Neverland may be a world where time stands still, but when it comes to what some might consider to be racist stereotypes of First Nations people, one Regina director felt it was time for Peter Pan to change with the times.
When Do It With Class artistic director Rob Ursan started looking at scripts for Peter Pan, he realized he had a big problem with racist stereotypes of indigenous people.
“Peter Pan was chosen kind of by mistake,” Ursan said. “Everyone has a general idea of what Peter Pan is, but the problem is that some of the specifics of the story aren’t quite appropriate anymore.”
In the original play and book, the native ‘Picaninny’ tribe of Neverland are called redskins and portrayed as savages. They speak in gibberish and call Peter Pan ‘Great Chief White Bear’. In the 1953 Disney movie, there is even a song called What Makes the Red Man Red.
Ursan sees that kind of cultural stereotype as offensive and unacceptable for the young performers in his company.
“To me, the thought that we could treat any group with any sort of disrespect is kind of abhorrent to me,” Ursan said.
The show was already announced as the main cast feature production for Do it With Class Young People’s Theatre, and that meant Ursan was stuck. He looked at four different musical versions of the classic play by J.M. Barrie including the Broadway version and the Disney version.
“None of them addressed any of the issues that I found to be distasteful,” he said. “So I sat down and wrote a new one. I just took all the bits out that I don’t think are appropriate anymore and I replaced them with other characters.”
Instead of caricatures who bow in reverence to the white children who rescue their princess, this tribe of natives in Neverland is replaced by empowered female warriors.
Drawing inspiration from the Scottish heritage he shares with the original playwright J.M. Barrie, Ursan wrote about the ancient tribe of Pictish warriors who were led by a woman.
“They were the only people who were able to stave off the hoards of Roman invaders,” he said. “They were a remarkable group of highly-organized warriors and they were led by a woman. Their chieftan Boudica was one of the greatest warriors. Some of the histories of the time talk about her as being an incredibly beautiful woman who was also an incredibly vicious warrior and also a brilliant strategist.”
For teenage actress Sheriton Smith, who plays Boudica, the change is inspiring.
“I thought it was quite an ingenious idea,” she said. “There are some racial problems with the original Peter Pan.”
Watching the movie Peter Pan as a kid, Smith says she never really thought that it was racist, but when she was a little older she started picking up on several negative stereotypes. Thanks to Ursan’s re-write, now Sheritan says she doesn’t have to worry about offending another culture. Instead, she can concentrate on an empowering female character.
“To represent such a powerful character it means quite a lot,” I would hate to represent something that’s racist,” she said.
Ursan’s re-write also includes 20 original songs and a musical score for string quartet, piano and percussion. The production includes a lot of original dialogue and the story still maintains the true essence of the original Peter Pan, while cutting out the stereotypes.
“To me, it’s about play and about wonder and about the childish understanding of what adults look like and how adults behave,” he said.
When audiences go to Neverland this time, he hopes the innocence of a story about children and pirates won’t be darkened by a stereotype that academics have labeled as offensive to indigenous cultures.
“For me, this isn’t being politically correct, this is about being considerate and kind,” Ursan said. “For me, this is about trying to in a very, very, very tiny way, redress something that I think is a terrible slander.”
The production of Peter Pan features a cast of 50 young local performers. The new version has a more comical twist and highlights Scottish dancing. The show runs from March 31 to April 1 at the Conexus Arts Centre.