How Mary Zimmerman Handled Kipling’s Racism and Misogyny in a New The Jungle Book Musical

The adapter extraordinaire dives into the controversial aspects of the story she’s staging at the Goodman Theatre.

Design: kelly rickert/courtesy of the goodman theatre

Director and playwright Mary Zimmerman has been hard at work adapting The Jungle Book for the stage at the Goodman Theatre (June 21 to August 4). She’s already shared how she went about creating the new musical, but she also took some time to answer how she reconciled some of the story’s more controversial aspects.

You spent a lot of time researching Rudyard Kipling before adapting the musical. What did you think of the man, especially his politics in regards to India?
Kipling’s politics are pretty terrible and pretty undeniable. One thing I learned though, he came by them honestly. His parents left him at age 8, he and sister were left at a facility where both were systematically abused. He’s written about this in his autobiography.

He also writes about the discovery of reading and how reading saved his life in that situation. His exoticizing of the jungle, his romance with it was psychologically well earned. He was taken from his childhood paradise there [in India] and abandoned. He wrote his first Jungle Book stories in Vermont, under three feet of snow. The way his imagination has overcompensated for that loss is in his writing.

The Jungle Book, and King Louie in particular, has been criticized as playing into racial stereotypes. Was that a concern when adapting the film?
Yeah, it was a concern. But I’ve decided to make it not a concern. I know what the lyrics say and how squeamish you can get about that. But we’ve done some things with casting that I’m not going to give away, but that I think will remove that element. I know what the lyrics of [“I Wanna Be Like You”] say, but look at the original—it’s sung by Louis Prima. He’s the King of the Swingers. It’s something I think where the racism is in the eye of the beholder, you know? If you look at that as racist, doesn’t that say more about what you’re projecting on to the character? There’s clearly politics in the [British] accents Disney used, but I don’t think we’ll be using accents at all.

Look, if you wanted to eliminate every masterpiece or painting created by someone who had moronic ideas about status and race, you’d have to empty the museums. You’d have to tear down the Taj Mahal. That was built by slaves you know. People are so layered—no one is all good or bad. There are parts of them that are better than the other parts. Sometimes I feel like righteous indignation is everybody’s favorite emotion these days.

Having been in India I realize most of the stuff we know about India is from books written by Westerners. But you go over there and you see that the British occupation was so short in the history of the country. No one is sitting around moping about the raj. You have to remember the past, but you don’t have to live in it.

What about the lack of female characters in the film? Did that bother you?
It’s thematic. There’s something deliberate about the lack of women in the story, something deliberately significant. That little girl at the end is the call out of the jungle. Although there will be more women in the cast than in the film.

I’m not bothered by Kipling’s lack of female characters. Girls are incredibly adept at slipping into the shoes of the male pronouns. It’s like, okay, this story wasn’t written for me but I’m going to take it anyway.

What do you hope the audience in general takes away from the musical?
That’s a capitalist question. I feel like it’s enough for shows to be experiences. There is no object that you take. I hope what audiences have at the end is a sense of the incredible wonderment of being a child. Children have one foot in reality and one foot somewhere else.

Mowgli’s whole world is enchanted—everything is new. I love to travel so much because it makes me feel young, because you don’t know what’s around the corner. You get that feeling of encountering the world for the first time over and over.



1 year ago
Posted by andrtsao

"But you go over there and you see that the British occupation was so short in the history of the country. No one is sitting around moping about the raj" - Perhaps, Ms. Zimmerman, but the entire modern history of India, as it is for many post colonial nations, is that of trying to emerge from the shadows of exploitation and lost identity. If you do work that was created in that context, you owe it to yourself as an artist of some elevated consciousness to see the whole work, not just the parts you want to. In that way, you are as imprecise as the people you consider "too critical". Context is meaning, no matter what. We are aware of George Eliot's circumstances as we read Middlemarch as much as we are aware of Wagner's when we watch The Ring. They were also self-aware, as was Kipling, to some degree. Sorry to say, I AM sitting around thinking about the British colonization of China which directly impacted who I am as a teacher and artist today.

