Don’t Let Prejudice & Social Ignorance Cloud Message in Bye Bye Birdie

Elizabeth Bolin, Staff Writer, Advanced Journalism

With the passage of time, many things have gone out of style–silly bandz, low-waisted jeans, and fax machines, to name a few. We have come far since the age of slavery, but discrimination is still a visible American issue that most are sensitive to.

With that being said, this year, Notre Dame Academy’s musical Bye Bye Birdie raises some questions regarding the nature of prejudice that is evident in the show.

Mae Peterson, an elderly character, displays classic racism and stereotyping.

“It can put you on edge,” said Andrea Gilson, director. “Her character represents a type of person we are all familiar with, and she exhibits views and comments that were typical at the time.”

Hannah Vanden Heuvel, a senior who plays the role, admits she was uncomfortable when first reading the lines: “As I learned about Mae and the show, I recognized my character was written to be ignorant.”   

Mae makes a few inappropriate comments but overall is a dramatic, comedic character that highly exaggerates the trials and tribulations of being Albert’s mother.  

Rosie’s response to the prejudice is her pinnacle song, “Spanish Rose,” a song that embraces the Hispanic stereotypes being subjected upon her. Initially, the song appears to be racist, but the ultimate message is that of acceptance.

“Throughout the progression of the show, Rosie ignores Mae’s commentary and dismisses it as the ignorance of a woman who cannot accept changing times,” explained Maya Abujamra, the actress who plays Rosie. “By the end of the show, Rosie decides to spite Mae and expose every imaginable stereotype associated with the Hispanic culture in her song ‘Spanish Rose.’”  

This is Rosie’s away of showing both Mae and the audience that she is not ashamed of her heritages. “By exposing the stereotypes, she embraces her Spanish culture for all its beauty.”

Although Abujamra is not Hispanic, she is cautious in the development of her character.

“I feel honored to be cast as this strong, female character, and I am doing everything within my power to portray her accurately and respectfully.”

Junior cast member Mona Sosa-Hernandez has experienced discrimination like this firsthand.

“I’m a Chicana or, in other words, I am Hispanic.” Sosa-Hernandez’s family is from Merida, Yucatan, although Monica was born in Green Bay.

Sosa-Hernandez detailed the difficulties of living as a minority. “I’ve encountered many racists and many racist remarks, but not once was I ever ashamed of my culture and who I am.”

The character of Mae Peterson is no stranger to Sosa-Hernandez, and the song “Spanish Rose” is a song that needs to be heard in context. “At the end of the show, Rosie is tired. She finally breaks, as we all do, and sings her song ‘Spanish Rose,’ accepting herself and her culture in the face of those who despise it.”

“Bye Bye Birdie aims to exaggerate the social climate surrounding Elvis Presley’s draft into the army while simultaneously telling the story of Rosie, a woman who realizes her independence and the beauty of her heritage, despite the ignorance of others,” said Abujamra.

“The arts – from literature to the visual arts to the performing arts – are meant to provide creative education to people based on our past in order to explain our present.”

Some of the most acclaimed, classic pieces (Heart of Darkness and To Kill a Mockingbird, to name a few) are now criticized as racist and sexist due to the change of times.

Without “Spanish Rose,” the audience would not see Rosie’s growth as an individual, which I believe is the point the number and the musical are trying to portray.

“The audience should keep in mind the time period and lack of cultural awareness when the show was written in 1963, but not let it cloud the overall message of acceptance,” said AbuJamra.