White Supremacy and American Imperialism in Newsies: A Conversation

Hopeful Brendan: Hello! Today we’re here to talk about the representation of race and ethnicity in the musical Newsies, specifically in the 2017 recording. Cynical Brendan, I believe you came prepared with an assertion you’d like to make?
Cynical Brendan:Thank you Hopeful Brendan, I did indeed. I believe that a frank analysis of the choices made in this production — including but not limited to casting, lyrics, dialogue, and character portrayals — shows severe undertones of White supremacy, specifically in the form of American imperialism.
Hopeful Brendan:Well, that’s quite a claim. I’m not sure I agree, but let’s get into it: you mentioned casting, we can start there. What about the casting do you think contributed to White supremacy? It cast a lot of White people, sure, but that’s clearly not the same thing.
Cynical Brendan:You’re right, in itself it’s not. It becomes a problem when White actors are systematically cast to play almost all of the unionizing newsies in a story about the American labor movement, when that same movement has had serious issues throughout its history with being exclusionary toward people of color. And we’ve got to remember that this performance was cast relatively recently; methods of race-conscious casting were clearly viable and in use in other historical fiction theatre. Even fully “race-blind” casting would have provided more diversity that we saw — but the creators of this show chose to use neither, instead just casting almost exclusively White newsies in what’s hard to see as something other than an attempt to sweep race issues under the rug.
Hopeful Brendan:Alternatively, we could see it as an attempt to portray a class struggle rooted in historical reality without adding in some illusion of racial unity that wasn’t really present. Sure, I don’t think the casting was actively anti-racist, but I don’t think it was particularly racist either, just giving a reasonably accurate portrayal of the world of the show. In support of this view, look at the character of Medda Larkin.
Cynical Brendan:Oh? What about her?
Hopeful Brendan:I think she’s a good example of incorporating a Black character into a predominantly White setting without tokenism, revisionism, or reliance on stereotypes. The writers have discussed how Medda was based on a real-life Black vaudeville performer, Aida Overton Walker, and the actor Aisha De Haas builds on that foundation, bringing the character to life onstage in a very dynamic way. And it’s not only the acting: just look at the way Medda is introduced. Every piece of the production, from the glamorous costume to the set backdrops to the attention-grabbing lyrics and music of “That’s Rich,” demonstrates Medda to be a confident and self-possessed Black woman exercising control over space. In a show that has a lot of victimization, she isn’t portrayed as just a victim — we see her wielding real power in the plot.
Cynical Brendan:I’d argue that your analysis overlooks the fact that she’s only able to access that power through proximity to wealth and imperialism. But I’ll concede your basic point: the character of Medda Larkin does show that the writers and director put some thought into their portrayal of minoritized bodies onstage. The casting is only a preliminary warning sign anyway. My main concern is the unacknowledged subtext of White American imperialism and manifest destiny, for instance in the recurring “Santa Fe” songs.
Hopeful Brendan:Okay, I’m fine shifting to that point. Do you really see those songs as conveying a message of imperialism?
Cynical Brendan:Certainly a message that buys into imperialism. It’s all there in the lyrics: that whole 19th-century fantasy of manifest destiny, the idea of a vast untouched wilderness just waiting for White people to come along and claim their new homeland with a palomino-riding cowboy lifestyle — ignoring the fact that the whole region had been more or less an active war zone for the better part of the century, feature systematic violence against indigenous people. And “Santa Fe” presents this expansionist myth as aspirational, through musical devices that express more raw yearning than anything else in the show.
Hopeful Brendan:But hold on, let’s talk about that yearning. Because I agree that it’s there, but I also think it’s pretty clearly presented as an unrealistic fantasy that doesn’t actually exist anywhere but Jack’s head. Katherine remarks on how he “paints places he’s never seen,” and eventually even he refers to his image of Santa Fe as a “made-up world.” It barely has anything to do with the literal place Santa Fe; he might as well be talking about Elysium. What’s important is the role it plays in the story, and that much is made clear by Jeremy Jordan’s acting and singing choices at the end of Act I: it’s an imagined escape from the horrors inflicted on him and his loved ones by capitalism and state violence.
Cynical Brendan:Does that actually make it better though? Yes, the show definitely portrays his fantasy as unobtainable, but never really as undesirable. And from the lyrics in the final scene we see that when Jack realizes his idea of Santa Fe doesn’t have much substance behind it, he turns instead to a rosier image of life in New York City. Is he just swapping out one exclusionary fantasy for another? Another paradise for the White working class that doesn’t spare a shred of thought for who else might have occupied that space? If anything, the fact that it’s framed as a refuge from capitalists and cops just makes it more dangerous, because it plays right into the sort of imagery that racist economic populists depend on to make themselves appealing.
Hopeful Brendan:Okay, I vaguely see where you’re coming from but this is all getting a bit abstract. Can you point to anything specific within the show that actually ties it to manifest destiny, beyond the use of New Mexico as a hypothetical destination?
Cynical Brendan:Sure. Teddy Roosevelt. The concept of manifest destiny made manifest.
Hopeful Brendan:Oh?
Cynical Brendan:Yeah, in our big climactic moment who else comes in to save the day but Medda’s good friend Theodore Roosevelt. Theodore “The Winning of the West” Roosevelt. Theodore “nine times out of ten a good Indian means a dead Indian” Roosevelt. And every single piece of theatrical text and subtext presents him as nothing but a heroic leader and a father figure. Listen to his endearing bluster, look at his stately costume, look at the blocking as people position themselves around him in the scene. Above all look at the role he plays in the plot, carrying Jack as close as he gets to his westbound dreams — a ride in his carriage, if you will. And sure, you can be a massive racist and still do things that help White unions, but they don’t get to hide behind history here because the real-life Roosevelt didn’t do anything to resolve the 1899 strike. This one’s all on the musical’s creators. And if they can expect viewers to just ignore the reality of Theodore Roosevelt then they’re expecting us to ignore substantive race issues altogether, to live in this fantasy world they’ve created where Santa Fe is Camelot and any White politician who’s good enough for Rushmore should be good enough for us.
Hopeful Brendan:Wow. Okay. I don’t know. I think there’s a sense in which it’s impossible to tell stories about White American history without glossing over hugely important bits to turn things into a cohesive two-hour narrative; there will always be another set of horrors to unpack. But maybe that’s just me being cynical.
Cynical Brendan:Yeah. I don’t know. I think there’s a way to avoid giving those horrors positions of prominence in your work if you’re not prepared to at least gesture at the existence of a bigger and darker picture, a way to tell the story you want to tell without playing into dangerous romanticizations. But maybe that’s just me being hopeful.