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.
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.