High School Cancels Tarzan Musical Because Parents Said It's Racist
"I think if we decide we’re just going to immediately hair-trigger cancel anything that might make anyone uncomfortable, we’re missing a chance to teach.”
Add Disney's Tarzan to the list of theater productions no longer tolerated on a school campus.
Alexander Hamilton High School in Elmsford, New York, had planned to stage a musical based on the Disney version of Tarzan. But the production was canceled just before auditions due to concerns from some parents.
According to The Washington Post:
"'The concerns were over the original story line behind 'Tarzan of the Apes,' Elmsford Union Free School District Superintendent Marc P. Baiocco told the Journal News, referencing Edgar Rice Burroughs's story, which was first published in 1912.
Baiocco added that the parents were also troubled by the possibility that nonwhite students would appear as apes onstage. According to state education data, the district that includes Alexander Hamilton serves a diverse student population. More than 50 percent of students are Hispanic or Latino and about 23 percent are black or African American.
'They just were worried about the portrayal of our students in terms of students of color and whatnot in that,' Baiocco said of the parents."
So these are two different objections: First, that the source material, Tarzan of the Apes, is problematic, and second, that students of color might be dressed up as apes. It would be wrong to say that both concerns are entirely unfounded. (The novel, like many things written more than a hundred years ago, is no doubt flawed by modern standards.) But here's a pertinent question: Did any of the actual students share these objections? The Post article puts it all on the parents, who must seemingly be placated at any cost.
"One of the things that we're working on this year is a big equity push in terms of making sure that we're equitable in everything that we do," said Baiocco. "One of the messages that I had conveyed to parents at the beginning of school year was that if one person felt uncomfortable with something, please let us know that. We want those voices to be heard."
Susan Van Buskirk, who directed a Tarzan play at another high school, pointed out that there are real downsides when a school defaults to knee-jerk censorship the moment anyone complains:
"'The whole point of theater is to reflect society and discuss society, whatever it is you're seeing,' Van Buskirk told the Journal News. 'I think if we decide we're just going to immediately hair-trigger cancel anything that might make anyone uncomfortable, we're missing a chance to teach.'"
This development follows the cancellation of an anti-racist play at Washington College because some members of the campus community said any depiction of the Ku Klux Klan—even as the villains of the story—would make people feel unsafe.
Censoring depictions of past injustices will not make society better educated about injustice. Similarly, forbidding teenagers from acting out Disney's Tarzan due to past racial stereotypes (and the original source material of the Disney rendition that has since been deviated from) seems likely to reinforce, rather than undermine, past racism.