Pantomime today has inherited many racist tropes from its Victorian progenitors, as well as created new ones as the genre evolves. If Victorian pantomime was all about promoting Britain’s Imperial quest, how might today’s be defined?
Let’s consider casting. How often have you seen a diverse cast depicted on a poster or even on stage? In 2018, 92% of performers on that season’s commercial sector posters were white. To this day, it is still the case that black performers are more likely to be cast as the Fairy or Villain with Asian performers most likely to be cast in Aladdin.
If we accept that pantomime is a child’s first experience of the theatre, what does this say when they experience an entire audience booing the only black cast member playing the Villain?
We must accept and acknowledge that certain casting patterns, character dialogue, show narratives, song choices and production design help enforce racist stereotypes. For example, let’s consider black performers cast as Tiger Lily in Peter Pan. Dialogue for this role is frequently written in Pidgin English. The character’s costume almost always exposes and objectifies the performer’s body. Choreography, music and stage effects such as fire and smoke often seek to highlight exoticism. The near extinction of Robinson Crusoe as a title is not evidence of the industry dealing with racism.
Ask yourself how often you see a white performer in the role of Tiger Lily? How frequently are they “tanned up”? Such a question could also be asked of Sultans of Morocco in Dick Whittington, using make-up to darken their skin, speaking with faux accents and issuing death sentences as despotic rulers of far off Kingdoms.
Jokes that use wordplay to belittle non-Western cultures appear frequently in pantomime. In Peter Pan, the use of toilet humour and puns for Native American names and titles is rife, as is the pop culture Anglicization of Lakota word “hau” complete with hand gesture. Many a pantomime contains comedy routines around the inability of English-speaking characters to comprehend what others are saying.
But it’s not only Peter Pan and Dick Whittington that must be challenged. In Aladdin, Chinese surnames become the butt of jokes, with additional material often based on the pronunciation of R as W. For many Asian performers, Aladdin is the only title they are invited to audition for. If they accept the role, they must contribute to and help reinforce racist stereotypes. Why are there still singular Asian performers in productions where fellow white cast members use mascara to elongate their eyes, constantly place their hands together in a praying gesture, wear black cropped wigs and enter or exit to "Chopsticks" or "Chinese Laundry Blues"?
For black performers, Aladdin often means donning an afro wig and playing a 1980s disco-inspired Genie or Slave of the Ring; neither character afforded a name and one directly referencing slavery. If it’s not disco, then black performers are frequently cast as two-dimensional characters purely defined by musical genres motown, hip hop, soul and reggae and forced to perform stereotyped gestures, speech patterns and cultural references.
How many black performers have been cast as Fairies and made to sing "Fabulous Baby" or "Believe in Yourself" as their big number? Why is it that Sister Act, The Wiz, Dreamgirls or The Supremes always seem to be the default music choice? Why do some directors routinely insist on either an American or Jamaican accent?
Relegated to the realm of non-human, these magical Immortal beings work solely to make the Principal Boy or Girl’s dreams come true. But there is also a more recent stock role that requires attention: the Animal Comic.
From Rude Boy to Rapper cats in Dick Whittington and breakdancing cows in Jack and the Beanstalk, the walking-talking comedy sidekick requires black cast members to play an animal who is owned by and serves his or her master. Are these roles contemporary pantomime's Man Friday?
When reduced to such stereotypes, these characters reinforce white people’s reductive perception of black culture. Celebrities aside, how often have you seen a black performer cast as the Prince? How often have you seen a black performer cast as the Princess?
But it’s always been like this, hasn’t it? Good old-fashioned traditional Christmas entertainment! Wrong. Conscious decisions have led to the genre being what it is today. Rather than inherit its past and restage it each season, the only way to break the chain is for creative teams to sit up and take stock of the situation. Why do we keep using the same characters, tropes and settings? Such standardisation was never the case in the Victorian period. The excuse of tradition is lazy. In reality, it’s much more cost effective to re-use a script, score, set of costumes and scenery again and again. Innovation should lie at the heart of the genre in order to make it relevant, interesting and exciting.
London’s Theatre Royal Stratford East and Hackney Empire have been doing this for decades, with other in-house producing venues following suit. Their productions innovate the genre, address its racist past, embrace diversity and respond to contemporary issues. Why can’t the Slave of the Ring demand to be spoken to by her name? Why not simply rechristen the role? Why doesn’t she receive her freedom? Pantomime can and should be used to confront racism head on. Why are only a small selection of subsidised venues leading the way?
Relevance, locality and topicality are three key maxims all productions should abide by. Producers must ask themselves whether the shows they stage really do depict contemporary culture and society in a positive light, rooting themselves firmly in the community and present. Do audience members only receive negative portrayals of race? Do they only witness black characters that seek to reinforce cultural stereotypes? We need fully rounded characters that challenge racist tropes and present positive and inspirational role models.
To achieve this, venues need diverse boards and creative teams. How many black pantomime writers were commissioned last season? How many Asian pantomime directors were employed? Greater diversity and greater representation lead to greater engagement with theatre and keep the industry alive. Two black dancers in an Ensemble is simply not enough.
We need to see an end to all-white casts. We need to see an end to tokenistic casting. We need to see an end to characters, narratives, song choices and designs that enforce reductive and racist stereotypes. We need to see greater diversity in our bands, on our stages (front and back), in our creative teams, on our posters and in production meetings. Only then can pantomime not only survive, but thrive.