There are many privileges our Executive positions at People’s Light provide us. One is our ability to view our work through a long, wide lens. We plan productions as much as three years in advance and often refer to experiences from productions decades ago. We can see how each play, education program, and community initiative connects to each other, and connects to the people in our midst. We have many long term, ongoing relationships with a diversity of populations. Our dialogue with these artists, audiences, supporters, staff, educators, students, community partners, and field leaders all help us consider and understand the value and impact of what we do and who we are. We listen to these friends, colleagues, and neighbors to reflect on our efforts, and to shape the future of People’s Light. This new blog gives us the chance to share some of our reflections: what we have heard, what we have learned, and what we still wonder about.
Our first opportunity to do this is with Aladdin.
Every season, for the past fourteen seasons, People’s Light has produced an original Musical Panto to celebrate the holidays. Each panto is an invitation to people of all backgrounds and abilities to laugh together, cheer a hero, boo a villain, sing a silly song, and have some candy. This year’s Aladdin possessed the same ingredients as its predecessors. It was based loosely on a well-known fairy tale, set in a fictional local-sounding town, chock full of pop-culture references, and performed by a multi-talented ensemble of Panto veterans and newcomers who represent a diversity of ages, races, cultures, genders, sexual orientations, regionalities, and more.
As with past Pantos, our performances garnered widespread enthusiasm from kids, parents, grandparents, school groups, teachers, theatregoers, and critics from across our five-county region. We received raves from The Philadelphia Inquirer, Broad Street Review, and numerous other press. A crowd of fifth graders screamed in delight when the romantic couple traveled on their magic carpet through familiar video games and YouTube videos, and kissed to celebrate the play’s happy ending.
We want our pantos to spur joy, foster community, be surprising and memorable in the best ways for all who visit our campus during the holidays. We believe Aladdin achieved this. We are deeply proud of the invention, artistry, and kindness our artists and staff exhibited every day throughout the rehearsal process and performance run that included 10am student matinees, 2pm and 7pm performances for audiences of all ages, reduced price Access Performances, and Relaxed Performances.
For the large majority of people who attended Aladdin, this production was an unqualified success. For some, however, it was an experience of ridicule, erasure, and racism. We received roughly twelve complaints, two published critiques, and there were a series of extended social media threads that expressed a range of hurt, concern, and anger. The primary source of alarm stemmed from the characters Fu and Mai Tai. Played by a white actor, Fu was conceived as a wildly insecure real estate mogul and gaming mastermind, but he was dressed in a costume that included echoes of Asian stereotypes. Mai Tai was the central heroine with the most memorable song in the show, but for some her name was a reminder of schoolyard mockery and bullying. Others felt lines were crossed regarding gender performance and cultural appropriation. The assertion within all the criticism was our production was intentionally irresponsible and unwelcoming.
We take these concerns seriously. Along with members of our artistic staff, we responded directly to each phone call, letter, and email. We invited further conversation. We also recognize that while the number of complaints were relatively small, they may represent people who did not feel comfortable, or know the best channel, to communicate with us. We are very sorry for any and all hurt we caused.
The mix of high praise and sharp pain produced by Aladdin contributed to numerous important conversations throughout and beyond our organization. We listened to those outraged. We listened to those beaming with joy. We listened to the creative team, the cast, each other; we listened to all the people we always listen to, and many we hadn’t before. We are grateful to all who shared their experience with us.
Our Resident Dramaturg and Aladdin creative team member, Gina Pisasale, offered her personal and institutional point of view in her essay for Broad Street Review. Gina highlighted the diversity of experiences our production elicited with regard to race and representation. She articulated how the collision and juxtaposition of cultural reference points within panto-comedy can empower rather than disenfranchise. She expressed the opinion of all of us at People’s Light while also acknowledging we all have our own personal stakes in the art we create and share.
How we reflect on Aladdin — and how these learnings inform next season’s panto, Cinderella, the following season’s Little Red Robin Hood, and all we do in the future — builds on much soul-searching at People’s Light over the past few years. Our company is part of the second cohort of Theatre Communication Group’s Equity, Diversity, & Inclusion initiative. This past fall, we brought in ArtEquity to conduct a weekend of EDI retreats with our entire staff and Board. We now hold weekly cross-departmental EDI meetings and our Board has created an EDI Committee to advise and hold us accountable. In addition, we lead a consortium of theatres dedicated to the consistent inclusion of Relaxed Performances in our season.
Whether it’s the work on our stages or in our classrooms and community centers, or part of our daily interactions with each other, questions of representation, identity, and justice are increasingly front of mind. It’s impossible to enter the worlds of Project Dawn, I and You, and Lights Out: Nat “King” Cole and not ask ourselves how we can be more open and inclusive. This has also been true of the efforts of our New Voices Ensemble, and the projects that have emerged through our New Play Frontiers Residency & Commission program and Community Matters series. These conversations around Aladdin, therefore, are part of a broader process of self-evaluation that will continue this spring as we stage The Diary of Anne Frank with a multi-racial cast (an approach we planned for over a year), the Philadelphia premiere of Dominique Morisseau’s Skeleton Crew, and beyond. We are in it for the long haul.
When the Dame says “Hello, Everybody!” we want Everybody to know we mean it. And we do. The entire purpose and practice of art is to grow. In the doing, in the observing, we challenge ourselves, we nourish ourselves, we connect with others, and we expand our attention to life. Here’s to growing.
Abigail Adams, Artistic Director/CEO
Ellen Anderson, General Manager/CFO
Zak Berkman, Producing Director