The White Gaze Strikes Again: How Memphis (And Broadway) Fails to Tell the Stories of People of Color

By: Sarah Beth Huntley

To be completely honest, I decided to watch the Broadway musical Memphis because it seemed as if it had a focus on telling a story about Black people, specifically with a Black female lead. This was especially intriguing to me as a Black female who rarely sees stories on Broadway told from the viewpoint of people that look like me. And for the first few minutes of the show, I reveled in the stage full of all Black actors performing a style of music specifically crafted by Black people and settled in to watch the rest of the show. I was in awe as Felicia Farrell took the stage in her bedazzled beauty and sang with a voice I would give anything to have. The show had started to get me hooked. And then Huey walked in and the white gaze took over.

For background, the “white gaze” is a term used to define stories that are seen through the lens of a white person, often stories about the empowerment, liberation, or rights of people of color that come to fruition due to the actions of a white person. The late Toni Morrison described it best, saying how it is “as though our lives have no meaning and no depth without the white gaze.” This is more common than you might think; some popular examples on Broadway: Bring it On, Miss Saigon, The King and I, To Kill A Mockingbird, etc. The white gaze is often working in collaboration with white saviorism, or a white person who helps people of color in a self-serving manner, though not always intentionally. Memphis, like many stories, employs both white saviorism and the white gaze through its overall focus on Huey Calhoun, proving that they are still, sadly culturally relevant. 

Within a minute of walking into Delray’s club and becoming the only white person in the room, Huey takes center stage and claims the (Black) music as the music of his soul. He then goes on to use his white status to play Black music for mainstream audiences. This was a good thing though, right? To a certain extent, yes. It was good of him to help Black artists and music become mainstream, especially considering he wasn’t even paid for it in the beginning. However, one of my biggest issues with the show is how the only real stardom that grew out of his programs was his own. Sure, he featured a Black cast on his television program and promoted Black artists both on the radio and on television, but everything came with his name on it. As he grew in fame, the show showed the newspaper articles and photos that only ever used the name Huey Calhoun to describe the shows and concerts he hosted that featured Black artists. The television show that featured an all-Black cast besides him was still called the Huey Calhoun Show. Also, no one on his show (besides Felicia, who I will get to later) became a star due to him. Yes, he highlighted people such as Felicia and Bobby, but no one, due to their presence on the show, found stardom; only Huey ended up becoming a big shot in Memphis due to the programs he hosted. 

Felicia, who became a star in the end, was the show’s chance to really focus on the Black experience, especially when it came to gaining mainstream stardom and a white audience. In my opinion, the show did a great disservice to her character, who seemed to be more of a token than a lead. First of all, I was extremely bothered by her accent, which was a strange variation of Southern that, sadly, made her sound less intelligent (which might have been the point). Secondly, after the opening song, Felicia’s importance only came in relation to Huey, with the rest of her story being tied to Huey’s rise in stardom. And, by the end, it became clear that this attachment was holding her back more than it was helping her. In fact, it is Delray and not Huey who helps her reach national acclaim, considering he is the one who gets the record producer from New York to Memphis. And yet, at the end of the play when she is on top while Huey has basically reached insignificance, she tells Huey he is the reason she is where she is and he ends up center stage performing at her national tour. Her attachment to Huey literally only brought her pain, sometimes even physical, and yet she attributed the positive high she had reached in her life to him. This is further proof of white saviorism, as she provides him with an “all thanks to you” speech that places him on a pedestal he is undeserving of. 

