Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Drowsy Chaperone (what is it about we asians that mystifies caucasians?)

I know that I said that this blog was mostly going to address film and television, but this weekend, I attended the musical "The Drowsy Chaperone" at my school, Belmont University, and it ended up bringing up some core Asian American issues in musical theater.  Several of my friends were in it and encouraged me to go.  I found it hilarious, endearing, and wonderful.  I can comment on the performance, but the caliber of the play's writing was what really drew me in.  The entire play is a homage/satire American musicals of the Jazz age (which I have to say are my FAVORITE. and I LOVE THEM).  One of the most charming parts of the play is the layout that the audience sees the entire audience experiences.  The narrator, the man in the chair, is a knowledgable fan of the work and gives his own little commentary over the musical that he loves so much.  All of the cliches and stereotypes of this genre are not only used but exposed, ridiculed, and in some ways endeared.  Because despite all of the things there are to be ridiculed and satired in the musicals of the Jazz age, we love them (or at least I love them, and the man in the chair).

So I can go on and on discussing the different characters, archetypes, and stereotypes that are addressed in the Drowsy Chaperone (after all, they are so much fun), but what I really want to talk about the way that The Drowsy Chaperone addressed racial stereotypes of Asians.

The man in the chair accidentally puts up the wrong record, and another musical begins to play, one called "A Message from a Nightingale" which is about a Chinese emperor who is given a message from a nightingale that he is supposed to marry his American elocutionist (somewhat of a throwback to the musical "The King and I".  The little scene features a lot of the cliched Chinese accents and mannerisms that are used in musical theatre like in the musical "Thoroughly Modern Millie"

The man in the chair addresses some of the basic problems in the depictions of Asian Americans in musical theatre.  For instance, the narrator comments on the fact that the musical is, "a slap in the face to 4000 years of Chinese history".  The musical also shows how often times non Asian actors are cast to play Asian characters, and in order to fully identify (and fully insult), gross stereotypes and caricatures are created and exploited.  Part of the problem that producers face when they don't actually cast Asian actors in Asian roles is this gross overcompensation in order to insure that the audience has no problem identifying the character as Asian.  I remember watching this excellent film called "Shanghai Kiss" that I plan on reviewing in the future (you can watch it for free on Hulu, as a warning, it is rated M for Mature) where protagonist, a Asian American actor, has problems getting roles for Asians because he is not "Asian enough" for roles that have nothing to do with being Asian (like a commercial for toothpaste).  This expectation and stereotype is a problem because of these over stereotyped and caricatured representations of Asians.  But the man in the chair comments on the fact that the man who plays the Chinese emperor often plays various "exotic and ethnic" characters.  He was"the man of a thousand accents, all of them insulting".

One of my friends who is in the musical was telling me before I went about "the racist song" they sing with the lines, "What is it about the Asians that fascinates Caucasians?  What is it about the Asians that's so nice? Is it the won tons? The egg rolls? The rice?  Perhaps it's Buddha or Confucius and their excellent advice". 

Obviously, this song features many racist elements, but the wonderful thing is that this play is mocking and making fun of them.  The irony and the satire that the entire musical is in the context of are a great (excuse the pun) stage for these things to be presented upon.  (I don't think that she got that it was actually making fun of people being racist, but that's okay, I love her anyway).

I do have to say the entire theater burst out laughing during this number, and my friends who were with me were thinking of me and looking at me the whole time to see how I was reacting.  I thought the whole commentary was well played and quite clever.  There is a whole history of problems with racial stereotypes in musical theater, and it is addressed in this play.  

I love it when music, theater, film, and television makes fun of itself.  I love seeing stereotypes and cliches berated and mocked.  They're not only effectively funny, but they are also great commentary on the expectations and representations we create.  (it's why I love 30 Rock, but that's a whole 'nother post)

This review is a bit of a break between a lot of the demands, theories, and thoughts on systematic problems.  It shows that there are a lot of places besides Hollywood (like Broadway) that reinforce negative stereotypes and put up walls for Asians in show business.  I will address more of the general problems in coming posts as well.  But to end on a humorous note....

This play reminded me of a SNL sketch that I love called "Save Broadway"

This sketch makes fun of a lot of the cliches that Broadway musicals have.  It's really funny for anyone who knows musical theater really well.  My favorite part is where the Phantom says, "For the record, Broadway is an inclusive place, no one here is racist".

 I remember being like fourteen and talking to my drama director about my frustration that I would not be able to play "normal" roles as an actress.  She looked and me and said, "I know that you just want to act, and its no consolation, but you would be great in Miss Saigon". 

And on that note, I say thanks for reading. Leave a comment. 

That Asian Girl.


  1. Hi, I don't even know if you'll get a notification on this nearly 3 year old post but as an actor unfamiliar with The Drowsy Chaperone Id been asked to play this role and as a black actor it felt like being asked to put on an Asain minstrel show. I certainly don't ask you to speak for all Asain people, I understand if at this point you don't fully remember the scene, but as an actor who is ready to walk away from this production after the first read-through I'd sincerely appreciate your opinion. I come ffom the school of thought that ironic racism is still racism and the fact that everyone in the room found this scene hilarious really bothered me.