[REVIEW] The Drowsy Chaperone
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By: Cathy Huang
I recently had the pleasure of watching McMaster Musical Theatre’s production of The Drowsy Chaperone. Having already read the notorious play’s Wikipedia page beforehand, I was somewhat prepared for the song, “Message from A Nightingale” going into the show. I was not prepared, however, for just how offensive it would be. The number featured two white cast members in traditional Chinese qipaos (dresses) and chopsticks in their hair, something Chinese people don’t actually do, and another white cast member in a plain green dress and a rice paddy hat.
A musical meant to parody musicals in the 1920s — racism and all — written in 1998, and still performed to this day, does little to actually spark discussion about racism towards Asian people. If you read the program, you’ll see that the director chose to respect the source material rather than the actual minority group he would be hurting. I would like to know how he and the production team handled this with the “utmost care,” and how he thinks “Message from A Nightingale” will “provoke discussion rather than offense.” More importantly, how he thought he, as a white man, was in any way qualified to speak on the complicated and varied experiences of Chinese people.
As the red lanterns and cheap dragon kite descended from the ceiling, I figured it couldn’t get any worse, but then they started singing. The song began with terrible accents and ended with references to Chinese foods and replacing ‘l’ sounds with ‘r’s once the emperor, played by yet another non-Chinese cast member, waltzed on stage. Instead of having the few Asian cast members play Asian characters, white people were selected. If you’re wondering, yes, this does make it more offensive. Maybe they weren’t comfortable playing those roles, but then again, maybe this song should never have been included in the first place.
After McMaster School of the Arts’ decision to put on Lady in the Red Dress this year, a play that highlighted the racism Chinese-Canadians face specifically, it seems a glaring oversight to have consciously kept this number in the production. A brief mention of China’s long history by the main character, Man in Chair, is not only insufficient for facilitating a discussion about a topic so complex, it’s not even relevant to the stereotypes presented in the song. The number was inessential to the plot of the musical, and could’ve been replaced by literally anything else.
But as uncomfortable as the number made me, the more unsettling thing and the reason I nearly walked out of the theatre was how hilarious the audience seemed to find it all. As soon as the Asian-sounding music began, they were chuckling. By the time the emperor appeared, they were howling. I’d been laughing up until that point but in a room full of people, I had never felt more alone in my entire life. I was somewhere between wanting to cry, vomit, and start screaming at everyone either involved or just sitting there and laughing. And that’s a lot like what fighting racism as an Asian is like in Canada. No one takes you seriously and white people dismiss you and non-Asian People of Colour alike because they don’t think your struggles are valid. To you they’re still an expendable joke. From Fu Manchu and Mr. Yunioshi to Drowsy and recent remarks made at this year’s Oscars, the entertainment business has clearly demonstrated how little it cares about us, and how little progress we’ve made in the anti-racism movement for Asians.