Also, there is another, more all-encompassing issue that is brought up multiple times in the musical but not ever fully addressed: the theft of Black culture. At the beginning of the show, Huey offers to play Felicia’s music and Delray accuses him of wanting to steal their music. It is an issue brought up several times, often by Delray, throughout the show and is denied by Huey. However, the story of Huey and the show as a whole tells a different tale about the appropriation of Black music. Huey’s rise to fame in music allowed him to be attached to the brand of rock n’ roll more than the Black artists he featured. This is proven through the New York label wanting to bring him but not his Black performers to create a national show. Huey had successfully, although unintentionally, attached rock n’ roll music to a white face as he became the highlight of the programs he hosted, despite their supposed focus on Black artists. The appropriation goes deeper though, as the Black music is referred to both as rock n’ roll and rhythm and blues and confusion grows about who actually originated the rock n’ roll genre. This comes to a head when Felicia explains how “rock n’ roll is just rhythm and blues sped up,” giving a slight nod to the overall, often overlooked, trend of white people to take a part of Black culture and make it their own. This idea transcends beyond the musical, due to the fact that most people would associate rock n’ roll music with white artists despite its Black roots. Although Huey, and maybe even white artists in history, did not mean to make the music seem as if it was more him than those who it originated from, it still seemed that way to white audiences and it definitely felt that way to me.

The white gaze and white saviorism that raged throughout this show, the characterization of Felicia, and the appropriation (both intentional and unintentional) in the show made it apparent to me that it had to have been created by white people. One quick Google search told me that I was, in fact, correct. I also discovered that the story of Memphis was meant to be loosely based on the life of Dewey Phillips, a white DJ known for playing Black records. Although the character of Huey was based on a real person, the story of Felicia and Delray’s club was not and led me to wonder what the purpose was of incorporating that storyline was. The story of Dewey Phillips could not have been told without Black people, however, the employment of several main characters that were Black created a story that would either be successful or not so in telling a good, deep story about a Black community. The creators, probably unknowingly, placed a burden on themselves that was completely unnecessary by creating the stories of Felicia, Delray, Gator, and others. By fabricating these characters, they unintentionally shifted the narrative from a story about the rise and fall of a man’s success to how a white man helped Black artists become successful. They created a story about white saviorism when they absolutely did not have to, and that was their first mistake.

Do I think that white creators should not be allowed to tell Black stories? Absolutely not. However, I think the creators, due to their whiteness, overlooked the lens in which they were telling an overwhelmingly Black story. Yes, the main character and main focus of Memphis was Huey, however, they also focused on Felicia’s fame, Bobby’s growth from janitor to performer, Gator’s newfound willingness to speak, and Delray’s steady openness to white people. It is important for white people telling the stories of people of color to focus on the narrative they are crafting, for there are so many stories that try to make a point of elevating Black voices and stories, but feeling the need for a white protagonist to be the amplifier of those voices. Broadway needs to learn from shows such as Memphis as they continue to create stories about and for people of color. People of color should not be diversity tokens or ways to make a white protagonist better by proving they are not prejudiced. People of color should be able to tell their own stories about their struggles, their successes, and their lives. The story of Huey Calhoun (and Dewey Phillips) is not necessarily a bad one. However, I hope next time someone goes to create a show like that of Memphis, they employ characters of color as more than a pedestal for white protagonists to step on.

Tradition! Fiddler on the Roof’s Protection (And Deconstruction) of the Patriarchy

By: Sarah Beth Huntley

From the opening line of the first song of the movie, Fiddler on the Roof  establishes the fact that the entire community works to maintain what they believe is most important: tradition. We see a tight knit community where everyone is involved in everyone else’s business and each high and low in life is felt by the community as a whole as they are bonded over their religious culture as Jews. This story showed some true Jewish traditions, such as in the wedding scene with the canopy and the breaking of the glass and in the opening montages, and beautifully represented the Jewish culture — at least from the outside looking in — except for one thing: the overwhelming presence of the patriarchy. From the way the women are traded around to the overwhelming number of men in the movie, you cannot escape from the power that is tightly held by the men in the community. The worst part is, they pass this off as acceptable because it is seen as “tradition” for tradition’s sake with no plausible reason for why they do things the way they do. This is best summed up in a line by Tevye in which he says “You may ask, ‘How did this tradition get started?’ I’ll tell you. I don’t know. But it’s a tradition.” We see the men act so intensely about the breaking of tradition in the village, but we also see the community — and Tevye specifically — grow and evolve as the younger generation of women tries to take more control of their destiny. Fiddler on the Roof creates a community in which the characters must uphold Anatevka’s patriarchal ideals and traditions to be accepted, but, through the agency taken by Tevye’s daughters, subsequently evolves to understand how tradition can change with the changing times.

