Last Saturday I went to the Palace Theatre in Manchester to see Avenue Q, which can probably best be summarised as Sesame Street for adults. The themes explored are not suitable for “little monsters”, as the poster says.
Going to preface this by pointing out all the good things. The singing was superb, the acting & puppeteering was amazing, the writing had lots of moments of being both clever & funny, and both the music & its performance were first class. Too bad about the racism then.
More than a little bit racist
The show started with what “What do you Do with a B.A. in English?”, a short cute song reflecting on how poorly University prepares students for the real world. It then morphs into “It Sucks to be Me” which introduces all the main characters and their problems. This was going reasonably well until they introduced Christmas Eve, a Japanese therapist who plays into a straight up caricature of Asian stereotypes.
Several people have pointed out that the idea is to mock the token diversity found in the kids shows that AQ imitates, and even the original actor spoke about this:
“To me, a stereotypical character is someone whose entire reason to be there is to provide some sort of comic relief because they speak funny. Whereas Christmas Eve’s humour comes out of the situation.” - Ann Harad
Even if that was the original message of the show, it’s a message that’s been lost in 13 years of productions. The accent was amped up, more noticeably in her song “The More You Ruv Someone”, and was certainly the butt of almost all Christmas’ jokes.
The racism went beyond just this though. As part of the show self-referential, self-critical stance we get treated to a number called Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist. Here’s a snippet:
“If we all could just admit // That we are racist a little bit, // And everyone stopped being // So PC // Maybe we could live in - // Harmony!”
Yes, everyone is (at least) a little bit racist, and acknowledging that is a good first step into reducing those prejudices. The problem comes from how the song uses this to argue that it’s then okay to make jokes at the expense of people of colour and several other American minority ethnicities.
The show has other problems too which bothered me, such as the poorly handled suicide jokes and the token gay character (who was of course closeted, flamboyant, and sexually desperate), but I feel like I’ve gone on a bit too long at this point so I’m going to bring it to a close. It did have its moments, but honestly coming out of the theatre those were far from my mind.