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Anything Goes?

In a span of 5 days, I have felt the highest of highs and the lowest of lows.

Saturday was closing night of my student theatre group’s production of Anything Goes. Since this is my last semester of school, it was my first big “last” of my college career- my last show.

Tuesday night… well, we all know what happened Tuesday night.

I plummeted from the glory of the post-show-glow to the sorrow caused by this nightmare of an election. How could all of that joy get sucked up in only a few days?

While reflecting on my own emotional roller coaster, I remembered, ironically, a New York Times article published in September which warned against Trump’s “Anything-Goes Campaign” that sets a precedent of being able to “get away with almost anything.”

Actually, there is nothing ironic about the Anything-Goes label.

The plot of Anything Goes does not work structurally without embedded racism. The questionable portrayal of Asian characters in the first act culminates in a highly racist closing scene, during which white characters don “traditional” Chinese robes and speak in “exaggerated” Chinese accents to trick their way into a happy ending. Our production used the most recently adapted, least racist script available, but regardless, it is impossible to finish the show without the “Chinese disguise” bit.

Our production only reached a few hundred people. However, Anything Goes is not some obscure musical we dug up out of the 2-week flops of the 1930s. Since its premiere in 1935, Anything Goes has received eleven professional runs. The most recent revival (2011) played at the Roundabout Theatre, starring Broadway greats Sutton Foster, Laura Osnes, and Joel Grey. The cast’s performance of the title number brought the house down at the Tony Awards, and has since been viewed over 3 million times on YouTube.

My point is: this musical has an audience that has lasted for over 80 years. That is a lot of people who have paid to sit in plush seats and laugh at the expense of an entire race.

I thought, “Maybe the 2011 revival used a different script! Maybe someone re-wrote it and I just don’t know about it!”

Unfortunately, not the case.

As it turns out, the show’s offensive nature becomes more widespread the further into its history you search. An early version of “Anything Goes” (the song) featured the following verse:    *brace yourself*

When ladies fair who seek affection
Prefer coons of dark complexion
As Romeos,
Anything goes.

YIKES, COLE PORTER. YIKES.

The director of our show explained away the “outdated jokes and exaggerated misrepresentations” with a note in the program, saying that she wanted to “stay as true to Cole Porter’s writing as possible.”

To me, that reasoning screams “white privilege:” to acknowledge offensive, racist jokes, and put them up on stage in the name of a rich white man’s legacy. (Cole Porter was the grandson of “the richest man in Indiana” and was educated at Harvard and Yale.)

Did my participation in a musical that I knew was racist contribute to the culture that produced Donald Trump as America’s president-elect?

Yes. Yes it did.

Everyone involved in that show turned a blind eye to the racism for the sake of “great music” and “showstopping numbers,” for a personal desire to romanticize the writing of Cole Porter, for the sake of having fun.

So many people who voted for Trump turned a blind eye to his racism (and misogyny and bigotry and xenophobia) for the sake of a single policy, for their own idealization of an anti-establishment candidate, for the sake of “change.”

 

I don’t regret being in the show, but I feel guilty as hell. My roommate, who is a first-generation Chinese-American, came to see the show on Friday. I apologized to him and expressed my discomfort with the plot and he was incredibly gracious about it, but he still had to sit in an auditorium full of people laughing at a degrading stereotype of his culture.

I had hoped that people would silently cringe at the racist moments. But I heard the laughter, loud and clear.

If we are laughing at horrible, vaudevillian portrayals of racial stereotype on Saturday, it’s no wonder that Trump is elected on Tuesday.

 

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