Asian-American Actors Oppose the Practice of Yellowface in Theater

Actor B.D. Wong gives the keynote speech at "Beyond Orientalism: The Forum" at Fordham University on Monday, May 2, 2016. (Photo by Eric Bondo)

Actor B.D. Wong gives the keynote speech at “Beyond Orientalism: The Forum” at Fordham University on Monday, May 2, 2016. (Photo by Eric Bondo)

The most egregious example was probably Mickey Rooney, with his caricature of a Japanese neighbor in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” The most common might be “The Mikado,” a classic, or some would say obnoxious and perpetual, piece of comedic British theater. Scarlett Johansson, cast in the lead for the film version of the Japanese manga classic “Ghost in the Shell” is only the most recent.

Yellowface, when white actors wear costumes or makeup to look Asian, is still a problem, the Asian American Performers Action Coalition said.

“The fact that we’re still having that conversation today is worrisome,” said Pun Bandhu, a steering committee member of the coalition. “It’s the erasure of our own bodies, the erasure of our own subjecthood.”

The coalition announced a national initiative against yellowface and brownface at a May 3 forum called “Beyond Orientalism,” held in conjunction with Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. Actor B.D. Wong, best known for his role as a criminal psychologist on “Law and Order: SVU,” gave the keynote speech.

“You can’t win when you have yellowface on,” Wong said. “You’re in the wrong part.”

The Asian American Performers Action Coalition was formed in 2011 to advocate for better representation of Asian performers in New York theater. The coalition did its first study that year and found that only 3 percent of roles in New York went to Asian Americans. At the forum, it released the results of the most recent study, which show clear progress. The 2014-2015 season was the most diverse of the nine years the coalition has reviewed. The number of Asian roles tripled since 2011 at 9 percent, and total minority roles reached 30 percent.

Bandhu acknowledged the progress, but said the industry still needs to improve the quality of roles available to Asian actors.

“A lot of them are specific shows, like ‘The King and I,’ where they’re not necessarily moving the meter on Asian-American stories,” Bandhu said. “They’re tried and true stories that just happen to have an Asian cast.”

Lisa Ho, 34, a dance teacher in Vancouver who left New York frustrated by the poor opportunities available for Asian actors, said the lack of quality roles helps keep yellowface present in theater. Without good roles, actors give up, and then producers claim there aren’t enough Asians to fill a large production.

Ho recalled a production of “Miss Saigon” where the white cast members played Asian refugees.

“That was completely inappropriate,” Ho says.

Bandhu said the initiative against yellowface will focus on conversations rather than confrontation. The group has honed this approach over the last few years. Coalition members held a panel discussion with staff from La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego when it cast a 2012 production of “The Nightingale,” set in China, with only two Asian actors out of a cast of 12.

“Since then they’ve actually commissioned a lot of Asian work and engaged in nontraditional casting,” Bandhu said. “We feel that we can move the meter more by having difficult conversations.”

The coalition announced a series of forums in Los Angeles, Seattle, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago and San Francisco between May and September, and released “A manifesto for visibility” at the May 2 event.

“We are heroes, villains, lovers, slayers, neighbors, idols, deadbeats and your immediate family members,” the manifesto said. “We are funny, but not the punchline to your joke.”

Lily Tung Crystal, founder of the Asian-American theater company Ferocious Lotus in San Francisco, said the campaign against yellowface is particularly relevant this year. Her company recently criticized a San Francisco production of “The Mikado” planned for Lamplighters Music Theatre’s 2016-2017 season. Lamplighters changed the setting of the play to Renaissance Italy.

Amy Himes, development director for Lamplighters, said the company is happy to be part of the conversation and thrilled about its new production of “The Mikado.” Himes referred further questions to a press person who could not be reached for an interview.

Crystal said she appreciated Lamplighters’ efforts, but still had concerns about the script and libretto, which she said have an inherently offensive orientalism.

“The world evolves,” Crystal said. “We don’t do blackface anymore, we don’t do minstrel shows anymore, we don’t show ‘Birth of a Nation’ at the movies.”

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