Native American high school students visited the University of Wyoming last week to learn more about college life. While there, they learned a valuable lesson in how racist college life can be.
The 28 students were on campus for the Native American Summer Institute, which a program flyer describes as “a week of college preparation, academic, career and cultural exploration, personal and community development, and fun!”
Instead, they were treated to a performance of The Fantasticks, a musical which mocked their culture and joked about rape.
“It was embarrassing to have brought our students to campus and them have to endure these things,” Dr. Angela Jaime, a professor and member of the core group which hosted the Native American Summer Institute, told Fusion.
She said the theater department invited the students to the play, providing about 40 tickets. “They were quite aware that there would be a large contingent of Native people in the audience, but they did not warn us,” she said. “It’s my understanding that they fully knew there would be these racist connotations.”
Jaime, who was at the performance along with her son, says the students—and other members of the audience—gasped in horror as an actor put on a headdress in the first act. There was also an inflatable tomahawk, warpaint, and an actor who was not Native American dressed in a headdress and a buckskin who made “inappropriate noises.”
According to Jaime, only six of the students remained after the intermission of the play, which she called racist and intolerable.
“Our students were super respectful,” she said. “They waited until intermission, talked to the counselor, and then left.”
The musical projects cultural stereotypes and racially insensitive moments of Native Americans and Latino/Hispanic characters. The show especially demeans actors wearing headdresses/Warbonnets. It also portrays Native Americans and Latino/Hispanic characters as the villains or the antagonists of the show. The show also cast white/caucasian actors to play the range of these diverse characters.
The play itself is not new to controversy. The Fantasticks debuted in 1960; its original New York production, which closed in 2002, still holds the title of world’s longest-running musical. When it was revived off-Broadway in 2006, the lyricist changed the words of a particularly offensive song, which referenced multiple types of rape in jest. The play closed off-Broadway earlier this month.
The university advertised it as a “sunny, funny” musical.
“This was a powerful statement made by the high school students of the camp,” the council wrote in its statement. “It sent waves through the audience, those who were on stage, and hopefully those in the UW Theatre and Dance department.”
The university’s Department of Theatre and Dance released a two-page-long statement on behalf of the cast, crew, and production team behind the play. In the statement, the department said that the mentions of rape in the play were not intended to be jokes—even if modern audiences hear them that way—and acknowledged how the depictions of “Indians” as “exotic” and “dangerous” can be seen as problematic.
“We regret the discomfort that this scene in the opening night performance caused the Native American students and other audience attending, and honor the validity of their response and their protest. We are sympathetic to their perspective,” part of the statement, which was emailed to Fusion, read. “The cast and the crew were shocked and saddened, and wished that they would have had the opportunity to have a dialogue with these students. We invite future conversations with all members of the community.”
The statement also contained a reaction from the actors in the play.
“As actors we stand behind the integrity of this production. It comes from a place of love. We look forward to sharing this beautifully simple love story with all of our audiences,” the statement read.
According to the university’s Theatre and Dance Department’s statement, future performances of the play “sadly, will be cancelled.”
Associated Students of the University of Wyoming President Ben Wetzel told Fusion that the United Multicultural Council, the summer institute, and the Theatre and Dance department are working on “remedies” and “ensuring they are not portraying any negative stereotypes or any derogatory actions or offensive actions in the continuing performances of The Fantasticks.”
According to the Laramie Boomerang, the university’s Department of Theatre and Dance put inserts in the play’s program.
“With historical productions, we see a ‘point in time,’ which is different from the one in which we live,” the insert reads, according to the local newspaper. “We see portrayals of characters that are painful to watch as 21st century audiences. The challenge then, in producing historical works, is to help audiences understand the context and/or story for the play without taking undue or illegal liberties with the script.”
Actors from the show told the council they were trying to rework the show to be less offensive, according to the United Multicultural Council.