Art is not Apolitical

I went to see the touring production of The King & I on Thursday night (in order to get Hamilton touring company tickets, we had to get SHN season tickets, and The King & I is one of the season shows). Just before the King’s song “A Puzzlement,” in a line of dialogue that I don’t recall from any production I’ve seen, the King contemplates the value of building a wall around Siam vs. reaching out to French or British allies who might pose a larger existential threat to his country.

The actor had to pause for several moments while the audience laughed darkly. It’s San Francisco, so it was an audience sympathetic to the particular critique embedded in that line. I’d be very interested to know how it plays at other stops on the tour… if they even leave the line in?

But that moment, and then the performance of “A Puzzlement” right after it, really drove home how political even the classics of musical theater are. I mean, they might seem simple or problematic by today’s standards, but with shows like The Sound of Music or The King & I, Rodgers and Hammerstein presented some fairly topical critiques alongside their earwormy tunes.

The King & I is banned in Thailand for its presentation of King Mongkut as, to paraphrase the Wikipedia article, “a polka-dancing tyrant,” and for the suggestion of a romance between British Anna Leonowens and King Mongkut (though… interesting fact we learned… Anna was likely Anglo-Indian and hid her descent to avoid prejudice against her and her children). However, the show, for its time and genre, makes a solid attempt to give Mongkut layers and to address issues of colonialism in SE Asia even as it critiques human rights issues in SE Asian countries. Yul Brynner (Russian, btw, so there’s a valid yellowface crit to be made against the original productions) was definitely a reason that the King is such an iconic character for many lovers of these classics, but I think the actual conflicts that King Mongkut struggles with in the show are a reason he endures as a memorable character long after Brynner retired from the role.

I’ve been chewing on these thoughts the past two days, thinking maybe I’d write a post about them, and then Mike Pence went to see Hamilton, and the intersectional cast of PoC, LGBT people, and women voiced a critique and a plea to Pence at the end of the show. They could have done something else. They could have refused to perform for the pleasure of a man who has spent his life and political power ensuring that these actors and people like them will be treated as less than human. They didn’t, possibly because they recognized that Pence was only one person in an audience of people who don’t share his prejudice or history of oppressive action, an audience of people they wanted to perform for.

But to expect them to be silent and happy performing for such a man…? No. It’s a sickening thought. If I was one of those actors, expected to perform at the behest of a man who viewed and treated them as subhuman… I would have spoken out, too.

Like Tuptim speaks out to the King at the end of The Small House of Uncle Thomas:

TUPTIM: Topsy glad that Simon die, Topsy dance for joy! I tell you what Harriet Beecher Stowa say that Topsy Topsy say:
“I specks I’se de wickedest critter in de world!”
But I do not believe that Topsy is wicked critter. Because I too am glad for death of King. Of any King who pursues a slave who is unhappy and wish to join her lover. And your Majesty, I wish to say to you…

[King rises in anger, silencing Tuptim]

Your Majesty, and honourable guests! I will tell you end of story. Is very sad ending. Buddha has saved Eliza. But with the blessings of Buddha also come sacrifice.

Hah. See. We come full circle.

Art is not apolitical. Critique is not harassment. And I applaud the Hamilton cast, a cast of one of the most political shows ever to come out of the musical theater tradition, for saying, politely, that the tyrant in their audience – polka-dancing or not – should consider whether it’s right to enjoy the work and efforts of those actors when he has a history of using his power and position to dehumanize and oppress them and is in a position now to do much, much worse.


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