February 22 2017
A production of Peter Pan was met with protests over the weekend, even after an Alberta theater apologized for its planned use of tribal attire, changing both the play’s characters and costumes in response to criticism.
The controversy began when members of the Blood Tribe noticed a promotional photo for the play, which ran Feb. 9-18, depicting cast members from the Carriage House Theatre wearing face paint and buckskin clothing.
Saturday’s protest of the production drew “a really good turnout,” the Lethbridge Herald reported, though it’s unclear how many showed up.
“The issue itself kind of really touched a nerve within the community because, you know, we deal with racism on a daily basis and this is our traditional territory,” said Lori Brave Rock, a First Nations activist, in an interview with CTV News Calgary. “Like I said, it’s 2017 and it’s time for things to start changing.”
The director of Carriage House Theatre’s production of Peter Pan did not respond to Heat Street’s request for comment, sent by Facebook and LinkedIn. The theater has taken down its Facebook page.
But in a written apology to the First Nations people, the theater’s owner, Alonna Leavitt, said that “there was no intent to offend in our production of Peter Pan.”
“But saying that,” Leavitt continued, “in our ignorance, we have offended. … We asked many of the First Nations people to audition—unfortunately they did not. In hindsight, we wish that we would have consulted with First Nations people—or we wish that they would have let us know the offensive parts of our show. We obviously did not have the cultural sensitivity to recognize it for ourselves.”
In response to the criticism, Leavitt said, the theater gathered its production team, changed the costumes, and eliminated the fictional Henny Penny tribe from the show.
On Facebook, Brave Rock criticized parts of the theater’s apology, saying it should have been issued “upon the official logo of the Carriage House Theater with the owner’s personal signature,” and that going forward, the theater should help promote First Nations productions.
“I too am sorry all of this has transpired, it gets very tiring having to endure the cultural insensitivity time and time again,” Brave Rock said, “and if I were in the Company’s shoes I would have cancelled the Peter Pan production all together to send a strong message of inclusivity but again, that’s just me.”
This isn’t the first time Peter Pan has drawn critics. In 2014, Smithsonian Magazineran an entire article titled “The Racist History of Peter Pan’s Indian Tribe.” And when Warner Bros. cast non-Native actress Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily in a Peter Pan prequel, a petition slamming the decision drew more than 96,000 signatories.
To ward off critics, NBC’s 2014 live version of Peter Pan sought out Native American actors, casting a descendent of the Cherokee Nation to play Tiger Lily. The network also reworked some of the score, getting rid of the song “Ugg-A-Wugg” and working with a Chicksaw Nation composer to replace it with music that was more authentically Native American.
— Jillian Kay Melchior writes for Heat Street and is a fellow for the Steamboat Institute and the Independent Women’s Forum.