Can NBC’s New Tiger Lily Overcome The Character’s History?

October 2, 2014

Across many stage and screen adaptations of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan over the past century — such as Walt Disney’s Peter Pan and Hook — the portrayal of the story’s Native American characters has been an ongoing point of contention.

Last week, it was announced that Alanna Saunders will play Tiger Lily in NBC’s musical production “Peter Pan LIVE!,” joining Allison Williams (Peter Pan) and Christopher Walken (Captain Hook).

“I’m beyond thrilled and excited,” Saunders told me in a brief phone conversation. Saunders, who graduated in June 2014 from the University of Miami, was recently in the Connecticut Repertory Theater’s productions of Gypsy and A Chorus Line. She tells me she has ties to the Cherokee Nation on her father’s side. Her paternal great grandmother, her representative tells me, was part of the Cherokee Nation. (Indian Country Today reported that NBC actively sought out Native American actresses for the role.)

This news has garnered a much different response than the last time the casting of Tiger Lily was in the headlines. In March, Warner Bros. drew criticism for the decision to cast the white actress Rooney Mara as Pan‘s Tiger Lily. Thousands signed a petition asking Warner Bros. to recast that role. (It didn’t.)

Tiger Lily hasn’t been the most developed character in most Peter Pan renditions; the character is often criticized as representing a whole spate of dated tropes. In Barrie’s play that opened in 1904, Tiger Lily is an Indian princess with a feather in her hair. She’s Wendy’s foil, in a way, a character that has to be rescued — she can’t save herself. On top of this, she has no speaking lines. And in the Broadway version from 1954 — which the NBC production is reprising — Tiger Lily (originally played by Sondra Lee) is still very dated. She leads the crew in a song: “Ugga, ugga, ugga, wuh!”

(Note: When asked about Saunders’ thoughts on Tiger Lily as a character, her representative declined to comment.)

So, as these new adaptations of Peter Pan are slated to drop, Daily Beast writer Kevin Wallon’s question from March still applies: “Who’s as excited as I am to see how they navigate the treacherous ‘Ugg-a-Wugg’ waters?”

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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