Logan Trask, Sarah McDonald and Christine Pascoe pose for a photo during a dress rehearsal one day before opening night of “Curtains.” McDonald plays the character Princess Kickapoo.

This year’s homecoming musical “Curtains” includes a murder mystery, dance numbers and a show within a show that depicts a Kickapoo Native American played by a white actress. 

Based on the book written by Rupert Holmes, “Curtains” had its first debut in 2007 with music by John Kander. It was then nominated for several awards, according to The play is set in the 1950s.

In an interview with The Bulletin, director and associate professor of communication and theatre Pete Rydberg explained that the scene features a “show within a show” that is based on the musical “Oklahoma” and is referred to as “Kansasland.” The character known as Bambi in “Curtains” is an actress who plays a character named Princess Kickapoo. The Kickapoo character has a dance number in the Kansasland performance.

Denise Low, a Native American, 2006 to 2008 Kansas poet laureate and professor at Haskell Indian Nations University, feels the scene encourages stereotypical representation that wouldn’t be tolerated with other races.

“Would they do this with a Jewish person?” Low said. “Would they do this with an African American? Can you imagine what the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) would say over representing some kind of blackface or some of the 1950s stereotypes of African American people? It would just not be tolerated.”

Rydberg, however, defended the decision.

“Certainly, there are going to be people who absolutely find it incredibly hard to imagine any scenario where the representation of an indigenous person would be caricatured in this way,” Rydberg said. “And it’s an absolute caricature, it is not an acceptable representation, but it is a commentary on the historic, unacceptable representation.”

Rydberg said he did make slight modifications to the lines and the visual representation of Princess Kickapoo. The character will not be wearing any kind of headdress or face paint during the scene. 

“As far as modifications, I would say the only modification that I’ve made is in the score,” Rydberg said. “Bambi as she plays Kickapoo does a ‘whoop, whoop, whoop,’ kind of like war cry as she enters. And I did not think that that was useful.”

However, Low says these changes are “a disservice” of Native Americans today.

“I really appreciate people trying to do some diligence in removing War-hoops, for example,” Low said. “But to perpetuate a stereotype in the play, does not serve native people. It’s for a white audience, not Native people.”

Sarah McDonald, freshman psychology major, is a white actress that is playing Bambi. McDonald said she did have concerns about the scene initially. 

“I grew up in Flagstaff, Arizona. And so I grew up surrounded by Native American reservations,” McDonald said. “And so this is definitely never something that in my personal life, I would go do. But I just have to keep reminding myself that it’s not me. It’s Bambi. And it’s in the 50s. This is how theater worked in the 50s.”

A land acknowledgement will be given before the musical begins that recognizes the displacement of Native Americans. This land acknowledgement is one that is given before every show at ESU, according to Rydberg. 

“I appreciate the fact that they have educated themselves enough to do a land acknowledgment,” Low said. “But those are empty words if they do not also put into action respect for the continuing native people who continue to live on Turtle Island.” 

Performances for “Curtains” will be held at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. on Sunday in King Hall in the Karl C. Bruder theater. 


Editor's note: A previous version incorrectly spelled some last names.

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