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School leader: Musical won't be performed here again

"Saturday's last scheduled performance was the district's final showing and the district reiterates that 'Thoroughly Modern Millie' will not be performed in the future," Levittown's Tonie McDonald said.

Protesters demonstrate against the musical "Thoroughly Modern Millie"

Protesters demonstrate against the musical "Thoroughly Modern Millie" outside Huntington High School. Photo Credit: Howard Simmons

The superintendent of Levittown schools says the musical "Thoroughly Modern Millie," which sparked protests outside high schools in Levittown and Huntington last weekend because of content the demonstrators condemn as racist, will never be shown in the district again.

Schools chief Tonie McDonald's statement came as nearly three dozen Asian-American groups on Long Island said the play disparages Chinese-Americans and is offensive to them — and they plan to take their objections to local and county elected officials.

“The students’ performance was never intended to offend any individual or group of people and [the district] apologizes if it did,” McDonald wrote, referring to the production put on at Division Avenue High School. The school calendar shows four scheduled performances of the play — one for senior citizens on April 3 and others last Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

The play is set in the 1920s in New York City. The main character, Millie Dillmount, is a rural Kansas transplant who moves to the Big Apple for love and ends up outing a white slavery ring coordinated by a white woman disguising herself as a Chinese woman, according to online theater websites. The musical, based on a 1967 film starring Julie Andrews and Mary Tyler Moore, debuted on Broadway in April 2002, according to Playbill.com.

Nearly a dozen people protested Saturday outside Division Avenue, and about 40 demonstrated outside Huntington High School, where three "Thoroughly Modern Millie" performances were given, one on Friday and two on Saturday.

They carried signs that read, “Racism Is Not Entertainment” and “Racism on Stage Isn’t Supposed to Be Entertainment for Others.”

“Saturday’s last scheduled performance was the district’s final showing and the district reiterates that 'Thoroughly Modern Millie' will not be performed in the future,” Levittown's McDonald said in her statement.

Huntington schools Superintendent Jim Polansky, in a statement Sunday, said staff and students’ intention “was obviously never to disparage any individual or group" with the production.

Gordon Zhang, chairman of the Long Island Chinese American Association, said those responses are not enough to quell tensions raised by the districts' choices to show the play.

“That’s no good,” Zhang said, pointing out that McDonald's statement contains the qualifier “if” despite the outrage of the protesters in both Levittown and Huntington. “They still do not realize they offended anyone. I still don’t like the language in that statement.”

Gordon's group is among 33 that he said plan to send letters to both district superintendents, town supervisors and the Nassau and Suffolk county executives, expressing their disapproval.

“ 'Thoroughly Modern Millie' is a highly discriminatory and racist musical that insults the Chinese and Asian communities with its outlandish and offensive stereotypes and insulting tropes," read one of the notes. "The plot of the musical is historically fallacious and unjustifiably depicts Asians in the most horrible light. Laughter at an ethnic group’s expense is not an art form; racism on stage is not entertainment." 

Zhang said he was surprised that either no one had done research showing the backlash the play has received from civic groups when it was planned in recent years in several major cities, including New York and Philadelphia, or those reactions were ignored.

In 2014, administrators at The Dalton School in Manhattan canceled a production over concerns about the play’s offensive stereotypes, and then put on a modified version with permission from the playwright, according to a media report.

A year later, the Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts shuttered the show, according to news reports that said the production had white actors appearing in yellowface.

“I want to know what the school procedure is when they select such a show,” Zhang said.

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