Featured image: An asteroid overrun by baobabs.
By Henry Reichard
[dropcap]A[/dropcap]n airplane falls from the sky. The aviator, unharmed, finds himself stranded deep in the Sahara, a thousand miles away from any human settlement. He discovers that he isn’t alone. A young boy walks up to him, demands that the aviator draw him a sheep. The boy explains that he needs the sheep to eat the baobabs that are slowly taking over the tiny asteroid he comes from, many thousands of miles away from the Earth.
The Little Prince on his asteroid.
Such is the premise of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince — a fantastical and beloved children’s novel brought to the stage last March, at the Yale Repertory Theatre, by a cast of students of color and queer students. “Grown-ups never understand anything by themselves, and it is tiresome for children to be always and forever explaining things to them,” Saint-Exupéry writes in the novel’s first chapter. The Little Prince is a whimsical and light-hearted story, full of talking animals and petulant roses, yet it’s also surprisingly profound. “And now here is my secret,” a talking fox says to the Little Prince in the twenty-first chapter, “a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
The play, like the novel, is about remembering childhood: remembering what it was like to believe in fantastic beasts and impossible stories, forgetting what it’s like to be a dull-minded adult weighed down by adult concerns. And last March’s adaptation was also about reimagining a European narrative: a story written by a white man and traditionally performed by white actors. Diversity has long been a problem in the Yale theatre scene. Two of the actors in The Little Prince — Meghana Mysore, who played the Fox, and Cleopatra Mavhunga, who played the Prince — told me that students of color are rarely cast in mainstream productions at Yale. “The productions [at Yale] feel segregated,” Meghana said. “It’s either from the onset that the director’s looking for students of color to act in the show, or what ends up happening is that almost all of the lead parts are played by white students.” Cleopatra mentioned that this happened last semester, with Spring Awakening.
The Little Prince befriends the Fox.
For directors who want to use a diverse cast, it’s often difficult to find the right way to acknowledge the actors’ identities. “We didn’t want it to be, ‘You are seeing all of us, and we’re all colored and queer, we want you to focus on that,’” Cleopatra said. “When people put you in a box and say, ‘Okay, this is a colored show,’ it automatically cheapens the value. Because people want to write it off as, ‘Oh, this is good…for a black show,’ or, “This is good…for a queer show.’ Not just, ‘This is good on its own.’” The actors wanted to be themselves — to showcase their own identities — but they also wanted to remain as faithful as possible to Saint-Exupéry’s story and preserve its magic. Rather than dressing up as animals, many of them wore costumes reflecting their cultures. The vast majority of the roles were played by actors of the opposite gender (both the Prince and the Fox are traditionally male). Cleopatra performed with her hair in Fulani braids, but she also put in blonde highlights, because the Fox says that the Prince’s hair is the color of gold.
Coleridge’s oft-quoted observation — that it’s impossible to enjoy fiction without practicing “a willing suspension of disbelief” — is especially true in the case of The Little Prince, a novel that defies credulity in every paragraph. It was perhaps even more true in last March’s theatrical adaptation. Cleopatra towers over the actor who played the aviator, yet in Saint-Exupéry novel the aviator is a grown-up, the Prince a child. The adaptation was filled with such inversions — inversions of gender, of race, of physique — and that made it a difficult show to watch, to fully believe in. After rereading the first few chapters of Saint-Exupéry’s novel, I can’t help feeling that the theatrical adaptation lost much of The Little Prince’s childish simplicity. For most of the first half, my attention was so fixated on the inversions in the casting that I could hardly pay attention to the narrative. I only began to appreciate the magic of The Little Prince in the second half, a little after the appearance of the Fox.
Perhaps this is an unavoidable consequence of reimagining traditional stories. The audience enters the theatre expecting a certain cast, a certain narrative; they are presented with something radically different; and for many minutes, they are too surprised to become wholly immersed in the story. Both Meghana and Cleopatra emphasized that the cast wanted to retain the lightheartedness of The Little Prince while also reinventing it — also dealing with the more sober issue of diversity in theatre. It’s hard to balance these two goals. “We wanted to preserve the actor while also performing the role,” Meghana told me. “As students, we have more to say than just sadness, just suffering. We have joy to convey. We can talk about our childhoods too.”
Henry is a senior in Silliman College. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.