As I watched Fiddler, I was immediately engrossed in the story and found myself silently celebrating each time one of Tevye’s daughters got what they wanted and fuming when Tevye refused to acknowledge Chava. As a Black woman, one of the biggest things I notice in the different types of media I absorb is how the women and minorities are treated. It did not take long for Fiddler to show me that the patriarchy was very alive and present within the village of Anatevka and, although disgusted by it and Tevye’s active participation in it, I still enjoyed the musical and the character of Tevye very much. The real question is why? Why am I able to enjoy a story and a character that is, in hindsight, kind of problematic? 

Change. One thing that Tevye and, in turn, the community was able to do was change. Evolve. Grow. At the beginning of the movie, it would be hard for me to not see Tevye as kind of awful — he literally was bargaining his oldest daughter off to a man close to his age. It was also ironic that he argued for his patriarchal control through the lens of tradition, considering the biggest tradition was the upkeep of his religious faith and throughout the movie we see him fail to recognize religious texts or to go to temple. Throughout the story, however, we see him begin to loosen his grip on this idea of his dictatorial patriarchal status being a necessary tradition. Why does this happen? His daughters, the women of the younger generation. Tevye very obviously loves his daughters and wants what is best for them. At the beginning of the movie, we see him thinking that he knows what is best. However, his love for them and their determination to get what they want is enough to show Tevye the error of his ways (if only it were that easy for all of the patriarchy). Women taking active control of their destiny is what impacts Tevye, and the community as a whole, in their thinking of what is right or wrong and I believe that is a topic that deserves more attention.

In the opening song, there are many troubling things that establish the patriarchal dominance in Anatevka. Before the music even begins, Tevye talks about the people in his community, only referring to them as “he” and “him.” The song further establishes the patriarchy as it describes how the men work and make all the decisions of the home while the women take care of the home and children in order for the men to be able to pray (HUH??). It gets even worse when describing the children. The boys are sent to school and wait for the matchmaker to let them know what girl they are going to marry while the girls learn how to keep a home and wait for their fathers to decide who they will be married to (once again, HUH?). Rather quickly, the absolute power that the men have in opposition to the lack of with the women is established. The women are allowed no agency in their lives while the men have all of it, and with no actual explanation for it besides “tradition.” 

We see the direct impact this system has on women in the community through Tevye’s three oldest daughters Tzeitel, Hodel, and Chava, specifically in their song in which they sing about hoping the Matchmaker does not match them with someone with whom they were dissatisfied. This song may seem wild to some — as it definitely does to me — because why should they have to wait on the matchmaker to find them someone when it could be someone old and/or abusive? Tradition, of course. Luckily, after this, the three women each decide to take agency over who they spend their lives with — to the dismay of Tevye — and finally gain some control in their lives and prove that not all “traditions” are good.

Tzeitel takes the first step towards change when she and Motel, the poor tailor whom she loves, make a pledge to marry each other. In the words of Tevye, this was “unheard of.” She keeps this from her father, however, because she hopes the matchmaker will match her with Motel in order to stay with tradition. However, she is matched with Lazar Wolf, the old butcher, and has to beg her father not to make her marry him and to instead let her marry Motel. Not only did this show her taking agency and sparking change but we also see this spread to Motel who, inspired by Tzeitel, takes some agency of his own when he fights back against Tevye’s claims that he is nothing. By the end of this scene, Tevye agrees to this, despite the fact that it goes against tradition and we see no pushback from the community in this decision with the entire village still attending Motel and Tzeitel’s wedding and supporting their marriage and life together. Whether Motel and Tzeitel had married or not, there would not have been any issue from the majority of the community. The real upholder of the patriarchal traditions were men like Tevye who felt their status as head of the home to be their only power in life. Still, the whiff of the patriarchy is still present in this situation, for Motel does most of the talking in this argument and it is the masculinity he begins to present in their argument that makes Tevye begin to consider. We’re getting there, though.

