This playwright’s task: Preserve ‘Peter Pan,’ make its racism walk the plank

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When producers approached Larissa FastHorse about adapting a new production of “Peter Pan,” the Sicangu Lakota playwright did not have to think long about her response.

“I said, ‘No, absolutely not. I want nothing to do with “Peter Pan,”’” she recalls. She knew the Never Land story as a trove of racist stereotypes about Indigenous people. “It was something that caused a lot of harm.”

But she had never actually read the text she was being asked to adapt: a 1954 Broadway musical directed, choreographed and adapted by Jerome Robbins. Her agent urged her to at least give the script a look.

When FastHorse read it, she was astonished. Much of the play struck her as funny and smart. The score, by a group of theater talents including lyricist Carolyn Leigh and composer Morris (Moose) Charlap, was gorgeous.

“Honestly, I was really surprised,” she says. “I shouldn’t have been, because obviously it has endured for a long time for a reason. It’s a beautiful piece.”

FastHorse knows her way around a script: The MacArthur “genius” grant winner wrote “The Thanksgiving Play,” one of this season’s most-produced shows. When the team behind the new “Peter Pan” production assured her that she would be allowed to adapt as needed, she signed on.

Her improvements will be on view when director Lonny Price’s staging of the musical runs at Baltimore’s Hippodrome Theatre Feb. 20-25, in the official launch of a national tour that will land at D.C.’s National Theatre in April.

In joining the project, FastHorse became part of a long tradition of artists reinventing the Peter Pan saga, which Scottish author J.M. Barrie spun out in his 1904 play and 1911 novel. Beloved for its swashbuckling narrative and whimsical characters and trappings — Tinker Bell, Captain Hook, Peter’s detachable shadow — the story abounds in resonance. Peter’s perpetual youth speaks to our fear of death and aging. Hook’s crocodile nemesis, which has swallowed a clock, seems a scaly symbol of time. The stage version’s clap-if-you-believe-in-fairies moment celebrates imagination and faith.

But Barrie’s play and novel also include racist caricatures, employing the term “redskins” to refer to a warlike “tribe” of characters who call Peter Pan “Great White Father.” The problem carried over into later reworkings, including the Robbins musical, which originally featured the offensive song “Ugg-a-Wugg,” and Disney’s separate, now notorious 1953 animated film.

But Price, the director, believed the Robbins musical had the potential to be reformed. He had seen the televised version starring Mary Martin when he was young, and found the show’s themes especially moving as he grew older.

The “Peter Pan” narrative is about “the loss of innocence,” he says. “The price we pay to grow up — and the price we pay not to.”

After connecting with the producers of this revival, Price saw a Zoom production of “The Thanksgiving Play,” whose humor, and compassionate approach to hot-button issues, convinced him that FastHorse was the right person to adapt “Peter Pan.”

Once she dug into the project, FastHorse came up with ways to repair the musical’s past mistreatment of Indigenous themes. For example, her Never Land is a place where threatened Indigenous peoples go to preserve their cultures.

“Instead of inventing a whole new concept, I was using the magic that already exists in Never Land,” she explains. “What are the rules of Never Land that J.M. Barrie left us? One of them is that you don’t get old. And it’s somewhere where things are preserved.”

She and Price also focused on building up the characters of Wendy and Tiger Lily, who, Price says, had previously been “wildly undeveloped.” Tiger Lily (Raye Zaragoza) is now the leader of her people, and Wendy (Hawa Kamara) aims to be a doctor.

Playing Peter is teenage actor Nolan Almeida. The musical has a history of starring adult actresses in the title role — Martin, Sandy Duncan, Cathy Rigby — but Price didn’t want to go that route. “Gender is very front and center in children’s minds these days,” he says, so casting an adult woman in the role could be an unnecessary distraction.

In another tweak: FastHorse has set the non-Never Land scenes in modern-day America, instead of Edwardian Britain. The change is part of making this “Peter Pan” a narrative that audiences can see themselves in.

“All children,” she says, “should be able to look out their window and believe that Peter could fly by.”

Feb. 20-25 at the Hippodrome Theatre, 12 N. Eutaw St., Baltimore. 800-343-3103. baltimore.broadway.com. Prices begin at $57.

April 9-21 at the National Theatre, 1321 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. 202-628-6161. BroadwayAtTheNational.com. Prices begin at $59.

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