In Anything Goes, everything goes except for racism

Crystal Ren, Staff Writer

The recent Schreiber production of Anything Goes, written in 1934, has certainly set us back eighty years or so. But it didn’t leave me feeling sentimental.

Let it be known that the students involved were all marvelous. The incredible talent of the cast (and crew) was plainly evident in the phenomenal acting, singing, and dancing.

The problem lay with the source material.

“It was racist,” said senior Carolyn Suh.

The audience was quickly introduced to two Asian characters named Ching and Ling, who stepped on stage in winged eye makeup, what looked like tinted face paint or foundation, Asian rice paddy hats, and “traditional” Chinese clothing.

Blackface is a technique used to propagate racial stereotypes, with a history originating in Hollywood’s/KKK recruitment videos’ reluctance to cast actual African Americans. Similarly, yellowface is an heirloom of America’s systematic prejudice toward Asians. Though yellowface may be less prevalent, it is no less racist and offensive. Was not their “Asian-ness” already abundantly clear from the outfits and exaggerated accents?

“It seems like the Chinese characters were the only characters to have face paint for race purposes. Sir Evelyn Oakleigh, an Englishman, was played by someone with a darker complexion, but he wasn’t painted lighter to be more English,” said Suh.

Additionally, Ching and Ling’s defining characteristic was a penchant for gambling, a stereotype that became a running gag (You play mahjong once, and suddenly you’re a gambling addict).

“I am sick and tired of minorities in secondary roles being portrayed without depth and accurate representation,” said senior Sandra Riano.

There were also some exchanges in “Chinese.” However, the gibberish coming out of their mouths, with the exception of “ni hao ma,” was nothing even remotely resembling any Asian language.

“It was a mockery of what Chinese apparently sounds like to some people,” said senior Sally Kuan.

This kind of disrespect for minority languages is not only morally ambiguous, but insidiously influential. After all, each piece of media we consume ends up leaving an impact, no matter how seemingly insignificant.

“Multiple times, the two characters were assumed to have poor English and the choppy, accented English highlighted that. The issue with the accents is that, with young children in the audience, it’s easy for them to pick up on how ‘funny’ the Chinese accents were and mimic them,” said Suh.

The question then becomes, how do we fix this? Would choosing another production, for a public high school no less, have been more appropriate? We need to think deeply about the message that this show sends to its viewers.

“It’s hard to express anger and irritation when a part of my mind is trying to tell me it’s comedic, to just laugh it off. But it’s messed up that I’ve almost been desensitized to this type of portrayal of Asian people,” said Kuan.

And if it had to be this show, was there a way to remove the racism?

“I get that the show was written in the thirties but nowadays it’s not appropriate to pull laughs by making fun of races,” said senior Chris Bendix.

Anything Goes is undoubtedly a period piece, and as such reflects outdated views.

However, historically there have been attempts to make it less racist. In the 1987 revival, the original script of Anything Goes was updated to replace Ching and Ling with white characters, Luke and John, effectively eliminating the “China Man” aspect. Might this version have been a better alternative? Which in turn prompts this question: is it better (or more accurately, less bad) to erase minority characters or to stereotype them?

And if protection of the original version is the goal, would not an acknowledgement or warning before the show started of the racist scenes to follow have been appropriate?

If it had been given the context of history, Anything Goes could have transcended its purpose of (problematic) entertainment to become a platform for an open discussion on ethnic representation and our country’s fraught, long-standing relationship with racism.