By Melissa Slaughter
Over the years, yellowface has become a trend again and Asian-Americans are ripping the practice apart with hashtag protests like #MyYellowFaceStoryand #whitewashedOUT. Rightfully so. But what about other narrative devices that are more subversive, but just as damaging. Mainstream audiences seem to think that as long as there’s no blatant Yellowface, then there’s nothing to complain about. Except that racism and prejudice in storytelling is more than just the casting. Directors and producers need to know the tropes that perpetuates racism as well. This simple guide is the breakdown of narrative devices used to undermine Asian-American stories.
Noun; Definition from Oxford English Dictionary:
Make-up used by a non-East Asian performer playing the role of an East Asian person.
Verb; Definition from Merriam-Webster:
Casting white actors as characters who are non-white or of indeterminate race
Whitewashing and yellowface commonly go hand and hand. Look at the 2014 rendition of The Mikado at The Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan Society. White actors portrayed a Japanese characters is definitive whitewashing; their caricatured makeup, costume and poses is yellowface in the highest form.
(Seattle G&S Society’s 2014 production of The Mikado. PC: The Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan Society)
Yellowface can also be found in the 2015 New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players production of The Mikado. As a result of the public outcry, that company cancelled their production and reimagined the show as a modernized piece. White-washing can be found in shows like The Prince of Egypt at Bay Street Theatre, the Hunchback of Notre Dame in an Ithaca High School, and, cancelled production Australian production of In the Heights, and a newly announced Australian production of West Side Story.
Now, is there such thing as reverse white-washing? Think Hamilton, with real-life white characters being portrayed by actors of color. A simple answer is yes; it’s called “non-traditional casting.” but answering yes misrepresents the problem. The problem isn’t just actors of different races portraying other races. The problem at large is there aren’t enough roles of minority actors as is. And to take roles away and give them to actors in the majority is regressive. (This idea of majority actors playing minority is applicable to other marginalized groups as well; straight actors playing queer, cis-actors playing trains, able-bodied actors playing disabled characters, etc.) According to the Asian American Performers Action Coalition’s 10 year study, 15.4% of roles were cast non-traditionally in the 2015-2016 season.
Racebending refers to situations where a media content creator (movie studio, publisher, etc.) has changed the race or ethnicity of a character.
The term was inspired by the film The Last Airbender when director M. Night Shyamalan took visibly brown animated characters from the TV show Avatar, and cast them as white character portrayed by white actors.
An example of racebending on stage would be Hermoine Granger in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. The character of Hermoine has no racial identifiers in the books, was played by the white actress Emma Watson in the films, and has been played by black actress Noma Dumezwemi in the London and Broadway productions of Cursed Child. Dumezwemi was nominated for a Tony and won a Laurence Olivier Award for her portrayal.
In the grand scheme of representation and diversity, theatre still has a long way to go. In Actors’ Equity first ever diversity study, they found that actors of color are significantly underrepresented, have fewer opportunities, and receive lower wages when they are cast. According to the study, Asian-Americans make up less than 2% of National Contracts given to Principal roles in plays, musicals, and stage management. This despite the fact that Asian-Americans make up approximately 6% of the US Population.
Noun; definition from Orientalism by Edward Said
In short, defined as “the way that the West perceives of — and thereby defines — the East,” Edward Said. In practice, it’s the use of East Asian imagery and backdrops as props for Western narratives. Look at the way the Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan Society’s production of The Mikado is filled is Japanese images while still mocking Japanese people.The idea is that there is safety in using white bodies to mimic Asian cultures, without having Asian people in the room.
The 2014 production of Julius Cesar at The Lantern Theatre in Philadelphia is another example. Shakespeare is a format that can, and seemingly has, transformed into any setting. Shakespeare is transcends genre, which is part of its appeal. However, the rules of racist theatre still apply. The Lantern put on a Samurai-themes production, without any actors of Asian-Descent, and without any people of Japanese descent in their production. This, their “samurai” show was a hodge-lodge if Chinese and Japanese imagery, highlighting their almost all-white cast. This from of Orientalism is often just ornamentation, a product of lack of research and superficial desires. Asian images without Asian bodies. For more examples, see the Chicago “Bollywood” production of Pippin, or The Royal Shakespeare Company’s Orphan of Zhou.
Then there’s the La Jolla Playhouse productions of The Nightingale. The story was based on a Danish short story set in ancient China, and there were two Asian-Americans in the play out of a cast of twelve. The show was a blend of multiple cultures, pulling from the first form of Orientalism, using Asian images as set-dressing. But the show was still based in medieval China, but with mostly a white cast. There were two Asian actors cast in supporting roles. The lack of Asian actors is a lack of representation. And representing an Asian country without Asian bodies is Orientalism.
(Kimiko Glenn in The Nightingale. PC: La Jolla Playhouse)
Noun; Oxford English Dictionary:
A widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing.
Noun; Oxford English Dictionary
Make (something) the object of a sexual fetish.
