I loved Triangle Club from the moment I saw them diss Yale during Princeton Preview, and I’ve been there for every frosh-week, fall, and spring show during my two years here. Indeed, when the Shark Ghosts made a reprise appearance in this year’s frosh-week show, “23&Me,” I was delighted.
Though this year’s fall production, “Once Uponzi Time,” was excellent, it included problematic elements. The show was really cohesive, hilarious, and politically sharp, even by Triangle Show standards. Yet, I found its portrayal of Asian characters unsettling.
Two of its depictions of Asian characters included outdated and inappropriate stereotypes that have figured in the Western media’s portrayal of Asians for decades. Perhaps unintentionally, Triangle perpetuated the tropes of Asian men as easily-bullied nerds or effeminate oddities. These enduring stereotypes must end.
Tim Spladd, one of the show’s main characters, portrayed by the ever-excellent Richard Peng ’20, is, at least before intermission, a bullied and somewhat helpless office worker and number cruncher, though he has several standout moments in the second half. Zachary Lopez ’23, a standout first-year actor, at one point portrays an effeminate bidder at an auction reminiscent of ideas of Oriental strangeness from the early 20th and late 19th centuries. I don’t believe Triangle intentionally perpetuated long-standing stereotypes, but I would urge the club to be more conscientious in the future regarding such tropes.
Much of these tropes’ harm derives from their history. In the mid-1800s, when Asians first began immigrating to the United States on a large scale, American newspapers and magazines were quick to depict them as strange and exotic. Asian women were sexually voracious, as suggested in the 1960 Hollywood production “The World of Suzie Wong,” featuring a Hong Kong prostitute. Asian men, by contrast, were often lacking in masculinity, through either the absence of or exaggeration of certain traits. Today, they are often also seen as set-upon nerds, unable to stand up for themselves as they become punching bags for bullies. Most Asian nerds remain one-dimensional characters relegated to comic relief.
Triangle could have maintained the show’s comedic excellence while also being more aware and subverting these stereotypes. Indeed, it begins to do so after intermission. Peng’s character, Spladd, delves deeper by being both morally upstanding and ironclad in resolve when others attempt to coerce him into betraying his friend and romantic interest. Spladd, in addition to having one of the core emotional scenes in the musical, is also the one who ends the show on a positive note, as he becomes engaged to his fiancé.
One could argue that these positive moments are all the stronger in juxtaposition to the helplessness Spladd displays earlier in the show. Spladd, however, never confronts his bullies from those scenes, making that alleged growth too implicit. We see only one instance in which he displays the strength not to cave in — not enough evidence to demonstrate that he can stand up to the physical bullying he suffered earlier.
I’ve always found Triangle’s incredibly diverse cast and crew, wonderful writing, and social awareness to be its core strengths. Despite its uncomfortable depictions of Asians, “Once Uponzi Time” was no different, and I emphasize again how much I appreciate the hard work, talent, and time it took to create.
Triangle is so often a symbol to me for how playful, inclusive, and thoughtful Princeton and our larger community can be. I hope it can continue to evolve in its depictions of its characters to be a model for theatrical performance.
Richard Ma is a sophomore from Kirksville, Missouri. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.