I believe that Theatre for Young Audiences (TYA) is a cultural pedagogue. As corporations further their reach into today's world, I am interested in interrogating what these companies "teach" young people vis-à-vis their popular performances like The American Girls Revue. Viewing the production confirmed my suspicion that children would be indoctrinated into consumer identities and encouraged to avail themselves of the plethora of American Girl products available in the adjoining shop. More surprising and perhaps more troubling for me was the Revue's implicit yet deeply embedded hegemonic discourse that prescribed social roles based on children's race, class, and gender.
The Revue framed itself as an act of consumption well before curtain time; even my short walk to the theatre was part of a larger performative event that thrived on the commodification of "America" and girlhood. While strolling down the brick-paved central avenue of The Grove—the upscale outdoor shopping plaza housing American Girl Place—I passed manicured gardens, viewed a choreographed water show, and stood aside periodically for passing trolleys. Street musicians' songs, farmer's market aromas, and the sight of endless retail establishments evoked the essence of twenty-first-century Main Street USA à la Disney. The experience hailed me through all my senses and thoroughly interpellated me as a consumer.
Upon entering American Girl Place, I obtained my ticket from the "concierge desk" (a term seemingly preferred to "box office" and perhaps indicative of patrons' expected social class) and was directed to the theatre. To reach this space, I first had to pass through several large retail areas where young people could buy dolls, books, multimedia products, child-sized clothing, and a plethora of other American Girl consumables. Once I was seated for the performance proper, rapid exposition revealed a meeting of an "American Girls Club," the members of which were portrayed by eight mid-elementary-through middle-school-aged actors. From the first words of the overture—"Look to the past, learn for the future"—the production was steeped in educative rhetoric. The girls, initiating new club member Laura, needed to teach her how it functioned.
Although Laura was unsure of her role at first, the others quickly assured her: "We'll teach you everything." The leader declared, "Let's show Laura how we play American Girl," and expounded the show's [End Page 303]
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plot: each girl would act out the story of her favorite American Girl; they would use their imaginations to "see what it was like in earlier times." I poised my pen, eager to see how this particular revisionist history would be constructed, and noted that as the characters performed for Laura, they also modeled how audience members could form their own American Girl Clubs (naturally requiring the purchase of dolls and accessories from the adjacent shop).
As the stories unfolded I was struck by a casting choice: each contemporary girl's "favorite" American Girl appeared to be one of her own racial identity. If empirical signifiers such as skin tone are reliable indicators of ethnicity, the black actor's character favored the African American doll, the Latina actor the Mexican American, the Native American the "Indian," and the five white actors the European Americans (Asians, Pacific Islanders, and others are not, it seems, "American girls"). While such "ocular proof" of an actor's ethnicity is disputable, they clearly read as representatives of certain identities through personal characteristics and costuming choices. Although some might argue that such casting simply indicates a preference for naturalism (perhaps only white actors can "authentically" portray European immigrants), to me, this tokenistic casting has deeper ideological implications—something is indeed being "taught" here. As Toni Morrison notes, "American" means "white."
Social learning theory suggests that audience members identify with characters similar to themselves and adopt their ideologies and behaviors. If this is so, the Revue is highly prescriptive of ethnic...