COLUMN: Deciphering parody and prejudice

Michael Shutack   Theater Columnist

Michael Shutack

Theater Columnist


There came to old Fort Henderson

Young Princess Kickapoo!


Who kept her wigwam warm at night

With every Sioux she knew.

Her tribal dance is worth a glance,

Her hips go pow-wow-wow!

When this papoose says:

“Let’s vamoose!”

The soldiers cry:

“And how!”


These highly offensive lyrics are brought to you by the musical “Curtains” - which was recently performed at Elmhurst College. Written long ago, in 2006, “Curtains” is a parody of musicals from the 1950s. However, the problem with this production is that it fails to deliver true parody.

Parody is the imitation of a particular style or genre with exaggeration for comedic effect. For example, “Space Balls” is a parody of “Star Wars.” ”Austin Powers” is a parody of James Bond. “The Lego Batman Movie” is a parody of all Batman movies. Make sense?

Although musicals from the 1950s were often racist and misogynistic, these particular lyrics and this particular scene in “Curtains” does not exaggerate the 1950s genre; it merely imitates. True parody occurs when the style or genre is inflated to the extreme. In other words, the parody must be larger than life and over the top. Several tap dancing Mormons are funny. One fetishized Native American woman is not funny. “Pow-wow-yikes!”

So how did Elmhurst College’s recent production of the musical handle this horribly racist scene? Not well. Rather than add dialogue to make it true parody or cut the scene to avoid the issue entirely, Elmhurst College Theatre performed the script as written - risque Native American costume and all.

In the theatre lobby, a pathetic excuse about the scene was displayed for the incoming audience to see. In short, the statement expressed that, although the scene “raises all the right questions,” it should not be considered offensive because the show is a parody.

When parody is not written or executed well, it should not be used as an excuse to ignore an offensive performance. Elmhurst College had an obligation to properly address this issue and failed.

While I recognize the importance of preserving theatre, the art must change with the times. This scene might have worked when it was originally performed during the Bush administration, but society has progressed since then and we have a better understanding of what is parody and what is prejudice.