1 year ago
Posted by Winston Evans

What an incredibly facile, conceited, dismissive attitude for a so-called artist - Mary Zimmerman - to take towards serious ethical issues that continue to reverberate to this day. Very superficial; very immature; very egotistical; very disappointing!

1 year ago
Posted by Jamil Khoury

For years I have bit my tongue about director Mary Zimmerman. After all, she is much beloved in Chicago theatre and has even been declared a “Genius.” I simply went ahead with my business, voicing the occasional criticism behind closed doors. Not wishing to risk the wrath of calling out a local star on her reckless, unexamined Orientalism. Well, not any more. Not after reading the interview she gave Chicago Magazine’s Catey Sullivan. An interview so shocking and breathtaking in its insensitivity and apologetics that to remain silent would only erode my conscience. So I am calling Zimmerman out, in the hopes that Chicago theatre makers and theatre goers can begin a conversation.

Visit this link to read the entire essay:

1 year ago
Posted by ChrisK

"No one is sitting around moping about the raj. You have to remember the past, but you don’t have to live in it."

Unfortunately Mary, unlike you, many of us "have to live in it." We have no choice but to "live in it" mainly due to highly offensive statements like the ones you've made in this article.

Yes, we can all comment and tell you to check your privilege.

Luckily, in his post above, Jamil Khoury eloquently enumerates how blinded you are by your privilege, so that I don't have to.

The question is: What are you and the Goodman Theater going to do about it?

Does the Goodman Theater think that you, a director who believes "racism is in the eye of the beholder," are really the best person to do a stage adaptation of The Jungle Book?

Do you think the responses to this article, from the theater community and potential theatergoers, deserve any serious consideration? Or are these comments merely, "righteous indignation ... everybody’s favorite emotion these days"?

Even if you feel terrible and apologetic and agree with all of the criticism directed at you on this page, what can you possibly do about it?

It appears you believe that the "shortness" of the British Occupation in India, somehow mitigates or ameliorates the pain, fear and shame that many of us brown people feel even today. Specifically BECAUSE of this "short" occupation and MANY others JUST like it, all over the world.

Can a person such as yourself, who has NEVER "lived in it," be expected to not only change their beliefs, but then turn around and direct the Jungle Book, a story about us brown people who continue to "live in it"?

Wouldn't it be easier to get a director who had spent their whole lives "living in it?" Someone who understood the nuances of living every day terrorized by the after-effects of colonialism, without having to learn about "it" from The Internet?

I truly hope that both you and the Goodman Theater take a long time to think about this collaborative choice, and similar choices in the future.

There is no doubt that you are a highly gifted director. But perhaps The Jungle Book is just the wrong fit. My hope is that the Goodman Theater will remember this article and the ensuing comments in the future, when pairing certain plays with certain directors.

1 year ago
Posted by andyc

Isn't it possible that all this outrage over Mary Zimmerman and her upcoming production of The Jungle Book is a little premature? I'm astounded at how "chrisk" has already decided that she is the wrong director for this show a full week before the production even opens!

Certainly the representations in the original Disney film were hurtful. Wouldn't it be nice if the revamped Jungle Book was progressive and respectful? At this early stage, we on the outside of the rehearsal room have NO IDEA if the new production will succeed where the original failed.

It seems clear to me that there are people who would object to the Jungle Book being produced no matter what. "It reeks of imperialism," they would say. "Yes," I reply, "it does. Because that's when it was written, inspired, conceived. But that does not mean it lacks value."

Racism is subjective. The accusation can be leveled, but that does not make it true. I struggle, as a white person, to understand how to navigate the waters of race and representation. For Mary Zimmerman to suggest that "racism is in the eye of the beholder" is obviously inaccurate, but it does speak to the impossible position that white people find ourselves in: how to make observations and qualitative judgements regarding race and ethnicity without being labeled a bigot, an apologist, or simply the wrong person for the job.

