'Tarzan' school play cancelled over racism fears
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New York - The audition date was set.
On December 4, students at Alexander Hamilton High School in Elmsford, New York, would have the chance to flaunt their vocal chops with the hopes of landing a role in the drama club's highly anticipated spring musical: Disney's "Tarzan."
But just days before the scheduled tryouts, administrators announced a change of plans. Instead of "Tarzan," the Westchester County high school would be putting on a musical adaptation of William Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night."
The reason for the abrupt change? Two parents complained about racism.
"The concerns were over the original story line behind 'Tarzan of the Apes,' " Elmsford Union Free School District Superintendent Marc Baiocco told the Journal News, referencing Edgar Rice Burroughs' story, which was first published in 1912.
Baiocco added that the parents were also troubled by the possibility that nonwhite students would appear as apes onstage. According to state education data, the district that includes Alexander Hamilton, about 30 miles north of New York City, serves a diverse student population. More than 50 percent of students are Hispanic or Latino and about 23 percent are black or African American.
"They just were worried about the portrayal of our students in terms of students of color and whatnot in that," Baiocco said of the parents.
The abrupt decision to cancel "Tarzan" has since ignited a debate about whether the school district's response to the complaints was appropriate or if it was an overcorrection that some say got in the way of what could have been a teachable moment.
At the root of the issue is Burroughs' story chronicling the life of a boy left to fend for himself in the jungles of Africa after his parents die. The boy is taken in by a female gorilla, Kala, who names him Tarzan, or "white skin." The story, however, wasn't inspired by Burroughs' personal experiences in Africa, according to a 1999 article from The Washington Post.
"When Burroughs published 'Tarzan of the Apes' in 1912, he had never been to Africa," film critic Rita Kempley wrote. "His untamed jungle was inspired by travel guides, many of them undoubtedly written during the rise of European colonialism in the continent in the 19th century."
Authentic or not, the character of Tarzan was a hit, spawning a slew of movies, TV shows, cartoons and comic books all dedicated to the loin-clothed legend raised by apes who kills African natives. But as the years went on, Tarzan's veneer started to fade "for obvious reasons," as the Pacific Standard magazine noted in 2016.
"Tarzan was such a racist product of such a racist time, that after the civil rights movement and the breakdown of the British Empire, it became harder for mass audiences to enjoy the kind of deeply un-reflexive white supremacy that the character represented," the Standard article said. "To call the character 'racist' is to state the painfully obvious."
So when Disney moved to revive Tarzan as the title character of an animated film for children, the final product released in the summer of 1999 bore marked differences from its predecessors: no native people, and a plot centered on family and acceptance. The 2006 musical adaptation, written by David Henry Hwang with music and lyrics by Phil Collins, largely sticks to Disney's politically correct version of events.
This was the Tarzan story that Alexander Hamilton High School's drama club had hoped to present next March. A number of schools in the area performed the same musical in recent years without incident, News 12 Westchester reported. In a statement to CNN, the school district said students at the Elmsford high school had expressed "delight" at the prospect of putting on the show.
Then the parents spoke up, taking their concerns to Principal Joseph Engelhardt and Rob Jacoby, the drama club's music director and producer, the Journal News reported. It didn't take long for word to reach school district officials.
"One of the things that we're working on this year is a big equity push in terms of making sure that we're equitable in everything that we do," Baiocco told the newspaper. "One of the messages that I had conveyed to parents at the beginning of school year was that if one person felt uncomfortable with something, please let us know that. We want those voices to be heard."
While the plans for "Tarzan" were quickly scrapped, some parents took issue with how district officials handled explaining their decision to students and community members.
At the district's board of education meeting last week, one parent criticized administrators for using "it's the Disney version" as a way to "qualify the choice of the play," adding her daughter "had to explain and defend herself all day long as to why her lived experience also mattered."
"People of color should not have to justify their lived experience or their historical experience, the experience of their ancestors," the parent said. "Upon cancellation of the performance, students should have been educated as to why it was changed. Not just, 'It's over.' "
The parent went on to stress the importance of making sure "students can understand the context by which the decisions are being made because they don't know that. They're not clear about that."
Another parent echoed the need for dialogue, specifically about the fraught source material behind the Disney movie.
"It is more than 'This is just the Disney friendly children film,' " the parent said. "It cuts more deeply to people and this history and this community. This is something that children need to understand as well as some of the residents in the community."
Baiocco told the parents that the need to make a swift decision largely affected school officials' actions.
"It was not ideal," he said. "There is not anybody who's going to sit here and try to convince you that it was ideal. But we made a decision because of the concerns that we were hearing. We were really honestly being responsive to those concerns."
The move to cancel the production also didn't sit well with some members of the arts community, including Susan Van Buskirk, who directed a 2017 production of "Tarzan" the musical at Northern Valley Regional High School in Old Tappan, New Jersey.
"The whole point of theater is to reflect society and discuss society, whatever it is you're seeing," Van Buskirk told the Journal News. "I think if we decide we're just going to immediately hair-trigger cancel anything that might make anyone uncomfortable, we're missing a chance to teach."
Meanwhile, students trying out for the production of "Twelfth Night" will be moving on to dance auditions and vocal callbacks Wednesday, according to the drama club's Web page. Their first rehearsal is scheduled for Friday.
"It is a brilliantly written musical that is empowering, relevant, powerful, fun, and accessible to all audiences," reads a description of the new production.