When I was in grade school at Brownell Elementary, our music teacher was married to a University of Nebraska-Lincoln School of Music professor named Roger L. Stephens. Roger died in February of this year, and his death propelled me back to the fourth grade and his direction of The King and I at UNL’s Kimball Recital Hall.
The hook of Roger’s production of The King and I was that he planned to use local school kids from Brownell Elementary as the children in the show. Former Nebraska football player Chip Smith was cast as the King, and the rest of us kids who were lucky enough to be cast in the show, had a delightful time learning the songs and the staging.
One of the most curious things I remember about the musical was the effort to “Siam-ize” us kids from White-skinned Midwestern Bohunks into the slanty-eyed Siamese offspring of a long-ago King. I specifically, and tastelessly, say “slanty-eyed” because that was precisely what the process was called way back then when our mothers would take black eyebrow pencils and draw curt lines around our eyes to make us appear “more Asian” for the stage.
In addition to having our eyes modified, we also had our skin temporarily dyed a dark, but bright, red. Our Lily-White skin was darkened with with a make-up called “Texas Mud.” It came in powder form, and, after mixing the mud with water, we’d all be sponge-bathed in the stuff to make us look darker. Our mothers also dyed our hair black. After every show we’d go home and take a shower to wash off the mud.
Now, back then, I suppose there was a certain notion that we were somehow honoring the King of Siam and his children with our modified eyes, darkened flesh and blonde hair dyed black — but were we? Or were we just mindlessly playing into old tropes and stereotypes in order to pretend we were fitting in with the geographical theme of the musical?
As I stand here now and peer back into the history of the show, I am left feeling a little bitter and quite a bit Racist. The non-traditional casting sycophants will tell you we were actually practicing what they freakishly preach: ”Midwestern kids ‘playing’ children from Siam is a perfect example of non-traditional casting.” I argue that would be true if we had been allowed to be ourselves without the determined Racial modifications. Did anyone in the audience really suspend their disbelief enough to think of us as dark-skinned children from Siam? Or did they just see a bunch of White kids trying to pass as Asian on stage?
We must not invoke our prejudices — and then ply them into our children — and that’s what happened on that production of The King and I. The adults around us wanted their ideal of theatrical authenticity to be perceived and they achieved that unfortunate end by transmogrifying us children to pronounce their petty meme.
If Brownell Elementary had been more racially mixed, with Black and Latino students, I wonder if those kids would have been cast in the show or not — I would guess not, because transforming a Black or a Latino child into a “Texas-Muddified and Slanty-Eyed Asian child” would have been seen — even back then — as an impossibility, and perhaps even a little bit tasteless; but a White child’s skin was considered a blank canvas welcoming the sponge painting and penciling in of a Racial stereotype that still stings to this day.