How Midsummer Night’s Dream Addresses and Tackles the C-word

Vy Nguyen

The word “chink” not only means a crack or a high-pitched sound, it also has been used as a racial slur against people of Chinese descent or East Asians in general. There are still a lot of disagreements within the East Asian community on the use of the word, and here is how the OES play Midsummer Night’s Dream addresses and tackles the word. (I have chosen to replace the word with “ch–k” from here forward.)

The original script written by Shakespeare in the 16th century mentioned “ch–k” on three separate occasions. At the time, the word was used to refer to a crack. It wasn’t until the 19th century, with the influx of Chinese people to America, that the word “ch–k” became an offensive epithet against this immigrant group. There are a lot of opinions on the offensive origin of the word. Many used it as a derogatory term to describe the stereotypical East Asian appearance (slanted eyes) or to mimic the sound of Chinese immigrants’ skulls hitting the railroad in San Francisco in late 19th and early 20th century.

One of the initial goals of OES’ Midsummer Night’s Dream is to tackle outdated Shakespearean language in the “larger conversation about modern language, naming, and identity” (according to notes from the directors). A few ways the musical has worked to critique language and how it changes over time  is through careful revisions of problematic gender and power portrayals discussed and finalized by members of the cast and crews. When Kitty G. and Zhiyin L., both international students from China, were asked by Peter Buonincontro and Emily Stone, the directors, how they wanted to deal with the word “ch–k” in the original piece, they were given a choice: should they erase the line from the play or should they incorporate it into their work, and, in a dramatic moment, banish the word out of use? They opted for the latter. However, feedback from opening night made clear that the scene was confusing and unclear to the audience. Many mistook it for a joke about race. At worst, it reinforced usage of language many OES students don’t support. Based on student feedback from opening night, performers iterated and adapted the scene. 

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Kitty G. ’22 and Zhiyin L. ’21 on stage

I participated in conversations the day after the opening with Peter, who explained the process by which students deconstructed and revised the play. This is truly a student-led and owned adaptation and I am struck by the thoughtfulness that went into the work. 

And, through our conversations, it was clear there was a miss— the scene that included the word “ch–k” was confusing and unclear. The production team was responsive and took feedback to heart. Yesterday afternoon, immediately after meeting with a group of concerned students, the box office issued an email to everyone who attended the play on Wednesday to apologize for the mistake and explain the correction going forward. 

As a member of the audience for their second performance, I felt that their adjustments in the play incorporated the feedback well while still honoring Zhiyin and Kitty’s powerful performance.

This incident opened the venue for conversations that are long overdue, though it is regretful that it began the way that it did. All in all, the cast  was quick to recognize their mistake, own it, and work extensively to correct it with members of the larger community. I would encourage everyone to go see the play and engage in challenging conversations about language and its impact. This performance reminds me of the essence of theater—it really does help us clarify our values and be our best selves. Shakespeare would be proud of the cast.