Hodel, Tevye’s second oldest daughter, shows a bit more agency than Tzeitel, feeling shepherded on by Tzeitel’s actions with her marriage to Motel. This first happens when she agrees to dance with Perchik, the girls’ teacher, at Tzeitel’s wedding, breaking the tradition of the men and women in the community remaining separated, especially at weddings. She and Perchik take down the barrier separating the two groups and bring them together through dance, urging on the rest of her family members followed by the rest of the community (even the rabbi, which I personally found hilarious). Hodel then takes things a step further when she agrees to marry Perchik and they (or he, because, you know, PATRIARCHY) tell Tevye they are going to be married and would like his blessing. Despite the tradition of first receiving the father’s permission, Tevye once again blesses the match. Whether he had or not, though, Hodel would be taking control of how her life will go, for she planned to go through with the marriage with or without the blessing. Later on in the movie, Hodel goes to join Perchik in Siberia, even though he has not asked her to. She does this based plainly on how she feels about him and her desire to help him in any way she can. Hodel has full control over where she is going and what she is doing and, despite the fact that this “goes against tradition,” she is still accepted by her father and, in turn, by the rest of the community.

Out of all of Tevye’s daughters, Chava pushes the limits of tradition the furthest, by not just going against her father’s patriarchal values, but also against the traditions of Orthodox Judaism with her marriage to Fyedka who is not Jewish. When discussing the idea of marriage, Chava is the one having the conversation with her father, not Fyedka. Unlike her sisters, she takes the most agency in directly addressing her father with what she wants and not taking no for an answer. Instead of submitting to his disapproval, Chava runs off and marries Fyedka, afterwards asking her father to accept them. He is unable to accept them, but not because of the threat of losing his patriarchal power. He is more worried about losing touch with his faith by letting his daughter marry a non-Jew. In the end of the movie, however, we see Tevye acknowledge Chava and Fyedka as they all depart from the village, and this proves how Chava’s opposition to tradition also led to its growth. 

At the end of the day, Tevye, and the community, learned about the importance of love and upholding who you are rather than the outdated traditions performed only because they always have been. Just as in today’s society, Anatevka learned a real lesson about why the patriarchal control of the men in the community held them all (but mainly the women) back from being able to find joy and love in their homes and relationships. All of Tevye’s daughters made the traditions within the community evolve by the end, just as the community as a whole is having to evolve by leaving Anatevka for many different plains. Not only has the community been changed forever, but the new sense of agency within the three young women would lead to their children growing with the notions of independence and freedom of choice (and feminism). The daughters’ lives as well as the community’s determination to uphold who they are despite going to a different place proves how, by the end of the movie, the community has learned that things change and it is not the end of the world, but merely life. The ending marks the collapse of the patriarchy in the community as they all learn to accept the women as individuals who are allowed to have agency over their lives and still be accepted by the community as equals.

“Western People Funny”: How Anna’s White Influence Led to Tuptim’s Downfall in The King and I

They think they civilize us whenever they advise us / To learn to make the same mistake / That they are making too. 

These lines follow the King’s wives singing about how “western people funny” in the song of the same name. This is a theme that occurs several times throughout the musical, and unsurprisingly so, considering the premise of the show is that an English woman and her son have moved to Siam in order to teach the King’s children. Throughout the show, Anna exercises  her influence in various ways: through her teachings to the children, her interactions with the King, her “civilized” party for the Englishmen, etc. Her push for things to be done as she sees “proper” is often shown without negative consequences, leading the audience to believe that her way is, in fact, the better way of life for everyone. However, Anna’s Western teachings in an Eastern culture were bound to have negative consequences, and this is the case in the form of one very important character, Tuptim. Over the course of the show, Anna “helps” Tuptim both in learning about Western culture and its ideals as well as in her secret relationship with Lun Tha. This help, despite its good intentions, only leads Tuptim to further pain and suffering with the death of her lover. Due to the cultural differences between Western and Eastern gender roles, Anna’s good-intentioned, but ignorant attempts to help Tuptim eventually lead to Tuptim’s downfall. 

