Race Representation in The Jungle Book

Before The Jungle Book opened at the Goodman Theatre, director Mary Zimmerman gave an interview with Catey Sullivan in Chicago magazine about how she handled the racism in Kipling and Disney's source material. Jamil Khoury "called Zimmerman out" on "her reckless, unexamined Orientalism" in response to that interview. The two of them then sat down and had a dialogue about it, and Khoury published Zimmerman's emailed responses to his questions and critiques.

This conversation took place before anyone saw the play, but I read it all, blow-by-blow, as it was published through early June. This series of articles prepped me to go into the production looking at race and representation. But I should not pretend these are the only documents framing my horizon of expectation. I had not seen the Disney movie in many years, and while I remember it as not-quite-as-racist-feeling as "Song of the South,” my lingering memory is of a monkey king who seemed vocally coded as African American singing about how he wanted to be a man. I cannot pretend this did not influence my expectations when I saw The Jungle Book musical advertised, when I chose to review it, and as I was going to see it. I purposefully did not rewatch the Disney film prior to seeing the musical, wanting to focus on the play Zimmerman made, rather than the act of adaptation.

 

I purposefully did not rewatch the Disney film prior to seeing the musical, wanting to focus on the play Zimmerman made, rather than the act of adaptation.

 

Some of the lyrics are absolutely problematic and cannot be ignored. "I want to be a man like you,” when sung by a black actor, has inevitable, historic and racist undertones. This repeated lyric jumps out at me every time it is sung in the Act I closing musical number. Zimmerman winks at this problem with a moment of acknowledgment in which the ensemble pokes fun at British colonizing culture, holding up white teacups, sitting with rigid postures, and over articulating their vowels as they sing “I want to be a man like you-oo-oo.” After a moment of this, they make faces at each other, as if to say, "our way is way more fun," and throw their teacups in the air, abandoning the pretense of white, British "humanness" for a more exuberant and physically expressive monkey-ness. 

However, to focus too exclusively on this reading of the scene is to lose the pleasure of a truly charismatic and joyous moment of musical theater performance. Zimmerman has said, of the casting of Andre de Sheilds as King Louie, "In the end, if I hadn't cast him, it would have been because he is African-American. That would have been the only reason—the fear of the past, of the historical discourse, of the stereotypes of the past. I would have just been going along with the wounds of the past." de Shields gives a standout performance of a song with truly problematic lyrics. While the consciously multiracial ensemble dances "monkey" with arms akimbo, a dreadlocked de Shields emphasizes the king's status more than his monkey-ness. He stands tall, embraces moments of stillness amidst the manic dance of the ensemble, and feels quite dignified as scat-singing royalty. Also, he looks like he is having so much fun giving a tour de force jazz performance. It’s hard not to get carried away by his joyous energy. 

Two actors on stage
André De Shields (King Louie) and Akash Chopra (Mowgli) in The Jungle Book.
Photo by the  Goodman Theatre

A more racially charged moment comes in a later scene. The bear Baloo, played by Kevin Carolan, bemoans that the monkeys will "monkey-fy my man cub" and "frizz his hair.” When we next see Mowgli, played by Akash Chopra, with the monkey ensemble, they “monkey-fy” him by giving him a tail and teaching him to tap dance in a highly stylized simian tap number. I may be reading too much into the black origins of tap when I identify the “hoofer” style of tap as historically black, and I admit I went into the production looking for issues of race and representation, but this number, that codes the multi-racial ensemble black, made me squirm a little.

This is not the only time anthropomorphized animals mimic British colonizers—the elephants wear pith helmets, handlebar moustaches, and military medals, following a forgetful Colonel Hathi. The elephants, like the monkeys, seem to be trying to gain status by being more "human"—that is, trying to be like the British colonizers. Because the featured actors in these scenes are either white or fair skinned enough to read white in British colonial-era dress, and because there have been few historic examples of marginalized populations degraded by comparisons to elephants, these moments do not produce the same kind of anxieties around race and representation as do the monkey scenes.

 

The production works within an aesthetic of fusion.

