Irving — Quanah, a new musical on the life of the last Comanche chief, opens this weekend at Lyric Stage at the Irving Arts Center, with a significant amount of questions raised concerning representation. Larry Gatlin’s world premiere at Lyric Stage offers a chronology of “38 true things” that happened in Quanah’s life. But where did these facts come from? More striking is the fact that the title role is played by David Phelps, notable gospel vocalist. Even though casting was announced in March, the Dallas arts community has been relatively quiet about this issue—until now.
The development and subsequent production raises a number of red flags, from inception to the actualized production. First, noted country and Christian songwriter Gatlin claims that he received the inspiration to pen this musical by hearing Red Steagall, a famed Cowboy storyteller, speak his take on Quanah Parker’s history. Gatlin was so moved that he stated, “this is like an American Les Mis.” From the beginning, this historical tale is going to be framed through the lens of two white men.
Concern about how this story will be told has been raised by Quanah Parker’s great granddaughter, Hawana Huwuni Townsley (who is a theatre maker). “It’s got a completely white, old perspective on what this whole situation was. Musicals are meant to be an escape and entertainment, but when you base it on a real character and his name is the title of the show, I would think that you would have something of substance in it. There are people that are alive that are not that far removed from the verbal history that we have in the family.” From another source, Gatlin visited the Comanche tribe and basically told them that he was writing this, not looking for approval but just as a “heads up.”
Seeing the world from a white, male perspective is nothing new in musical theatre, unfortunately. Take a look at The King and I or Miss Saigon. Diep Tran, associate editor of American Theatre recently wrote about her experience watching the Broadway revival of Miss Saigon, and indicated her frustration with utilizing real people in a manipulative and misguided manner in a personal way:
“If the show was trying to tell the story of Vietnamese people, we did not recognize ourselves or our parents in any of the faces we were seeing on that stage. Instead, all we could see were desperate, pathetic victims—people who were completely different from the resilient, courageous, multifaceted men and women of Little Saigon.”
There are other ways to make a musical about a heritage that does not belong to you. Take for example Here Lies Love by musicians David Byrne and Fatboy Slim. The disco-themed immersive musical chronicles the life of Imelda Marcos, the controversial First Lady of the Philippines. The difference with this work is that Byrne and director Alex Timbers make a point with each production to seek out Filipino actors, even going so far to travel to the Philippines to cast actors.
And this is the next conundrum with Quanah, as the cast lacks people of Native American ancestry (as of this writing, only one cast member has claimed some connection). Gatlin addressed this in an interview with WFAA stating, “We tried to find Native Americans to sing the parts, we sent stuff to colleges, they didn’t answer us back.” So why didn’t they answer back? Perhaps it has to do with what knowledge we have of Gatlin and the character descriptions of the historical figures.
From the audition notice, it seems that this interpretation will have a highly commercial musical theatre/Christian spin on these characters. The most detailed description is for Cynthia Ann Parker, Quanah’s mother who was captured by the Comanche people as a child. She is described as, “We watch her struggle with her growing love for Peta, and her confidence as a young Comanche wife and mother, who teaches her children the things she remembers from her childhood about God and Jesus.” It was at this point that I started to understand how this whole musical is going to frame the conflict between the Comanche and white settlers, through the similar lens as an Easter Pageant.
Do you remember those? Everyone dresses up in robes or sheets, you wear a bunch of dark makeup, there’s a camel that pees down the aisles and maybe you step in it (true story). But the entire event is framed to affirm certain beliefs and cultural practices. The creators appropriate what they wish and disregard anything that does not fit within their particular religious or cultural theory.
I think there’s another connection to be made between the Christianized adaptation of Quanah and the Frances Goodrich and Alber Hackett stage adaptation of The Diary of Anne Frank. Do you ever wonder why you see that play in so many Christian schools? It’s because that adaptation eliminates key factors of history in order to reach a broader, “universal” audience. Rinne Groff examined this specific circumstance in Compulsion, a play based on the true story of Meyer Levin who wrote an adaptation on the diary in a way to honor her story and Judaism in a more complex manner. His adaptation was not chosen to be produced by the Group Theatre in New York, so he decided to self publish the adaptation without the consent of the Frank family. In Compulsion, Frank and her family are represented by marionettes, suggesting that these real people from history are now manipulated and shaped by whomever decides to pick them up. It questions the nature of who has ownership of certain stories and how one goes about demonstrating respect for real historical figures on stage.
The most visible dilemma with Lyric’s production of Quanah concerns casting choices. However, Gatlin offers a justification for the choice to not include those with Native American ancestry:
“In Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson’s a black dude with an afro. It doesn’t matter anymore," Gatlin said. '[Director John De Los Santos] said, ‘get the best singers you know, and it will be fine.' The best singer I know is David Phelps.”
Daveed Diggs plays Thomas Jefferson and anything goes!
While this statement screams ignorance to the history of Native American people and the history of racial representation in the theatre, I believe that Mr. Gatlin was referring to the notion of “colorblind casting.” However, the casting in Hamilton cannot be defined that way. It is “color conscious.” They specifically want people of color to play presidents and important American figures, because they may have never been given the chance before. Hamilton specifically offers opportunities for actors that are PoC because they have historically been invisible or prohibited from those kinds of roles. It is a way to intentionally reclaim the history that has been denied them for centuries. And for Quanah, to say that it’s the same thing but opposite…. Do you just ignore the whole irony of white settlers taking Native American territory for the past 400 years?
It’s not the same thing as letting a white guy with a golden voice play the last Comanche chief! It’s not a two-way street!
In other situations, playwrights have actually halted productions because of white washed casting. For example Katori Hall halted a production of The Mountaintop at Kent State when a white guy was cast as Martin Luther King Jr. But that won’t happen here, will it? Remember when Dallas Summer Musicals felt the heat after casting a white man in The King and I and did the right thing by recasting the King of Siam? Remember when Plano Children’s Theatre did Hairspray without any black people?
Particularly in DFW, I believe that people are excited to see a celebrity perform in a musical, regardless of questionable (at best) choices in representation. Don’t believe me? Take a look at Lyric Stage’s Facebook page.
You can see Phelps belt his heart out in a full Native American Chief Halloween costume.
It seems like we’ve come so far, but still have so far to go.