April 4, 2023

By Hoo Sook Hwang
AAP contributing writer

CJ Eldred (Lt. Cable), Christine Toy Johnson (Bloody Mary) and Manna Nichols (Liat) in the Guthrie Theater’s production of South Pacific, directed by Joseph Haj at running from June 18 to Aug. 28, 2016 on the Wurtele Thrust Stage. )Photo by T. Charles Erickson)
CJ Eldred (Lt. Cable), Christine Toy Johnson (Bloody Mary) and Manna Nichols (Liat) in the Guthrie Theater’s production of South Pacific, directed by Joseph Haj at running from June 18 to Aug. 28, 2016 on the Wurtele Thrust Stage. )Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

MINNEAPOLIS (June 28, 2016) — The original broadcast of “South Pacific” by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, debuted in 1946. In 1949 South Pacific was named Best Musical by the New York Drama Critics’ Circle and in 1950 the musical earned the Pulitzer Prize for drama.

While South Pacific’s initial unveiling ran over 1,500 performances, the Guthrie Theater plans to run 72 total performances from June 18 through Aug. 28 under the new artistic direction of Joseph Haj.

The backdrop was beautiful. Majestic color sequences danced throughout the performance. Each scene was carefully staged and offered a variety of visually captivating experiences. Multitalented performers seamlessly transitioned from one dance number to another. Meanwhile the orchestra sitting  inconspicuously toward the back of the stage enhanced the mood of each scene as it came to life on stage.

While the acting, dancing, orchestra and set were truly phenomenal, I walked away feeling exhausted by the same story line in which racism is viewed as a human condition rather than as a result of conditioned humans.

The production is set on a secluded island during World War II. The Broadway musical tells an all too familiar story about ways in which racism and bigotry continue to manifest inside of loving relationships. While racism is often viewed as a sociological and economic reality, it is also a personal choice, a reality that is often diminished.

Some critics may argue that in the 1940’s “South Pacific” addressed issues of race that were cutting edge at the time. I believe that the production, while talent filled, minimizes and ignores the real life catastrophic effects that racism caused in the 1940’s and the role of racism currently. Racism does not need to be a life sentence. Racism is a sociological, economic and historical reality that people breathe life into as a way to maintain its absurdities.

“South Pacific” depicted two White characters, Lieutenant Joseph Cable (played by CJ Eldred) and Nellie Forbush (played by Erin Mackey) struggling to accept ways in which internalized racism created barriers to genuinely loving relationships. Sadly, this is not just a 1940’s issue. It is not a time bound tradition, but rather a historical and ongoing violation of human rights in the 21st century. On stage, ethnocentric attitudes and racial biases portrayed exclusion and disgust towards “Japs” and “Coloreds.” Both demoralizing terms were used on stage and made me cringe. I wondered how necessary it was to use racist remarks in the new millenium? I felt that messages about racism could still be conveyed without the use of such disparaging words.   

The story line highlighted two couples, Lieutenant Joseph Cable and Liat (played by Manna Nichols) and Nellie Forbush and Emile de Becque (played by Staudenmayer).  Nellie and Emile struggled to deconstruct racist constructs in an effort to reunite with the people of color they were supposedly in love with. Even so, they rejected and deemed people of color as unworthy. Japanese and Asians throughout the musical were scapegoated for personal and systematic gain. Despite the intense feelings of love, passion and connection that both Nellie and the Lieutenant felt towards those they were falling in love with, fear, ignorance and racism prevailed for the majority of the show.

At one point, the United States Navy nurse Nellie (played by Christine Johnson) displayed a disgusted look on her face when she discovered that the French planter, Emile de Becque (Edwards Staudenmayer) has two Polynesian children from a previous relationship with a Polynesian woman. Upon discovering his interracial ties, Nellie leaves Emile de Becque immediately and sings the lyrics, “I’m gonna wash that man right out of my hair . . .waste no time, weep no more, show him what the door is for.” The racist lyrics sung by character Nellie almost imply that the indirect contact with the French planter’s Polynesian wife was unclean, forcing Nellie to sterilize herself. An entire scene was dedicated to a song, which sang, “You can’t put back a petal when it falls from a flower, Or sweeten up a fellow when he starts turnin’ sour,” all while fellow female nurses laughed.

In the meantime a Marine Corps lieutenant reveals fears about a young local girl that he has fallen in love with. Initially, he is comfortable using her for sex, but then becomes distressed when he discovers that he’s falling in love. Concerned about what their White family and friends will think, both White characters leave Emile and Liat.

The story centered on the heroism of both White characters who end up deconstructing some aspects of internalized racism in order to be with the ones they love. Yet almost no attention was given to the heroic compassion and patience that was displayed by the characters Emile and Liat, who were victims of racial prejudice.

In the end, Nellie and the Marine Corp officer transform racial bigotry to racial tolerance of those they love. This was not exactly the happy ending I was hoping for in a musical performed in the 21st century. While tolerance is a step up from bigotry, it does not reflect human dignity that everyone should experience.

The production implied that war is the impetus to racism when history has consistently told us that racial/ethnic intolerance is what fuels war. “ South Pacific” is another example of a musical that may be too painful for audiences of color, specifically Asians. That might account for the fewer than a handful of us in the audience? Packaging racism into a musical and calling it a romantic comedy fails to communicate an accurate picture of how racism isn’t romantic or comedic.

3 thoughts on “South Pacific at the Guthrie

  1. You should fact check your song/scene order. “Wash that Man” comes before Nellie (played by Erin Mackey not Christine Johnson) discovers Emile’s two children. The song is not about being unclean as you so dramatically stated above. Racism and especially Asian representation in theater is a very important issue, but we as Asian American performers must be careful how we discuss these issues.

  2. nk you for expressing what many Asian Americans perceive as continued stereotypical and racist depictions. It’s being reviewed similarly in other forms and it’s good that we as a community are no longer perpetuating stereotypes of being submissive and allowing racist stories continue to get played in society. We have successfully protested to keep Miss Saigon’s depictions out there and I am very disappointed in Guthrie Theater in picking up a play that’s colonialist b.s. And pointing out underlying aspects are not over dramatic and i’m personally tired of defensive people shutting other people down with mansplaining and whitesplaining as well…missing the points, which can only stalls and progress of ending the isms in society. Thank you again for your refreshing review.

  3. This was an amazing review that accurately discussed racism and how white people perceive Asian Americans! I enjoyed reading it 🙂

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