The King and I

The sounds of Rodgers and Hammerstein will fill the auditorium at Eastern Mennonite School Jan. 25-27 as a cast of 60 student performers, crew, and musicians stage The King and I. Student performers will come from all three levels of the school: elementary, middle and high.

The musical, by composer Richard Rodgers and dramatist Oscar Hammerstein II, is based on Margaret Landon’s novel, Anna and the King of Siam. The novel was derived from the memoirs of Anna Leonowens, governess to the children of King Mongkut of Siam -- now Thailand -- in the early 1860s.

King Mongkut, Rama IV of Siam believed it to be in his country’s best interest to understand and engage with the English people who were colonizing neighboring countries. He hired Anna Leonowens to teach his wives and children. The musical explores Anna and the King’s relationship as they learn to know and understand each other’s culture.

The show runs Friday and Saturday, Jan. 25 and 26, 2019 at 7 p.m., and Sunday, Jan. 27, at 3 p.m. in the school’s auditorium. A talkback with the director and actors, facilitated by Ingrid DeSanctis, will be held following Friday’s show. Thursday, Jan. 24, there will be an open dress rehearsal, pay-what-you-will, beginning at 7 p.m. 

Creative and Educational Opportunity

Staging The King and I is creating space for EMS students, staff, and -- they hope -- audiences, to explore questions about culture, race and the role of the arts in education. The director of the current touring revival of The King and I describes its message as “You do not have to be afraid of ‘the other.’”

“This a message we believe,” says EMS director Joy Anderson. “It makes sense for our school to use theater to explore complex topics such as race and culture that are brought up by this production.”

The story presents two complexities. First, it is a story of a white European woman joining a royal court in Thailand, and the meeting of Western and Eastern  cultures. Secondly, it is a play with almost entirely Thai characters being performed at a school with a diverse, but primarily Caucasian, student body.

The professional theater community grapples constantly with race and casting, says Ingrid DeSanctis, James Madison University theater professor who is advising the EMS production team. There are various schools of thought as to who can and should portray whom and how to play those roles sensitively, she notes.

“Because this is an educational setting, you can stage a production like The King and I with careful thought,” says DeSanctis, who co-directed three past productions at EMS.

“The end result can be a truly eye opening learning experience for all involved.”

The production team’s goal is to tell the story respectfully and with integrity, learning about the people, culture and rich history the students will portray. For example, the student performers committed to learning Thai dialogue where the script calls for pantomiming when Thai is being spoken.

Anderson consulted with members of the local Thai community, particularly with Praserth Saesow. Saesow ‘97, is a local restaurateur who is originally from Bangkok, Thailand. Saesow was a resource in the selection of the musical and throughout fall rehearsals.

“When staged in a historically and culturally informed way, the show makes important and timely statements about the complexities of living with people whose backgrounds, values, and beliefs may be different from ours,” reflects Anderson.

“Art -- in this case, theater --  can help us see various perspectives,” notes Justin King, high school principal. “I’m thankful our students are wrestling with questions inherently raised by this production. They will be more attuned to cultural dynamics because of this experience.”

Author's grandson to be special guest

Andrew Pearson will be a special guest at Friday's show and join the talkback panel. Pearson,a Bridgewater resident, is the grandson of Margaret Landon, author of Anna and the King of Siam.

The musical "always generated a special excitement for me growing up as a grandson of Margaret Landon.."reflects Pearson, who is library director at Bridgewater College. "Our family... delighted in finding her name when we saw anything in regard to her novel or the musical. Seeing her name recalls her to memory and all the stories we heard growing up from her and my grandfather, Kenneth Landon, about their adventures in Thailand and the road that led to The King and I. It’s a pleasure to see EMS performing it here in the Valley."