Julie Andrews is of course, the epitome of class. This, much like the fact that Oreos taste better with milk, is one of the few truths that remain undisputed in this day and age. Nevertheless, unlike others who are thought to embody the idea of class, Julie Andrews is not sitting pretty in a sedan chair. Her new show “Julie’s Green Room”, a Netflix original production, is revolutionary on so many levels, that whether or not she know its, she is pushing back against years of discrimination and oppression.
However, to some, the theater, where Julie’s new show takes place, is simply a backwards-dying art form that is a traditional stronghold of the misogynist racist patriarchy. Yes, to some, the century-old plays performed incarnate the very evils and stereotypes many progressives seek to combat. To many non-white actors, the theater is a reminder that non-whites are only seen as background players, side-kicks, or stereotypes to be made fun of and ridiculed. And to many women, the “casting couch” is an awful reminder that women’s bodies are not their own, and that those who control the theater’s purse strings, still claim benefits way beyond the scope of monetary re-imbursement.
However, even with all of its issues, lamentable realities, and still antiquated politics, the theater survives, shines, and despite it all, still thrives. Moreover, Julie Andrews’ character, Ms. Julie, gracefully reclaims this space, and re-imagines the theater as a place for all. Many an episode has brought me on the verge of tears and has demonstrated just how beautiful a society that is inclusive can truly be. But how exactly do you lead a revolution with class and poise? How on earth, does Dame Julie Andrews remind us that the status quo is not to be indulged but that it should be rebuked and transformed?
Ms. Julie fundamentally wants to show to her young students, The Greenies, the magic of the theater. She wants to walk them through the spectacular experience that the arts can create. This is the pull of the theater, the suspension of disbelief. This is what the arts call us to do, if only for a moment. However Ms. Julie does not stop at only highlighting the fun escapist tendencies that the theater can indulge, but she powerfully believes that you within this fabulous context of the theater can be just as spectacular as the costumes, special effects, and wonderful stories being shared. She believes that anyone can be anything in the theater. Here you are limitless.
Diversity is often time quoted as a huge obstacle in the American arts scene, and recent boycotts of the Oscars have raised the visibility of this issue. Ms. Julie gleefully jumps into the fray and without saying anything does her own to fight back. Her cast of students (read puppets) is comprised of different races, genders, and abilities. Her characters come from different backgrounds and are of different abilities. Through the virtue of her cast of puppets being diverse, she is saying that not only anybody can perform the arts but she is also saying that everybody and anybody HAS a place in the arts. It is so comfortable so seamless, that it does not have the, let’s be honest, sometimes awkward tone some affirmative action programs have, in which “special” roles or stories are made to give non-whites a pre-manufactured “voice.” The Greenies all participate in all roles. Asian or Latino, an eager young actress can still play a princess. Wheel chair or not, the talented young boy can play the prince. Black or not, the enthusiastic and dedicated budding actor can bring alive the character of a wizard. By simply putting these actors into these roles Ms. Julie is iterating a new reality where color is transformed into new incarnations and representations. The black actor playing the wizard is not whitewashed in order to play a wizard, he simply is the wizard. By putting non-white actors in conventionally white roles, Ms. Julie challenges the idea of how we see certain races and pushes the audience to reconsider the limits that they have imposed on certain individuals and bodies. Furthermore, the show goes beyond living in a “colorblind” world and beautifully highlights the wonder that each culture is. One of the most touching moments of the show is when one of the young students, assigned to play the princess, admits that she wants her princess’ costume to reflect that the princess is also strong and a warrior. It is brought up that princesses around the world do not all look the same, and that different cultures have their own versions of what princesses can be and do. The young actress says that she is Mexican and wonders if her cultural heritage has something to help her capture her own idea of a strong princess. The show insightfully reveals that past Aztec princesses were also warriors, and the young Fizz is delighted with this discovery and immediately sees to it that her princess costume is transformed into a wonderful Aztec princess ensemble. Ms. Julie is also excited with the transformation and Fizz is ecstatic that her costume reflects an empowered version of the character that she wants to play. By looking into Fizz’ cultural heritage, the show honors her roots, and instead of ignoring them, the show engages them and admits that she brings with her a treasure trove of cultural and intellectual achievements. Fizz is able to be her full self and in doing so, she adds to the story and to the magic of the workshop. Had her past simply been ignored, her princess would have been outdated and static. Instead, Fizz’ personality shines, and her racial identity is celebrated, and because it has been affirmed, the traditional view of a princess is challenged, and she is able to give the princess, a modern edge.
