My wife and I took our two kids and our neighbors’ two kids (ranging from 3 to 10) to see Ariel Theatrical’s recent production of Peter Pan. I had somehow managed to not ever see or read the work from beginning to end. So the musical’s depiction of indigenous people – played at Ariel by 20 kids who looked between 4 and 11 – was stunning.
They stalk around in faux buckskin clothing and feathered headbands, and startle each other like bumbling cowards. They sing a song called “Ugg-a-Wugg,” a gibberish approximation of indigenous languages. They appeal to Peter Pan as their Father. They give war cry whoops and “speak-um” in broken English.
This play, adapted into a Broadway musical in the 1950s, was written by J.M. Barrie more than 100 years ago. Its depiction of indigenous people – not to mention its colonialism and patriarchy – hasn’t aged well.
Ariel founder Gail Higginbotham admits that. They did Peter Pan 10 years ago. She says when she got the script this time, from licensing company MTI, she was “a little taken aback” at how little it was updated. The indigenous people were still referred to “redskins.”
“We’re not doing that,” she decided. “We’re changing [redskin] to ‘warrior.’”
But she says they were bound by the strict rules of the licensing agreement. And they had 53 kids already signed up.
So the show went on, with gestures to mitigate the stereotypes. Higginbotham says they talked to the young cast about the roles and the historical context, showed videos of rain dances, asked the actress who played Tiger Lily (the leader of the “Indian” tribe) how she felt; the 15-year-old was OK with it. And how did parents and audiences feel?
“They said [the Indians] were the best part of the show,” Higginbotham reports. “They saw it as an exercise in the innocence of childhood.”
But for a theater company that prides itself on teaching kids “correct principles,” there were admitted missteps. There were no indigenous people brought in to consult, as the Children’s Theatre Company in Minnesota did. And Ariel didn’t send any requests for changes to MTI.
Stephen Moorer of PacRep, which is producing Peter Pan in August, says they will fix the most problematic stuff without rewriting the work: “Theater companies make slight [changes] for casting, understandability, technical reasons. I have no problem adding ‘cultural awareness’ to that list.”
Peter Pan is loved by millions who cherish the escape of flying off with Peter to Neverland. The way to do that, according to the musical, is to “think lovely thoughts.” And to not think ugly thoughts – like, maybe, about demeaning stereotypes right in front of them.
Higginbotham says they won’t be doing Peter Pan again: “It was written at a time when the world was seen differently. It creates non-intended social and political statements. We’re about life-affirming statements. Within the bounds of that contract, we did everything we could to create an affirming situation.”
Editor's note: This piece originally stated that the kids who played Indians in ARIEL Theatrical's performance of Peter Pan referred to Peter as "Great White Father."