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Ian Mowat and Joel Baylis in Pacific Overtures Photo Credit: Darren Bell

Ian Mowat and Joel Baylis in Pacific Overtures
Photo Credit: Darren Bell

There’s a production of the Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman musical Pacific Overtures that just opened at the Union Theatre in London that apparently – at least according to this review by Mark Shenton – does not have any Asians in the cast. Someone on Facebook reported that there might be a mixed-race person in the ensemble, but that’s it.

Now, I have not seen this production and so this is not a review. It could be utterly brilliant, and it has garnered favorable notices from the British press. I’ve also been told that this kind of yellowface casting is pretty common in the U.K. and that groups like British East Asian Artists are working to change that.

It’s not unheard of in the U.S., of course. It was done pretty frequently in film with stars like Mickey Rooney, Katharine Hepburn, Warner Oland and tons of others guilty of it. And it’s not limited to the past, as demonstrated in the TV episode earlier this year of How I Met Your Mother in which core cast members donned Asian drag, prompting an outcry from the Asian American community on Twitter that led to an official apology from the show’s creators.

In the theater world, the 1990 controversy over Jonathan Pryce in the Broadway production of Miss Saigon (a British import) is perhaps the most contentious example of yellowface casting, although there have been plenty of productions before and after that to cast non-Asians (usually but not always Caucasians) in ethnically Asian roles. I’ve even seen a few that do this effectively. However, this kind of choice has to be thought through. And I’ve found that directors don’t always realize what messages they might be sending about race when they make certain decisions about casting.

A case in point is another production of Pacific Overtures that I saw, presented by New York University in 1999 under the direction of Marcia Milgrom Dodge. The student actors used were of varying ethnicities, with the diversity of their racial makeup allowing the production to avoid some of the criticism it might have received if the cast was all (or mostly) white. And overall, I found the production quite well conceived and enjoyably performed.

But the production still sparked some controversy, as one of the only roles played by an ethnically Asian actor in the show was that of the daughter of a samurai who is raped by a trio of sailors. What did it mean for this production that the most visible representation of Asian ethnicity onstage was the character that had the least amount of power?

At a post-show forum about the production, Dodge defended her casting even as the young woman who played the role spoke up about her discomfort portraying what was for all intents and purposes a variation of the lotus blossom stereotype. “But you’re so pretty!” I remember Dodge saying, as if that explained the choice. But all it really did was underscore how she could not see the power dynamics at play in the constructs of race that were presented in her production.

Pacific Overtures is an interesting case study, as it is a work created by non-Asians that tells the story of the 1853 “opening” of Japan by the West from the perspective of the Japanese. It utilizes elements of Kabuki in its staging, which already makes it a likely candidate for an overly Orientalist production.

The original 1976 Broadway mounting, as well as the 2004 Broadway revival, featured Asian American casts, led by Mako and B.D. Wong, respectively. I’ve seen the former production on video and the latter live in the theater. And while neither completely escapes the charge of using Asian-inspired elements of costuming and movement as a way of emphasizing the exotic elements of the story, the fact that there were ethnically Asian actors in all the roles did do a lot to make the Orientalist aspect of the shows palatable.

But let’s consider for a moment what the message might be that director Michael Strassen is sending in his London production through his casting choices. On the charitable side, we might consider it to be a kind of Brechtian distancing that ironically comments upon the Western opening of Japan by erasing the representational presence of any Asians. However, even if this is Strassen’s view, it is a highly problematic one.

It actually works against the subversive intent of the musical, which is critical of U.S. imperialism. Instead, it merely reinforces the hegemonic workings of colonial power by denying Asians the ability to represent themselves. Casting non-Asians to play the various Japanese characters also increases the chances that unsavory ethnic stereotyping will occur. Again, I have not seen the production so I do not know definitively if that is the case here. But just looking at the publicity photo reproduced above is more than enough to set off a few warning bells.