1 year ago
Posted by James Shuster

How preposterous for Mr Khoury to suggest that this production should be a "a critique of Kipling’s terrible politics"!

In what universe would that be a justifiable interpretation? How would the text support that? Amateur hour in Chicago storefront theatre might permit such reckless manipulation of the literature, but not a theatre like the Goodman.

1 year ago
Posted by RJ

ANDYC - I don't think Mr. Khoury is solely directing his criticism towards Zimmerman's adaptation of JUNGLE BOOK as he is intelligent enough to know that this would be premature. I think his criticism is coming from this article and that being the tip of the iceberg after years of seeing her body of work and no one calling her out on her blatant use of Orientalism embedded within her adaptations of these texts. The very fact that you as a White person would say that "Racism is subjective" is the core of the problem. That by its definition makes you come off as quite ignorant of the problem itself. When you can educate yourself as a member of the dominant culture with the information that is readily available to you and you look further than your everyday experience, you are acting from a place of privilege. The problem truly lies with the fact that there are too many white people in general in this industry who dictate creative decision making and are quite reckless when it comes to responsibly portraying the cultures of others that are not their own. The overall make-up of those decision makers (artistic directors, directors, casting directors, etc) needs to change. JAMES SHUSTER - my question for you sir is why then do the "Jungle Book" at all if one will not examine the inherent infamous racial legacy of this play. Why not just stay home and watch the Disney movie? What's to gain further other than having your child smile at spectacle and patting yourself on the back for spending $100 or more looking at people dressed up as animals. Oh wait, wouldn't that also be compared to a time when people enjoyed watching minstrels on stage? I think your comment and point of view is actually the one that lives in amateur hour sir. Get a life. Overall, I think the times are now starting to catch up to Mary Zimmerman and her overall aesthetic. Despite the fact that she is an esteemed educator and one of the country's most acclaimed directors, she comes off as absolutely clueless in this interview, which I think speaks volumes to her work over the years. Her view of the world is that of a child, quite ignorant of the racial/cultural issues and strife that tend to populate the worlds she depicts so often in her plays. This is why many have criticized her plays as being pretty to look at, but often lacking substance. What makes this particular production of "The Jungle Book" different though is she is finally coming out and laying her cards out on the table. She is basically saying that race and politics is not important to her and that she willfully chooses to ignore an ugly chapter in the history of India in regards to how it affects the present population and focus more on the childlike point of view that has shaped that country. In 2013 where the world is now involved more than ever and connected more than ever through social media, Ms. Zimmerman can no longer have her cake and eat it too. Her blatant disregard of race by looking through the lens of white privilege only discredits her point of view of the world even further. "No one is sitting around moping about the Raj" - Is she one to seriously tell us what people in or from India are thinking about or that the British occupation of India had no affect on them or their day to day lives was not shaped by that part of their history? She - who sits there on her mantle with a Tony Award in one hand and a Genius Grant in another sitting comfortably in her Evanstonian abode? She shoudl notpresume to know what other cultures and other people think. It's fine to produce a stage version of a Disney Kiddy musical that many baby boomers have to come fondly enjoy when they were kids and in turn have allowed their kids to watch, but when it comes to lecturing us about race and how she portrays it or rather should I say exoticize it for the entertainment value of others is a whole other issue. She had an opportunity here to explore race and gender, but she chooses not only to ignore it, but castigate it. Only time will tell what she ends up doing and I look forward to seeing the show - hopefully, it will not follow in step with the rest of her work, but that's being optimistic to say the least.

1 year ago
Posted by Jamil Khoury

"MARY RESPONDS: My Interview with Mary Zimmerman" by Jamil Khoury.

In the interests of providing Mary Zimmerman a forum that is comfortable for her (she does not engage social media at all), she agreed to respond to questions that I would email her. I emailed the questions last night and found her answers in my Inbox this morning. The interview is printed in its entirety.

Visit this link to read the interview:

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