However Ms. Julie’s revolution is not confined to only race and diversity. This revolution also upsets gender norms and roles. As mentioned above, the traditional helpless princess is transformed into a warrior princess. Girl is powerful. Girl has agency. Girl can make change happen. However the revolution is a quiet revolution in other cases. Another character called Riley, a young girl, is interested in inventions, technology, and robots. Ms. Julie never says anything but only encourages. Riley becomes an essential part of the workshop as she creates special effects machines, helps with highlighting the achievements of invited guests, and aids in the management of all things backstage on the night on the play’s premiere. Oh, and Riley also plays the jester, a character which by definition is funny, throwing shade at the still believed idea that women somehow are not funny and are not very good at comedy. But I digress! On the show, Ms. Julie fights to break the glass ceiling for all, including the young men in her cast. In an episode about dance, the Greenies learn about ballet and the skill that it takes to perform it. However, the boys in the workshop are turned off by the fact that ballet involves wearing “tutus” and “twirling around.” It is explained that ballet takes an enormous amount of work, practice, and physical strength, and that this art form strives to tell a story through movement. At this moment, the show launches into a clip of people with disabilities participating in dance and ballet. The young boys realize that dance can express a narrative and they consequently understand that indeed anyone can engage in ballet, and that it is something that has no gender but is simply another powerful tool in their arsenal as performers and story-tellers.
But in the end, what is most striking about the show is how it is able to include students of all abilities. The addition of a young student in a wheel chair, having as much fun, fully participating, and adding as much to the workshop experience as anyone else is incredible to witness. Re-imagining life in a wheel chair is necessary in order to see these persons as simply people first. Incidentally I highly recommend the PBS documentary on how the Person’s With Disabilities Act was passed. It is a stunning portrayal of how people with disabilities are full of agency, force, and are masters of their own destiny. So good! But to bring it back home, how does Ms. Julie lead in all of this? Simply by accepting. She never mentions the wheel chair when referring to Hank, he is not “the kid in the wheelchair” he is simply Hank. And she treats Hank with the same respect as all the other students. Still, the wheelchair is addressed in one episode. It turns out (spoiler alert) that Hank is cast as the prince in the workshop’s original production. However the prince has to ride a horse in most of the play and Hank starts to feel self-conscience about his wheel chair. However the Greenies brainstorm and support him in his moment of self-doubt. Together, the students come up with a creative solution and outfit Hank’s chair to look like a horse. The costume is created for the chair, and it works splendidly!
But wait, there is more! As if upsetting race, gender, and perspectives on people with disabilities wasn’t enough, Ms. Julie also challenges the idea of who is capable of intellectual creation and production. What in the world even is that? Well, there is a rumor that has been taken as fact, that states that great works of art can only be found in Europe and the United States. Even in the 21st century, works outside of the “West” are sometimes viewed as quaint trinkets of the primitive past that cannot be compared to a Picasso, Bruegel, or Warhol. This feeds into the false narrative that somehow only those who are Europeans, or their descendants can produce “great” works. Ms. Julie proposes a new world in which everyone’s intellectual sophistication and greatness is acknowledged. The final production put on by the Greenies is an original piece called, “Mash-Up: The Musical.” It is a work of art that was developed through out the course of the workshop’s duration and which reflects the voices of everyone. This single-handily pushes back against the myth that has been perpetuated for centuries that non-white works of art are derivative and not valid and are not full of intrinsic value in themselves. “Mash-Up” is a resounding success, and its triumph shows that people from all walks of life can not only collaborate but also that we can all significantly, strategically, and undeniably magnificently contribute to the arts.
If ever there were a how-to guide for leading a revolution with class, this would be it. But at the end of the day, there really isn’t anything outspoken or difficult about what Ms. Julie does. She simply allows her students to be who they are, and gives them the opportunity to dream. To be limitless.
Perhaps this is why the arts are still with us after all these years. It is one of the few spaces where you are allowed to be what you conventionally are not allowed to express in the outside world. The dream would be perhaps to bring this understanding of space into the world beyond the theater, that perhaps the whole world would become a place where people simply being themselves is enough. But until then, may you start your own mini-revolutions in your own lives, remembering that indeed, the whole world is a stage. 😉