Yellowface? We’re not talking about the David Henry Hwang play, of course. Despite its roots in racist practices of the 19th Century, Yellowface still pops up regularly on North American and British theater stages, often wallowing in stereotypes and caricature.
Yellowface is more prevalent than many think, and even honored, in a way; there are more white actresses who have won Oscars playing Asian characters (Best Actress Awards for Luise Raines, The Good Earth and Linda Hunt, The Year of Living Dangerously) than there are Asian actresses who’ve won playing Asian characters (Best Supporting Actress for Miyoshi Umeki, Sayonara).
Some examples of Yellowface on film:
Warner Oland as Charlie Chan (1930s), Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), Joel Grey in The Destroyer (1985), James D’Arcy, Cloud Atlas, 2012
And plenty of examples of Yellowface on stage:
Jonathan Pryce in Miss Saigon (London premiere) 1989, Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan Society’s The Mikado (2014), Sarah Bowden, Jerome Robbins’ Broadway (2018)
CAATA wants modern theater to progress from this practice, moving into the 21st Century where Asian artists can stand on an equal footing, whether it’s on a stage for a historically white institution or a stage run by and for Asian American Artists. We’ve assembled information to attack the issue of Yelloface from an array of angles: what it is, why it’s bad, and case studies and examples of (very!) recent occurrences of Yellowface on stage. We’ve also developed a checklist of action steps to take when you spot an instance of Yellowface.
- What Is Yellowface: The Language of Representation
- Why Is Yellowface Bad?
- Action Steps When Yellowface Occurs (In Case of Yellowface, Break Glass!)
- Feeling Yellow: Responding to Contemporary Yellowface in Musical Performance (by Donatella Galella)
- The Academic Case Against Yellowface
- Educating Youth on Yellowface (coming soon!)
- Case Study: The Orphan of Zhao
- Case Study: The Nightingale
- Case Study: The Mikado (Seattle, New York and San Francisco)
- Case Study: Jerome Robbins’ Broadway (ongoing)