Are the Neverland Indians of Peter Pan going the way of the Beothuk in Canada?
When two new versions of Scottish dramatist J.M. Barrie's famous 1904 work began runs last week - at Halifax's Neptune Theatre and the Stratford Shakespeare Festival (preview performances) - they removed any references to "Indians" or "redskins" from their text.
While Tiger Lily's tribe is still in both productions, its members no longer bear any resemblance to North America's aboriginal peoples.
So: What's up, Tiger Lily? Well, while Peter Pan remains a beloved and enduring work of children's (and adults') literature, the century-old story of the boy who would not grow up has been causing controversy of late.
Back in December, Neptune found itself in hot water when a casting announcement for its production of the 1954 musical version went out calling for "Pirates/Indians." After being contacted by angry artists, artistic director George Pothitos quickly sent out an apology: "It was an oversight on our part, not realizing how offensive that might be to some first-nations people."
If the word "Indian" is now considered derogatory in some circles, Barrie's portrayal of the "Piccaninnies" - a term used to refer to both black peoples and aboriginal Australians in his time - in his novels and play is much more problematic.
In Peter and Wendy, Barrie's 1911 novelization of his earlier play, the Scottish author describes these "redskins" on the warpath with their tomahawks not as an imaginary people, but as just another group of North American Indians. "Strung around them are scalps, of boys as well as of pirates, for these are the Piccaninny tribe, and not to be confused with the softer-hearted Delawares or the Hurons," he wrote.
No wonder directors are taking a second look at the characters who bow down to Peter and address him as "the Great White Father" after he saves Tiger Lily from Captain Hook.
Tim Carroll, the British director whose take on Barrie's play began previews last week at Stratford, says the clichéd and stereotypical portrayal of native North Americans in Peter Pan would probably pass unremarked in his country. "I think by and large [British]audiences would think and accept that everyone in Neverland is simply the product of the children's imaginations," he says. But when he was hired to direct the play in Canada, Carroll, a former associate director at London's Globe Theatre, felt he needed to make some changes - a decision the Stratford festival's leadership agreed was a good idea.
"Coming here, it was obvious to me that we had to be more sensitive to the feelings of people who would be watching a debased version of their forefathers put onstage," he says.
Carroll's solution has been to recast the Tiger Lily's tribe as Amazons, the women warriors of Greek mythology. The decision has paid off thematically, he says, adding a mysterious female hinterland to the very male world of Neverland's Lost Boys and pirates. It has also been a blessing in terms of casting, allowing him to use more female members of the Stratford company. (Countering tradition, Carroll has cast a man - Michael Therriault - in the role of Peter Pan, rather than a woman.) Meanwhile, at Neptune, the brouhaha over the casting notice sparked Pothitos's thinking about how to portray the Neverland Indians from the Peter Pan musical, which has music by Mark Charlap and Jule Styne, and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green.
"At the time, we had just put out a casting call and the designs weren't in yet," he says. "So I decided we'd produce our own Neverland, with a tribe not based on any one ethnicity."
In Pothitos's version, which opened yesterday, Tiger Lily's mystical tribe is inspired by paintings by primitivist Henri Rousseau as well as bits and pieces of Mayan, Egyptian and East Indian culture.
No one will be wearing a feather headband or saying "ugh." In fact, all mentions of "Indians" have been removed from the dialogue, which had already been updated to eliminate "redskins" years ago.
Pothitos has instigated some changes to the score, as well: Two songs that feature the native-American pow-wow beat have been re-orchestrated. And Ugh-A-Wug, the second-act song where Peter Pan and Tiger Lily's tribe join forces, has been stripped of its potentially offensive nonsense lyrics and turned into what Pothitos calls "a friendship ballet."
Are these alterations really necessary? As recently as 2000, the Shaw Festival staged a prominent production of Barrie's original play, directed by Christopher Newton, where the Neverland Indians were largely intact, without any outcry. (The late Goldie Semple doubled as Mrs. Darling and Tiger Lily, however, emphasizing the dream nature of Neverland.) But Tara Beagan, a playwright of Ntlakapamux and Irish-Canadian origins who contacted Neptune about the wording of their casting notice last year, feels that to put on an unaltered version of Peter Pan today would be "offensive and gravely misguided."
"It takes a willful ignorance of our nation's history to believe that programming a play with a chorus of peoples who have been reduced to stereotypes - and worse, to seemingly mythological beings - is okay," she wrote in an e-mail to The Globe and Mail. "To do this on the land where those people originate and thrive today is especially dehumanizing, immoral and cruel."
To Beagan, Peter Pan's casual equation of "Indians" with imaginary Neverland creatures such as mermaids was part of a larger racist British mindset that didn't see native North Americans as a real people who existed in the present.
"The early 20th-century English theatre-going public literally thought of native North Americans as a vanishing race: This is what their rulers intended," she writes. "England has made several very creative attempts at eradicating Canada's first peoples - the mythologization of first-nations peoples was a false 'swan song' type of trend that has, sadly, lasted until 2010."
In a recent article she penned for the Praxis Theatre blog, Beagan imagined her mother on a field trip from the Kamloops Indian Residential School in 1953 watching Disney's cartoon version of Peter Pan with its stereotypical Indians saying "Ugh" at a local theatre that only allowed native people to sit in the balcony. (Beagan's mother doesn't remember the specific films she saw on these trips, but the timing fits.) "My mom's grandchildren - my niece and nephew - sit in any section they want, in any theatre they want," Beagan wrote. "If things continue to look up the way they have been, they won't ever sit through a production of something that will teach them that their people say 'ugh.'" In productions of Peter Pan at Stratford and Neptune, at least, that will be the case.
Peter Pan, "a musical fantasy based on the play by J.M. Barrie," is running at Halifax's Neptune Theatre until May. 30 (neptunetheatre.com).
Peter Pan (J.M. Barrie's play) is in previews now at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ont. The production opens June 12 and continues until Oct. 31 in repertory (stratfordfestival.ca).