions and sells them as if they were a product. While the production wanted to use the exploitation of Rhun as a springboard to discuss themes of colonialism and histories of oppression in a broader sense, it fails to recognize how these different experiences cannot be interchanged and generalized across the world.
We are deeply disappointed in the production of Islands and its blatant racism, Eurocentrism and misogyny. We demand the following:
1. Collect and analyze data, and release an annual report on statistics regarding diversity in the Theatre Department
2. Incorporate diversity requirements for the major
3. Expand course offerings from qualified faculty that are not about the white Western canon
4. Hire tenure-track professors of color
5. Increase student participation in season planning
The Theatre Department keeps two ghost lights on as a symbol of solidarity. However, symbols are not enough. We urge the Department to back up their pledge to social justice with concrete actions.
We await your response by Monday, May 15th.
The Second Shades Board
May 4th, 2017