On Friday, June 15, 2018, several of CAATA’s board members, affiliated Pan-Asian American artists, and colleagues attended Jerome Robbins’ Broadway at the 11,000-seat St. Louis Municipal Opera Theatre, popularly known as The MUNY. This group of 15 theater leaders and practitioners from across the country were in St. Louis to attend the Theatre Communications Group (TCG) National Conference. Members of this national convention in general were invited to attend the show that evening.
Many of our theater colleagues from across the country had informed us beforehand that there was yellow face casting used in this show, where a white actor was cast in an Asian role for scenes from the The King and I. Upon actually viewing the play, our concerns were confirmed. The MUNY production included drunken sailors cavorting on stage in stereotypical Native American head dresses and plastic Hawaiian hula skirts, as well as non-Latinx actors playing the role of “Puerto Ricans” in West Side Story—all within the first few minutes of the show. Several of our colleagues from the TCG conference left the show immediately after these examples were performed on stage. However, since the The King and I segment had not yet been staged, our original group of fifteen remained.
Sadly, this segment did not disappoint in its stereotypical portrayals, as most of the actors playing the “Siamese” characters were White, and the White actress playing the character of Tuptim spoke in what sounded like an Asian-accented version of broken English. Stunned and frankly disgusted, our group responded by chanting “Boo, Yellow Face!” in protest until we were asked to leave and escorted out by theatre security and eventually the police. Other TCG attendees also walked out of the theater in protest.
Since that Friday, there have been additional video posts, media coverage, and a follow-up session at the TCG conference about our protest. A video of this incident has gone viral and received over 21,000 views. And we were heartened by solidarity from theaters of color around the nation and the TCG conference staff.
Video of Yellow Face chanters During Jerome Robbin’s Broadway (via Facebook)
Video from TCG “How We Move Forward” Session (via Facebook)
This specific protest of The MUNY raises larger issues about the problematic representations of Asian Pacific Americans and indeed people of color in general.
The MUNY and theaters of similar stature are powerful purveyors of culture. They can concoct dehumanized portrayals of people of color and those without agency by upholding and glamorizing, packaged in glitz and glitter with high production values, minstrel performances for consumption by families and children of all ages in their 11,000 seat houses.
The repercussions of these irresponsible choices—choices that were made either directly or tacitly amongst individual performers, the director, designers, The MUNY’s artistic and administrative staff, their board, and funders—go far beyond hurt and offense. The stories we tell on our stages matter intensely because they implant themselves in the minds and hearts of the youngest audience members and embed themselves into our culture—often times for the worse. Artistic representation can either reinforce or challenge the values of mainstream culture. Precisely what are we reinforcing with Yellow/Brown/Crip/Red Face practices when values like racism, xenophobia, ableism, and denigration of people outside the mainstream are increasingly ascendant? Especially in an age marked by caging undocumented children, Charlottesville, and even Ferguson, these “seemingly innocuous elements of culture” are not so innocuous after all.
Representation does indeed matter.
In light of the mainstream theater world’s continual misrepresentation of immigrants and people of color, we would like to follow the lead of #insteadofredface and offer these alternatives for authentic voices of marginalized communities:
Instead of Brown Face
Attend The Latinx Theatre Commons (LTC) Carnaval of New Latinx Work, July 19-21, 2018, produced in association with Teatro Vista and the Alliance of Latinx Theatre Artists of Chicago (ALTA), and hosted by The Theatre School at DePaul University in Chicago, IL.
Instead of Yellow Face
Join us for the 6th National Asian American Theater Conference and Festival (ConFest) Revolutionary Acts August 13-18, 2018, also held in Chicago and hosted by The Theatre School at DePaul University, Victory Gardens Theater, and Silk Road Rising.
Instead of Red Face
See the World Premiere of Fear of Oatmeal, conceived, written and directed by Muriel Miguel, co-founder of the legendary Spiderwoman Theater currently playing in New York — a partnership between Spiderwoman Theater and Amerinda.
Instead of Black Face
Attend a play at St. Louis’s own, The Black Rep. Founded in 1976 by Producing Director Ron Himes, The Black Rep is the largest, professional African-American theater company in the nation and the largest African-American performing arts organization in Missouri.Instead of Crip Face:Attend Teenage Dick by Mike Lew at The Public Theater June 12 – July 29. Teenage Dick was commissioned and developed by The Apothetae, a company dedicated to plays that explore and illuminate the “Disabled Experience.”