The Boy Who Danced on Air may not be the type of show we want, but it is exactly the type of show we need.
The past few weekends I had the unique fortune of experiencing two equally shocking, though qualitatively disparate events: Jesse Green's New York Times review of The Boy Who Danced on Air and Heartbeat Opera's staggering production of Butterfly.
Though Green offers useful structural criticism of a subplot of The Boy Who Danced on Air, his primary grievance is, as he says, the show’s “ick factor.” Citing the now infamous practice of bacha bazi, Green laments that the show revolves around pedophilia and dares to humanize sexual abusers by giving them recourse to song and the agency to resist American invasion and occupation - through that pesky subplot.
While these components are obvious (bacha bazi and the American occupation are cited in the program note), Heartbeat’s careful attention to Butterfly’s libretto as opposed to its swelling music clarified a connection between these two pieces that should be obvious. In terms of “ick factor,” these two stories are fundamentally the same.
I don’t need to offer a spoiler alert for the well-trod plot of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly - in its Heartbeat incarnation or as inspiration for Miss Saigon, David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly, et al. Heartbeat’s Butterfly let the lyrics speak for themselves, reminding the audience that Cio-Cio San has already been working as a geisha for some time when at 15, she is bought - for a paltry 100 yen - to serve as US Navy Lieutenant Pinkerton’s “wife.” His plan is always - and eagerly - to abandon Cio-Cio San for a “real,” “American wife,” in spite of Butterfly’s heartbreaking fidelity, conversion to Christianity, resulting alienation from her family, and devotion to their infant child.
Where Heartbeat diverged from tradition was in its ambivalent conclusion, which refused viewers the sadistic satisfaction of Cio-Cio San’s self-sacrifice. Critically, what most emerged from a May 26th talkback after Butterfly was the contrast between “white male, liberal guilt” or certainty that “that's what Japanese culture teaches people to do,” and relief among women and especially people of color that the production left Cio-Cio San’s end ambiguous, that “she went down fighting” and exerted even the most attenuated agency in circumstances stacked impossibly against her.
For anyone who saw The Boy Who Danced on Air, the parallels should be obvious, leading me to wonder, whose taboo is it anyway - and which?
What was most perplexing in Green’s review was his inability to move beyond his own icky feelings, in spite of substantial praise for several components of the production. If this “ick factor” is teenage prostitution, we should reconsider the velvet glove of Parisian prostitution in Gigi or the rapacious birthright of white men to seize whatever they desire (underage or otherwise), reiterated in Madame Butterfly, Miss Saigon or South Pacific. If incest is similarly icky, foundational works like Oedipus or ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore would be verboten. If patricide is on the table, we should reconsider the undoubtedly adjacent family-slaughter of Medea and its ilk. If our concern is simply violence, abuse or death, we should discount much of the theater corpus that deals with women, people of color, sexual or religious minorities, or the disabled. Still largely relegated to the easily dramatized, low-hanging fruit of disaster porn, these segments (and majority) of the population often remain sacrificial lambs who must be led to the slaughter in order to be humanized, however tragically, reassuringly and cathartically briefly.
What is interesting about The Boy Who Danced on Air, is not bacha bazi - nor Green’s repeated references to the good looks and ages of the actors. The musical insists on pleasures and intimacies eked out in an admittedly foreign context, in spite and as a result of horrific circumstances. In the musical, even as a boy “learns his place,” he decides that is not the lot he chooses. Still, what is most instructive, especially in this moment in America, is that The Boy Who Danced on Air’s characters (even those the audience rightfully condemns) see themselves as good - even God-fearing. These lives are palpably rendered in a culture of violence, including a pedophile who rapes, beats, brands and maims his young charge.
Humanization does not an apology make, nor does singing a good guy make. Instead, these strategies lead only to the perhaps horrifying revelation that sometimes even brutal characters in war-ravaged Afghanistan may remind us of ourselves.
The show - and Butterfly - forces us to confront the fantasy of consent that undergirds plays (and realities) grounded in vast power differentials, whether in Imperial America, Ancient Greece, Elizabethan England or contemporary Afghanistan. Thus, rather than advocate for moral relativism or an apologia for sex slavery, the show resists a Manichean melodrama in which good and evil are irrevocably clear. This nuance is increasingly rare – and anathema to mainstream narratives: Trump’s demands of absolute loyalty; the now discredited heroes and villains of the war in Iraq (and Afghanistan), the racism that underwrites the “Clash of Civilizations” thesis, or much closer to home, the logics of “Stop and Frisk” and the prison-industrial complex.
In an interview with American Theatre's Rob Weinert-Kendt, Jesse Green insists that he is both ready for a good argument and that his strength is argument and effrontery - presumably justification for assuming a position many had hoped would be filled by a woman and/or person of color. Even as the interview purports to confront the difficult identity politics of Green’s hiring, its rhetorical razzle-dazzle ultimately reinstates the authority of the New York Times and that of Green. However, it is not enough to be simply well-intentioned about becoming "woke" - though I'm glad this adjective has infiltrated the lexicon of even a seasoned New York Times critic. As controversy over Shakespeare in the Park’s production of Julius Caesar makes clear, identity politics often lurk just beneath the surface of criticism and particularly hypocritical calls to censor.
Given my proximity to The Boy Who Danced on Air as its dramaturg, my demand is not that the show garner exclusively positive reviews – even though it has elsewhere. In fact, had Green reviewed this show based on its merits, rather than “ick factors” we encounter in theater all the time, he might not have undermined his important structural note. In this case, however, by attempting to silence both that particular subplot and the show itself, Green reiterates the US government’s categorical refusal to acknowledge criticism of its disastrous campaign in Afghanistan and tacit acceptance of bacha bazi (as these suggested links generated by the New York Times on Green’s review make clear).
Of course, this isn’t to categorically discount feelings or white critics, but in this moment of civil deterioration - not to mention the steep cost of entry for new musicals - Green’s emphasis on “ick” is not only lazy, but also dangerous. I reiterate the need to empower diverse critics (and criticism) for whom the cognitive dissonance of humanized, handsome, and heinous Muslims (or criticism of the US military) would have been less of a trigger. Still, like Green, I'm always happy for a good argument but in lieu of credentials and opinion, critics and theatergoers must confront the messiness of the human condition, in order to offer arguments actually worth engaging.