South Pacific can walk a fine line between an American classic and a racialized mess. Look at the character of Bloody Mary. Her accent can be the butt of every joke if it’s played for laughs. But that makes a mockery of the character, and of Polynesians as a whole. A more thoughtful approach, as seen by Christine Toy Johnson in the 2016 Guthrie production, can create a character with more depth and motivation.
In the same show is Liat, Mary’s daughter. She is beautiful, young, and essentially silent; essentially, she is the Western ideal of Asian women. Though her love interest, Lieutenant Cable, becomes an advocate for interracial relationships, he participates in the fetishizing of Asian women. The song “Younger Than Springtime” is in praise of a woman he’s heard speak only a few sentences and the lyrics focus on youth, and beauty: “when your youth and joy invade my arms….” South Pacific gives the white male character all the lines, and never gives young Liat her own voice.
Noun;Screen Saviors: Hollywood Fictions of Whiteness by Hernan Vera and Andrew Gordon
A model white lead character is portrayed as powerful, brave, cordial, kind, firm, and generous, and…takes on a mission to save people of color from their plight.
For a white savior narrative, look no further than the ever-controversial Miss Saigon. Chris, the American soldier who laments “I’m an American, how could I fail to do good?” He spends much of the show emotionally wrestling about how to save his young Vietnamese lover, Kim. The idea of “saving” Vietnam in Miss Saigon has was documented in Diep Tran’s Op-Ed “I am Miss Saigon and I Hate It” for American Theatre Magazine.
(Alistair Brammer and Eva Noblezada in the Broadway revival of Miss Saigon. PC: Matthew Murphy)
Along with White Savior Narratives is the idea of colonizing narratives. Again, thinkpieces, editorials, and academic papers abound as to what colonizing narratives are. “Colonization” in this case would refer to the histories of colonized nations, and majority folks taking over minority narratives. Like how two French men wrote Miss Saigon, the story of a Vietnamese girl. The French colonized Vietnam for decades. With that in mind, these French writers are writing their own colonizer views into the Vietnamese characters. The colonizer decides how the colonized is represented: poor, pitiful, self-hating and obsessed with the West. That’s the tip of iceberg. The idea of colonizing narratives is rather new, and still without singular definition. Thus, it’s subject to change.
The policy or practice of making only a symbolic effort (as to desegregate)
The aspects of an action, policy, or decision (as in politics or business) that relate to public perceptions
Linked together often are the uses of tokenism and optics. Diversity for the sake of optics (in simpler terms, casting people of color for the image of diversity) is essentially tokenism. Superficial Diversity. If someone does The Cherry Orchard, but all the actors of color are the maids, that’s an issue of tokenism. The production would look diverse, but the optics are such that the narrative demotes people of color as only “the help.”
Tokenism can be avoided by making purposeful, intelligent choices. Linda Park did the necessary work to make her portrayal of Maggie in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof; thus her casting was more than a tick in the diversity box.
Noun; Oxford English Dictionary
The unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society
Cultural Appropriation is a hotbed of discussion. The definitions of appropriation, with its terms and limits, is still under discussion at large. The topic of cultural appropriation has garnered dozens of contradicting academic papers and even more journalistic editorials. This there’s a multitude of definitions for any given situation. Cultural appropriation can also be conflated with cultural exchange and cultural appreciation.
An easy analogy is that of music. In the 1950s, the Black South had their own blue stars. One of the Mama Thornton, had her song become a hit record. Except she never recorded it; Elvis Presley did. Elvis took her Delta Blues song “Hound Dog,” recorded his own version and sold it to millions of Americans. He appropriated her song for his own gain. A majority person (white, cis-, straight male) appropriating from a minority (black female) for his own gain.
In theatre it’s not so cut and dry. One could argue that the “Little Cabin Of Uncle Tom” Ballet in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I appropriates from Thai Dance. Or that Gwen Stefani appropriated the Harajuku look for her own gain. There will probably never be exact terms of what is appropriation, appreciation, or exchange. Cultures will continue to evolve and cross-pollinate, and the limits will inevitably change. As with tokenism, the best one can do is do the work to make intelligent choices. Putting the right people in the room, as directors, producers, writers, and designers, especially if they are a minority, will help avoid this pitfall.
http://www.dailyherald.com/entlife/20170616/king-amp-i-tour-resplendent-with-strong-cast-sumptuous-designs (Michiko Takemasa as Little Eva in the Broadway Revival of The King and I. PC: Matthew Murphy)
The fact of the matter is, conversations around race are hard. They should uncomfortable, and they should be messy. Because that’s how progress is made. That’s how are is made The act of creation and act of revolution overlap in extraordinary ways. It’s no surprise that activist and artist are titles that sit side-by-side in a bio.
It’s also no surprise that directors, and producers will sometimes label artists of color as “difficult” when artists speak up against narrative tropes. Keep speaking up. Keep pushing forward. Keep telling personal stories that important. Because at the end of the day, representation matters.