Commentary: What Color Is Peter Pan?

The issue, to me, is not whether Peter Pan is played by a man or a woman. The issue is whether Peter Pan has to be white.

Perhaps I should back up.

Mary Martin in Peter Pan

Mary Martin in Peter Pan

On Sunday afternoon, via tweets (and later articles) resulting from the semi-annual Television Critics Association press conferences in Los Angeles, NBC announced that the follow-up to their ratings hit The Sound of Music Live would be Peter Pan Live, utilizing the stage musical from the 50s which had already been performed live on NBC a half-century ago, in 1955, 1956 and 1960. As it had on stage, the production starred Mary Martin in one of her several signature roles.

The announcement set off a wave of dream casting on Twitter; I was one of many who called for thoughts, as did Scott Heller, deputy arts & leisure editor at The New York Times. The suggestions came quickly. “Bieber!” was shouted repeatedly, apparently with no one thinking about his recent erratic behavior and how that might work in a live scenario. Journalist Mark Harris jumped in with “Chris Colfer, call your agent,” which in the immediate rush struck me as a pretty good idea. One shrewd person proposed Taylor Mac, a fascinating thought. Elisabeth Vincentelli wrote a piece for the New York Post in which she suggested, among others, Hayden Panettiere, Daniel Radcliffe and Katy Perry; inviting comments separate from Elisabeth’s article, The Post asks, “Do you think America’s ready for a boy Peter? A tattooed one?” avoiding the more pressing question I ask.

I have no doubt there were many other ideas bandied about. But I never saw a single suggestion of a performer who was not white.

Jefferson Mays as Peter Pan at Centerstage in Baltimore (Photo by Richard Anderson)

Jefferson Mays as Peter Pan at Centerstage in Baltimore (Photo by Richard Anderson)

It’s interesting that no one felt bound by gender in their musings, even though the slightly pre-adolescent Peter is typically played by an adult woman. That sense of traditionalism went right out the window (though hardly for the first time, since men have played the role before, mostly in the non-musical version). But if the Mary Martin-Sandy Duncan-Cathy Rigby dynasty was certainly up for reinvention within minutes of the announcement, why didn’t racial diversity come to anyone’s mind? Does no one remember Brandy as Cinderella in the 1997 TV movie of the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical, playing opposite a Filipino prince?

Granted, NBC wants a major star with the drawing power that Carrie Underwood brought to Sound of Music. If talent were the sole criteria, two performers who I think might be terrific in the role are Nikki M. James and Krysta Rodriguez. I’ve read that NBC would like to cast a male actor as Peter, and I’m sure there are countless famous choices who would suit – I wonder what Bruno Mars might do with the role.

Audra McDonald and Carrie Underwood in The Sound of Music

Audra McDonald and Carrie Underwood in The Sound of Music

Of course, this breadth of thinking need not apply only to Peter: since Sound of Music and the 1999 TV movie of Anniewere wise enough to cast Audra McDonald without getting tangled in the net of perceived historical accuracy (these are musicals, not textbooks after all), perhaps the Darling family and Captain Hook need not be staunchly Victorian white.  I have no doubt that the corps of Lost Boys and pirates will be cast multiculturally (the Spielberg film Hook helped set that standard more than 20 years ago), since that’s the “easy” route, but it’s the leads that must show the wider world.

Brandy and Paolo Montalban in Cinderella

On a related note, I am concerned about the play’s retrograde (albeit fantasy) version of Native Americans. Having never seen the Peter Pan musical (NBC is showing a remarkable knack for picking shows that highlight gaps in my theatergoing, or perhaps my childhood, as I was also new to Sound of Music), I do wonder how the character of Tiger Lily and the songs “Indians!” and “Ugg-A-Wugg” play today, not unlike Annie Get Your Gun’s now often-excised “I’m An Indian Too.” I must leave that to those better versed in the material. And don’t get me started on how it portrays Captain Hook, one of dramatic fiction’s better known disabled characters.

Obviously I didn’t see every fantasy casting tweet, and even within the 1,000+ folks that I follow, I may have missed suggestions of actors of color. Yet the reflex of those around me, one of which I quickly endorsed, were all monochromatic suggestions, and that’s where my concerns lie. Many years after repeatedly hearing of Michael Jackson’s dream of playing Peter Pan (admittedly with a troubling overlay unique to that man), we revert to the dominant race in England from the era when the play was first written, rather than flying towards a spectrum of color on our way towards the third star to the right and straight on ‘til morning.

Breaking down blinkered thinking about race is an enormous opportunity, especially when the vehicle for doing so is a beloved family musical. The ball’s in your court, NBC – and in the court of all you dreamcasters too.

One Response to “Commentary: What Color Is Peter Pan?”

  1. Monterey says:

    Though I like the fact that women have traditionally played Peter Pan, (how often does a women get to play a lead role outside of female stereotypes?), Bruno Mars is really sticking in my head now. Also, if you’re looking for a better treatment of Captain Hook, the TV show “Once Upon a Time” actually does a good job of exploring different possibilities for the character (albeit not with an actor with a disability in the role).

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