The Native American stereotypes that permeate “Peter Pan” almost drove Kenny Ramos away from a career in an art form he loves.

“‘Peter Pan’ is a very triggering show for me,” said Ramos, an actor and member of the Barona Band of Mission Indians.

“I grew up on a reservation, and even as an audience member the racism left me feeling disempowered and betrayed. Eventually, I ended up quitting theater altogether.”

But last week, Ramos took the stage at the Hippodrome Theatre in Baltimore, launching a 50-city national tour, performing in a show that at one time he loathed. Ramos, a member of the “Peter Pan” ensemble, is originating the role of a character named Acoma, a member of Tiger Lily’s tribe — a role added by Larissa FastHorse, the Native American playwright tasked with revising the script.

“I’ve found my way back,” Ramos said.

“This is the ‘Peter Pan’ that everyone knows and loves, but it’s also brand new. And it’s finally being done with care and compassion and smarts, in a way that isn’t embarrassing or cringey and that doesn’t perpetuate racist stereotypes that harm Native people.”

“Peter Pan” has been a much-produced staple of American theater since the Scottish playwright J.M. Barrie first created the character in 1904. A half-century later, Barrie’s original play was recast as a musical that debuted on Broadway with Mary Martin in the title role as the boy who never grew up.

Even then, the casual denigration of Native American characters who were depicted in the script as playing tom-toms, holding powwows and speaking in pidgin English raised eyebrows.

The 1953 Disney movie contained a song titled, “What Makes the Red Man Red?” while the musical featured “The Pow Wow Polka” with such lyrics as “Ugh a wug, ugh a wug, ugh a wug, ugh a wug, waahh.” At one point, Tiger Lily even refers to Peter Pan as “the great white father.”

Seventy-one years later, nearly every theater professional agrees that “Peter Pan” contains material too offensive to be staged in the U.S. in 2024.

“There is no explanation in the original script as to why everybody was trying to kill the Indians,” said FastHorse, a member of the Sicangu Lakota nation. “The assumption was that if Indians were there, of course you should try to kill them.”

But after 120 years, Barrie’s story has yet to release its grip on the American imagination. The musical’s celebration of the wonders of childhood remains deeply beloved — and profitable. But below the whimsy runs a serious undercurrent about the necessity of coming to terms with the inevitably of death. It’s no coincidence, according to the revival’s director, Lonny Price, that Hook’s chief nemesis is quite literally a ticking time bomb.

“Hook is being chased by a clock,” Price said. “He’s fighting his own mortality, and he’s jealous of Peter Pan because he will live forever.”

The Disney movie alone grossed $87.4 million, while such performers as Martin, Sandy Duncan and former Olympic gymnast Cathy Rigby vied to perform the title role on Broadway. The musical also has spawned cinematic spinoffs ranging from “Hook” in 1991 to “Finding Neverland” in 2004 to “Peter and Wendy” in 2023.

But so far, no one has successfully figured out how to salvage what is magical about the musical while removing all vestiges of racism.

Movie director Stephen Spielberg cut out Tiger Lily and her tribe altogether in “Hook,” but the result didn’t feel much like “Peter Pan.” A 2014 television special, “Peter Pan Live!” kept the original song melodies, but replaced the most objectionable lyrics with words and phrases from the Wyandotte people, one of the Northeast U.S. tribes that are thought to have served as the inspiration for Tiger Lily’s band.

But for Price and FastHorse, that solution doesn’t go far enough; “The Pow Wow Polka” has accumulated so much emotional baggage over the decades, they said, that it can’t be redeemed by a mere rewrite.

“You will not find that song at the Hippodrome,” Price said.

Feb. 17, 2024: Peter Pan rehearsal at the Hippodrome Theatre. Nolan Almeida, who plays Peter Pan, left, rehearses a scene with Hawa Kamara, right, who plays Wendy. (Barbara Haddock Taylor/Staff)
Nolan Almeida, who plays Peter Pan, left, rehearses a scene with Hawa Kamara, right, who plays Wendy. (Barbara Haddock Taylor/Baltimore Sun)

In FastHorse’s revision, the polka has been excised and replaced by a new song called “Friends Forever” with music by Jule Styne and lyrics by Amanda Green, daughter of Adolph Green, one of “Peter Pan’s” original lyricists.

“‘Peter Pan’ is very likely the first musical that many children will attend,” Price said. “We want them all to be able to see themselves in the world we create on stage so that they fall in love with theater and grow up to bring their children and grandchildren.”

FastHorse hit upon the idea of expanding Tiger Lily’s tribe globally. Now, tribal members aren’t exclusively native people living in North America, but instead are the last representatives of Indigenous populations from around the world that are in danger of going extinct.

Ramos’ character represents the Cahokia nation, which built a large and sophisticated city near what now is St. Louis between the 11th and 14th centuries. Other members of Tiger Lily’s band represent vanishing ethnic groups from Japan, Africa, South America, and even eastern Europe.

“Neverland is a place where you never grow old,” FastHorse said, “so that is where endangered peoples come to protect their cultures.”

There’s also a practical reason for broadening the backgrounds of Tiger Lily’s tribe; FastHorse hopes the production will have a life after the national tour.

“We want this show to be performed for generations to come,” she said. “But what about areas of the country where the native population has all been removed and there are very few native performers? I signed on to this production because I wanted to stop the harm. I don’t want anyone producing this show to ever do redface again.”

Nonetheless, FastHorse has added a stipulation to the script that any future productions must employ at least two Native American actors.

“There are so few roles for Native Americans,” she said. “They can find two of us.”

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