Tuptim and Anna are characterized versions of the stereotypes about Eastern and Western women, which is portrayed both by their character and the actresses’ portrayal of them (for this essay, Na-Young Jeon and Kelli O’Hara as Tuptim and Anna, respectively, from the 2015 revival). In Tuptim’s first appearance, it is apparent that she is important and different from the other women, for the King’s many wives sit around him in purples and deep reds, while she enters wearing white and gold. This contrast continues throughout the musical, with her clothing constantly separating her from the sameness of the other wives. As she enters the room, Tuptim lowers herself before the king in submission, submitting not only to him, but also to the stereotype of the beautiful and submissive Eastern woman. She attempts to break out of this stereotype almost as quickly as she falls into it as she speaks back at the king for accusing her of being a spy, but ultimately becomes submissive to him and his wishes as she accepts her fate as his “present.” Na-Young Jeon illustrates this conflict of tone and actions through the way she fires back at the king in tone while still keeping her face lowered to him as all the women — besides Anna — do. This surprising move by Tuptim is less surprising later on when she mentions wanting to read Uncle Tom’s Cabin, referring to it as The Small House of Uncle Thomas. Her knowledge of the novel shows a previous exposure to Western culture, and possible influence, which explains why she both speaks clearer English than Lady Thiang and the other wives and her less submissive nature than the other wives. However, her failure to impose this knowledge coincides with her lack of control in her current situation and in her culture as a female. 

In contrast, Anna represents everything Tuptim aspires to from Western culture. Anna is independent, knowledgeable, and unafraid to stand up for herself. In Anna’s first appearance, she travels alone with her son to an unknown place as the captain attempts to warn her what she is getting into and she promises that she can take care of herself. This independence and complete control of her life and destiny is something that Tuptim desperately lacks and, simultaneously, wants. Kelli O’Hara also uses her costuming and blocking to represent Anna’s “betterness.” In contrast with the red background and surroundings of Siam, Anna wears a lighter colored dress to emphasize her gentleness in a more vicious or barbaric setting. Her dress also serves as a costume that sets her apart from the other women in Siam, and, unlike Tuptim, serves as a constant reminder of her Westerness and its presence in a very different culture. She also highlights her independence further by positioning herself at the higher point of the ship, forcing the captain to look up at her, rather than down as a man in Siam would. O’Hara speaks with a similar tone of voice as Jeon’s Tuptim, however she addresses the man with her head held up in defiance of his questioning her capabilities as a woman alone in the East. Although similar in their characters’ feelings and ideals, Anna and Tuptim are seen by and placed in society completely differently due to the way others view them based on their respective cultures. For Anna, her independence is something that can be supported because it is a Western ideal, however, Tuptim’s culture forces her to be submissive, especially to a man with power over her such as the King.

The King’s relationship with Anna and Tuptim is also very indicative of how the two women are viewed differently despite their similarities. Throughout the musical, Tuptim maintains a quiet resistance to the King due to her love for Lun Tha. Although he is displeased with how she does not feel honored to be with him, he does not show any disdain for her until she openly opposes him during the performance of her play based on Uncle Tom’s Cabin. As the children perform, she hints at her personal connection to the story of Eliza through Na-Young Jeon’s white and gold costume that is similar to Eliza’s (and also correlates to the only other scene where she stood up to the King in the beginning) as well as her hesitation to name certain characters by their character names rather than who they represent in her life, such as Simon and Eliza. However, her emotions become too much and she openly disrespects the King as she lets him know that she feels he has mistreated her and now holds her in slavery as Simon held Eliza. His reaction to this and her later running away is to punish her. Though it is apparent that the King despises women defying him, the violence of his actions is seen as extreme and, most importantly, surprising. This is due to how his multiple arguments with Anna throughout the show have never led to him lashing out violently against her. 

