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Leaning into Discomfort

Dear Families,

I had the pleasure yesterday of meeting with the cast and crew of this year's middle school musical Willy Wonka. We talked about the challenges of navigating the inevitable excitements and disappointments of the casting process and about the varied ways that they would learn to work together and depend on each other over the next two months.
We talked about how the success of the production depends equally on the members of the crew, chorus and leads and how each member of the production needs to work to find meaning in her/his experience. We talked about how participation in a dramatic production is transformative and that this group will not be the same group of people when the last curtain falls; they will have shared in something unique and magical. We talked about the theater as a classroom were important lessons about drama, understanding text, and understanding self and others will unfold. They were all clearly excited to be embarking on this project.

They were all also clearly excited about Willy Wonka. So we talked for a bit about Willy Wonka and the ways in which they have come to know the story. For some, the journey has been by book, for others the movies and for many both. In the fall, when Joanne and I spoke about Willy Wonka as the selection for the musical, we were both excited, but also concerned about one important dimension of the narrative: the Oompa-Loompas. We wanted to be sensitive to the range of opinions about these characters and their connection to deeper issues of race and privilege. We were both convinced that we could find a way to bring meaning to this aspect of the production in a way that would also be consistent with our school's values and mission. We also had faith in the ability of our students to wrestle with these complicated issues and knew that we could not simply ignore them and hope for the best; we were also not willing to simply chose a different show.

We believed that it was important from the beginning to put the issues on the table so that the cast and crew could consider them from their own personal perspectives and then think about how the production might deal with these issues. Issues related to the portrayal of the Oompa-Loompas were familiar to some students, but it was new territory for many. So this initial conversation will continue to weave its way through the production. We know that they will have much to say and that their input will be essential to the success of the show.

So just what is the issue here? As Jeremy Treglown notes in his book Roald Dahl: A Biography:

In the version first published, [the Oompa–Loompas were] a tribe of 3,000 amiable black pygmies who have been imported by Mr. Willy Wonka from 'the very deepest and darkest part of the African jungle where no white man had been before.' Mr. Wonka keeps them in the factory, where they have replaced the sacked white workers. Wonka's little slaves are delighted with their new circumstances, and particularly with their diet of chocolate. Before they lived on green caterpillars, beetles, eucalyptus leaves, 'and the bark of the bong–bong tree.'

During the production of the 1971 film version of the book, the production team acknowledged that the depiction of the Oompa-Loompas was offensive and counter to the vision of the story that they wanted to tell.  So in the movie, the Oompa-Loompas become green-haired orange-skinned beings from some geographically obscure place called Loompaland. This change and the context in which it occurred  (click here to read the compelling correspondence between Dahl and the author Eleanor Cameron) moved Dahl to comment:

I created a group of little fantasy creatures.... I saw them as charming creatures, whereas the white kids in the books were... most unpleasant. It didn't occur to me that my depiction of the Oompa-Loompas was racist, but it did occur to the NAACP and others.... After listening to the criticisms, I found myself sympathizing with them, which is why I revised the book. (in Mark West's Trust Your Children: Voices against Censorship in Children's Literature, 1988).

As Philip Nels observes:

In the 1973 edition of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the Oompa-Loompas are no longer African Pygmies — they’re from Loompaland.  Illustrator Joseph Schindelman changes their colors from black to white, and current illustrator Quentin Blake keeps them white in his 1998 edition.  Inasmuch as Willy Wonka’s workers are human beings imported from another country, the whitened Oompa-Loompas remove the original book’s implication that a person of European descent had enslaved people of African descent, and that the latter group had gladly accepted their new lot as his slaves.

The Oompa-Loompas, as illustrated by Joseph Schindelman, 1964
The Oompa-Loompas, as illustrated by Joseph Schindelman, 1973
The Oompa-Loompas, as illustrated by Quentin Blake, 1998

Are these changes sufficient to alter the ideological assumptions of the original? To this question, Nels responds that one could make the reasonable claim that:
the new versions instead more subtly encode the same racial and colonial messages of the original versions.  After all, the Oompa-Loompas still live in “thick jungles infested by the most dangerous beasts in the entire world,” and are still a “tribe” who do not learn English until they come to Britain.  Even though the animals are now nonsensical (“hornswogglers and snozzwangers and those terrible wicked whangdoodles”), it’s not unreasonable for a child to assume that a “tribe” living in “thick jungles” are Africans living in Africa.  And they still happily acquiesce to being shipped to England “in large packing cases with holes in them,” and find life in a factory preferable to life in their native land.

There is no question that these are complicated issues and are experienced differently by the diverse members of our community (i.e, it means one thing to encounter a stereotype in a book or play about another group, but it means something fundamentally different when the stereotype is about the group with which one identifies). In making the choice to do a production of Willy Wonka, it was clear to me that we had no choice, but to acknowledge and address these important issues. It can't be about just getting down to the business of learning lines and songs and looking past what is uncomfortable.

That said, the act of looking at what is uncomfortable carries different meanings for all of those involved and we need to be sensitive to this as well. We also do not want these issues to totally subsume the hard work and joy that comes from putting on a show. We do however want these ideas to be present in our work so that it challenges us to find the right voice for the production as a whole and also challenges each member of the cast to find her/his way through the text towards a deeper and richer meaning. Being bold about this kind of work is at the heart of what it means to be a member of the LREI community.

I was impressed by our young actors and crew today and know that they will work hard and get the support that they need. Nels sums it up nicely when he says:

As they grow up, children will gain experience and knowledge.  Some of those experiences will hurt; some of that knowledge will make them sad.  If we exclude troubling works from the discussion, then children are more likely to face sadness and pain on their own.  It is, I think, better that we give them the tools with which to face prejudice-bearing literature.  In doing so, we can help them learn to cope with a world that can be neither just nor fair.  With this knowledge, perhaps we may also give them a source of power.

I look forward to sharing with you the power of this group of committed young people when Willy Wonka premiers in the Charlton Street PAC on Friday, May 11th and Saturday, May 12th.

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