 

Zimmerman and her team are not going for an authentic representation of Indian culture. They are, after all, adapting a Disney movie and a story written by a white man born to English parents in Bombay who only lived there until the age of six. The production works within an aesthetic of fusion. The jazz score integrates Indian orchestrations. The visual world incorporates Indian textile patterns and traditional costume shapes alongside whimsical, fantastical elements. There are moments in which Alka Nayyar dances as a doe, invoking classical Bharat Natyam dance traditions, and in in the closing dance number, Usman Ally feels as though he has stepped straight out of a Bollywood finale. These moments do feel "authentically Indian" to my white, American eyes, perhaps because it is so apparent that these actors have been thoroughly trained in the performance traditions from which the performance samples.  The elements of Indian culture do feel more like spice than meat as they are introduced throughout the performance. They stand out precisely because the dramaturgy, music, and dominant acting style are rooted in western theater traditions.

The closing moment of the production provides an implicit critique of colonialism, as the walls literally close in on Mowgli, now dressed in an oversized white nightshirt and trapped inside a small, dark nineteenth century middle class drawing room. His world has abruptly shrunk. While he is now clearly somewhere safe in the "village of man,” the only way he can access the richness of the world he grew up in is by imagining he can stroke Baloo's nose in the velvet of his wingback reading chair.

On the whole, the source material is steeped in its own historic context, be it Kipling's colonial Britain of the late nineteenth century or Disney's United States of the 1960s.  Both contexts had radically different assumptions about race and representation than we do as contemporary audiences and theater makers—assumptions I, like many artists, find problematic. Zimmerman makes a contemporary musical for a contemporary audience, and in her consciously multiracial casting, attempts to mitigate her source material’s problems as best she can. As Jamil Khoury puts it, "Honest conversations about race, representation, authenticity and ownership are vital to a healthy, robust, representative American theatre.” Zimmerman cannot totally erase some of her source material’s problems, but isn't part of the reason to adapt historic material to engage audiences and critics in a substantial discussion of what has and hasn't changed? The Jungle Book provides a mainstream object of inquiry that can serve as a platform for this important conversation.

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Dani,I followed this whole saga as it was happened as was so impressed by Jamil and Mary's discourse. Now, I'm glad to say, I continue to be impressed by you and your criticism of the show. Your attempt to clearly separate your own personal notions and tastes from what Zimmerman and her collaborators were trying to do from the source material itself. It shows a deep understanding of what artists do. And while you recognize both successful and unsuccessful moments, you do so with a complete appreciation and desire to understand the work behind it. How important and necessary for a reviewer! And how often some reviewers aren't so careful!

CAN YOU PLEASE MOVE TO NEW YORK? WE NEED YOU!

the location of an orientalist... the gaze of a "good slave owner".., the "he is a good father ..i must say...so what if he slaps the mother around"...ALL do and exhibit power and gender roles of the colonizers..ALWAYS!!!! the article does analyse with empathy the space of the colonized and "spoken of"...! these nuances of discussion..is rich and necessary and hopefully calls a RACIST not a NUANCED liberal ...but a RACIST!!!!

I had not read any of the conversation between Jamil Khoury and Mary Zimmerman prior to reading your critique, Dani. I appreciate being pointed to it, recognizing that this new work of music theater is likely to be with us a while. The exchange between them is clear, passionate (on the part of both participants) and smart. I am especially glad to read Mary's extensive, personal responses and that Silk Road printed her answers unedited. I learned a lot about her, her body of work, and her choices in this material from that interview. And I see the range and depth of Jamil's integrity, both in his work and in his commitment to constructive dialogue around difficult subjects such as those raised here. All in all, an energizing morning read so thank you for pulling these threads together for me.

I would encourage anyone reading this critique to read those links, as well, as they are all of a piece and in dialogue with each other. Reading them sharpened and deepened my comprehension of your own contribution here in much the same way they informed yours of the work on stage.

One note for clarity around the author - only to note that Kipling was not making up images of India from early memory. Kipling lived in India and South Africa several times, starting when he returned at age 16 for the next 8 years where he started his writing career. He considered himself Indian (nationally) through most of his life, more than English.

Thanks, Tim. I appreciate the correction. Kipling did live in India for several years prior to writing The Jungle Book (age 16-23 or so) and wrote a lot while he was there. The Jungle Book, itself, was written a few years later, when he was living in Vermont.