The King’s difference in reactions to the two women is impacted by his different view of Anna due to her Westerness. He constantly refers to Anna as “scientific” and Lady Thiang helps Anna understand this when she questions the head wife for constantly calling her “sir.” Lady Thiang informs her how the King has taught them that women can not be knowledgeable and teachers, or “scientific,” because that is a man’s place. Him allowing Anna — a woman — to teach and share her knowledge, however, shows a conflict to this idea which lets the audience know that the King sees Anna as another. It is obvious that this difference comes from the alienness of their cultures. As the only white woman in the show and the protagonist, the show itself and the King place Anna in an elevated position due to her Westerness (code for whiteness), allowing her to get away with things the King often does not allow women to do, such as argue with him or give him advice, while continuing to show her and her actions, though oppositional, in a positive light. In opposition to this idea, Tuptim, as an Easterner, is shown as being out of place for taking a similar stance to Anna. Her sameness to the women around her, which is illustrated to the similar style clothing of the other wives despite the difference in color, keeps her trapped within the confines of the King’s ideas about how a woman should be and, because she is not white like Anna, he is unable to disassociate her from these ideas. Her Easterness is in direct correlation with her lowliness in his eyes and places her at the bottom of the spectrum versus Anna and her whiteness/Westerness at the top.

The biggest question to be answered is how Anna directly influenced Tuptim to act against the conventions of her culture. Although Anna’s general presence seemingly made the greatest impact as a whole, there were many things she did that directly helped Tuptim develop a Western mindset. First, when the King said Tuptim could help Anna teach the wives English, she begged Anna to lend her books, specifically Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Her lending the book to Tuptim allowed Tuptim to understand the morals and beliefs of (some) Westerners that holding someone against their will was wrong and she connected these ideals to her own relationship with the King. Anna also talked to the women about the importance of true love, something they obviously did not consider since they were all in a polygamous relationship with the King and not in love with him but merely doing their duty as his wives. However, her talk influenced Tuptim who was already in love with Lun Tha. Anna went a step further in helping this secret relationship by providing them with ways to be together. There is even a moment in the show when Lun Tha remarks how if Anna were to leave it would be impossible for them to ever be together without her help. The combinations of these ideas and actions facilitated by Anna helped Tuptim commit the acts that went against the King. If she hadn’t introduced Tuptim to her ideals about love and freedom, Tuptim would never have stood up to the King during her play or tried to run away with Lun Tha. She would have remained like the other women: silent and submissive. 

Anna’s insistence upon helping everyone in the castle be more like her when it comes to ideals and morals was good-intentioned, but her ignorance and lack of understanding of the culture made her efforts have some negative impacts. Just as Lady Thiang and the wives said in “Western People Funny,” she believed that her way of life was the proper way and tried to impose that on them only to make them also make mistakes. Her influence led to Lun Tha, Tuptim, and the King’s death, as well as the influence of Western culture being within the mind of the new heir to the throne. Although Siam had many internal problems, Anna was still wrong for imposing her culture and ideals there in order to make it “better.” The show sets her up to be the hero of the story because, like the white creators of the show, she is showing how “white is right.” This idea is especially wrong on the part of the creators through their presentation of Tuptim for making it seem that she would be unable to have the agency to make decisions for herself without the help and influence of a white person. Their ignorant ideas about Eastern cultures and people’s need to have Western influence in order to have a better way of life creates the idea that one is inherently better despite the fact that one cannot be better than the other. In today’s society, though, in both the world and the conflicts of white casting in The King and I over the years are working to deconstruct that idea and to show that what is more important is seeing things from multifaceted perspectives in order to discover the “right” way to live.