Musicals have the power to transcend cultural barriers...audiences are longing for this kind of show. And with the exotic set up of culture clash--the East and the West--there is an opportunity here to have a luscious, sincere, romantic love story.
-Tak Viravan, Co-Director of Waterfall
Set in pre-WWII Thailand, Waterfall (currently playing at the 5th Avenue Theater) is a musical adaptation of a famous Thai romance novel. The current producing artists have switched the race of the novel’s female protagonist from Thai to a white American, in an attempt to appeal to American audiences and create a cross-cultural, “sincere, romantic love story”. They have failed. Written by a male author, adapted by male playwrights and told through the eyes of a male central character, the woman is written only as an object of reference for the male protagonist. Instead, they have created a male coming-of-age story where the woman is reduced to trite characterizations and where “cultural barriers” are only “transcended” through the addition of whiteness.
In this musical adaptation, Noppon, a 22-year-old Thai student, falls in love with Katherine, the 35-year-old white American wife of a Thai diplomat. They consummate their relationship atop a mountain next to a waterfall but politics and cultural differences separate them soon after. Eight years later, Noppon is an influential diplomat who has altered the course of history in his country and Katherine is sick on her deathbed. Katherine gifts Noppon a painting of a waterfall, confesses that she has loved him all these years, and dies.
In the few conversations Noppon and Katherine share, the male playwrights have written Noppon so that his text revolves around his desire to make a difference in the world, while Katherine’s focuses on how out of place she feels as an American in a foreign country and how she’s worried she no longer makes her husband happy. Noppon’s objective is to better himself as an individual, but Katherine’s objective is not so clear--she is written not as an independent subject of the story, but as a point of reference for Noppon’s character arc. The elimination of her character is the catalyst for Noppon’s denouement; her literal death is the only way he can resolve his journey.
In the process of this race-swapping, the original cultural context of the story is lost, and the playwrights have lost their love story as well. They have (unfortunately but predictably) missed an opportunity to empower their new female character. By adding whiteness to the play, producing artists believe they are enabling the entire production. In other words, they think this production wouldn’t happen [be monetarily feasible]-without the addition of at least one white American.
By passively accepting the white, male dominated world they live in, the producing artists fail to present their audience with anything new, useful or challenging in terms of race or gender, nor is the play what they tout it as. Audiences deserve more. Today, American audiences demand women characters who are written as subjects, not as objects. Artificial injections of Americana whiteness and shaky portrayals of women written by men will not and should not be expected to placate us anymore.