When nostalgically pondering Peter Pan, we suppose that we know what Neverland is. It’s the place you go to forsake growing up for having adventures with pirates and mermaids. Navigating to Neverland is even more instinctual to us than getting pretty much anywhere in Dallas — “second star to the right and straight on till morning” is much easier to understand than I-35E.
In a way, we can reach Neverland simply by stepping into any of the many versions of Peter Pan from the last 120 years. Because of the many books, plays and films about the character, Neverland has been with us since we were kids, and it’s filled us with childlike associations. As we grow up, most of us haven’t stopped to question our innocent understanding of Neverland and the characters we got to know there.
Dark Circles Contemporary Dance is taking the opportunity to ask these questions in their upcoming dance musical Pete, at Hamon Hall, Sept. 12-15.You might expect a re-creation of the Disney film but with more dance and more music, or you might think you’re going to see a version of the 1954 Broadway musical. Even if you don’t have a specific adaptation in mind, you would probably imagine a story about the three young children of a white, middle-class family in London. You would be very much mistaken.
This new version of Peter Pan bears a number of surprises. Its principle characters are not young children but young adults. In contrast to many of the adaptations, but in keeping with J.M. Barrie’s novel, it doesn’t pretend that Peter is a hero and that Captain Hook is a villain. Instead, it sees Wendy as the primary character. And, it makes Wendy a queer black boy.
These changes make room in the story for previously excluded parties. Quintin Jones Jr., who will play Wendy, felt distanced from Peter Pan as a kid.
“It’s not a narrative that I’ve ever felt closely tied to because I never saw myself in it,” he says.
But the highly adaptable narrative of Peter Pan has plenty of room for people of color. Pete pulls the classic story out of its early-20th-century sensibility and introduces it to the modern world with its ensuing issues. Around the same time he had the idea of making Peter Pan into a dance musical, DCCD founder and artistic director Joshua L. Peugh became newly aware of the racial issues hugely and invisibly present in America. There’s no doubt that the story can be told without elements of racial commentary, but allowing the story to encompass that aspect of the modern world lets the classic tale bloom into something revelatory.
Consider the beloved villain Hook. In the novel, a major aspect of his character is an obsession with good form (although the trait is sometimes underplayed in well-known adaptations). The pirate doesn’t just want to destroy his enemies (namely Peter Pan), but he wants to do so with so-called good form. But what is good form for Captain Hook? Lyricist and cast member Kierra Gray sees it as an obsession with “the appearance of things, not the things themselves.” This includes the appearance of Hook himself.
This obsession with appearance pervades our culture, and not just on Instagram. Peugh ties Hook’s obsession with appearance and manners with how many white Americans consider the issue of race.
“We’re so worried about saying the wrong thing that we’re happy just to not have that conversation at all, or we don’t see a space for our voice in that conversation, and that for me is what Captain Hook is," Peugh says. "He’s so obsessed with the idea of having the right manners, saying the right thing, that he’s undone by his own mind.”
Although the pursuit of good form is admirable, it’s no replacement for goodness itself. By making race such a prominent theme in Pete, Peugh hopes to “generate an honest and messy conversation about race and privilege.”
Does this mean that in Pete, our beloved Neverland is transformed into a bitter, monstrous world in which white fragility struggles against the underprivileged sectors of society (with a bit of gender and sexuality commentary thrown in for good measure)? Not at all. These are merely the issues that today’s world tries to escape but ultimately better understands through a visit to Neverland.
“If we don’t expand that world, if we don’t explore in that world freely, then we don’t get to bring that knowledge back in the real world,” says Gray.
And that fruitful return to the real world is crucial. In the original novel, Wendy goes to Neverland to escape the expectations placed upon her as a young woman in London in the early 1900s.
“Wendy is a character who is so dutiful — a dutiful daughter, a dutiful sister,” says Jones of his character. “I think that so closely ties in with the black experience, feeling the need to be the best son possible.”
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As DCCD’s updated version of the story shows, there are no rules about what expectations Wendy is trying to escape. The fact is that she does escape, and eventually returns better equipped to deal with these expectations.
One rule in the realm of Peter Pan adaptations is that Neverland must be wondrous. Although Pete is giving the themes of the work a more serious tone, the heart of the story remains that of childlike wonder, which blends perfectly into the world of dance and music, where people are already embracing a sort of real-life magic.
“I think in a story like Peter Pan it’s much easier to believe that humans would break into song — or mermaid, lost boys or angry fairies would,” says Jones.
The Neverland in Pete will bear all the magic we remember from our childhoods, but it will also let us see something about the real world that hasn’t been present in any other version of Peter Pan.