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One of the most well known examples of yellowface casting is Jonathan Pryce as the Engineer in Miss Saigon, which sparked controversy when it transferred to Broadway.

One of the most well known examples of yellowface casting is Jonathan Pryce as the Engineer in Miss Saigon, which sparked controversy when it transferred to Broadway.

My previous post about yellowface casting, prompted by the current London revival of the Stephen Sondheim-John Weidman musical Pacific Overtures at the Union Theatre, seems to have hit a nerve. I had over a thousand page views in the first 24 hours the article was up, and various people commenting on Twitter, Facebook, direct message, and in the comments section on this blog. So I thought I’d take the time to follow up and prepare this FAQ guide on the subject that addresses a number of points raised in these discussions.

What if there aren’t any/enough ethnically Asian actors who show up at the auditions?

In a recent interview, Pacific Overtures director Michael Strassen commented, “I was disappointed only one Asian actor applied but then didn´t show for the audition.” This article, helpfully pointed out to me by @CaroleinCanada on Twitter, confirmed for me that it was not an intentional conceptual choice on the director’s part to exclude ethnically Asian actors in his production.

But I do wonder what kind of outreach was done to encourage more actors of Asian descent to audition. I don’t know enough specifics about the Union Theatre, so I’m going to make my comments a bit more general now. The bottom line is that if theatres do not have a history of casting in a diverse manner, it’s less likely that actors of color will show up to an open call. Also, if you’re doing a show that has roles originally intended to be played by actors of a certain race, then it is your job as a director/casting director/producer to find people who fit that bill. That often means actively taking steps to expand the pool of actors who might typically show up to audition for your theatre. You can’t just assume they’ll find you. You have to make an effort.

What about artistic freedom?

I do have sympathy for this line of thought, as I think a director and/or playwright has the right to realize their creative visions in the way that they think will work best. However, I think a parallel question to this must also be considered: What about artistic responsibility?

I’ve taught a class in Autobiography & Performance a few times, and one of the things I emphasize to my students is the need to take responsibility for the images and representations they’re putting out into the world. It’s not simply a matter of relaying funny and/or interesting stories. You have to question your own privileges and perspectives even as you craft tales that are meant to entertain, provoke, or otherwise affect audiences.

A similar principle applies to casting, or indeed any kind of theatrical representation. You need to be aware of the messages you are sending out and make sure that you are comfortable with them. So, if you’re doing a show and you’ve cast non-Asian actors in roles that are ethnically Asian, know why you’re doing it and be prepared to accept responsibility for how this could be interpreted. Claiming afterwards that you thought it was a harmless choice and that you’re surprised that people were offended just doesn’t cut it anymore.

Isn’t it just sour grapes on the part of Asians who didn’t get cast?

This was a big part of the discussion of the 1990 Miss Saigon yellowface controversy in which Jonathan Pryce played the Eurasian role of The Engineer on Broadway. Asian American actors like BD Wong raised a stink about the fact that producer Cameron Mackintosh didn’t even audition Asian American actors for the role before deciding on bringing in Pryce, a Caucasian actor who originated the part in London. A prevailing thought bandied about was that Wong and other protesting actors were just jealous.

I should mention that my thinking on this particular topic has been heavily influenced by reading Helen Zia’s Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of an Asian American People, Karen Shimakawa’s National Abjection: The Asian American Body Onstage, and Dorinne Kondo’s About Face: Performing Race in Fashion and Theater, which all have chapters that comment on the controversy, and which over the years I’ve assigned to my students to read when I cover this history in one of my classes.

In her chapter on Miss Saigon, Kondo answers this criticism by claiming, “Such a view mistakes hurt feelings or individual inconvenience for systematic historical domination.” This is key.

If I’m complaining about the fact that there’s a bunch of white guys in London playing Japanese, it isn’t because I personally wanted a role in the show. What I’m recognizing is a more pervasive pattern of inequality that normalizes the ability for white actors to represent a racial other, and the history of colonization and imperialism that has made that possible.

How come you rarely hear people complain when an actor of one Asian ethnicity is cast as a character of a different Asian ethnicity?

In her book Asian American Panethnicity: Bridging Institutions and Identities, Yen Le Espiritu makes a useful distinction between “Asian lumping,” meaning the indiscriminate grouping of all Asians together (i.e. all Asians look alike) and “Pan-Asian,” signaling solidarity across ethnic lines for people of Asian ancestry. In other words, it’s a politicized distinction that speaks to the way the development of Asian American theatre was part of a larger Pan-Asian identity-based movement.

I interviewed director Stafford Arima a couple years ago for a preview piece that I wrote on the new musical Allegiance when it was at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego. The show – now Broadway-bound  – is set during World War II, and concerns the internment experience of Japanese Americans. It stars the Japanese American George Takei, Filipina Lea Salonga, and Chinese American Telly Leung as all part of the same Japanese American family.

The preview I wrote then wound up being more a profile of Takei, so I didn’t get to use much from my very engaging interview with Arima. One of the things we spoke about was this very question about cross-ethnic casting within Asian American theatre. He told me, “I think that casting an Asian-centric show like Allegiance that’s specifically about Japanese American experience, one can say to the casting director, I only want to see Japanese performers – whether they’re from Japan, from America, Canada – but only Japanese. And obviously, we didn’t do that. The most important thing is creating the essence of character, and if we can create an ensemble of extraordinary actors and singers and performers who give us the essence of these families, then if you’re Korean it doesn’t matter. If you’re Japanese, it doesn’t matter. If you’re Filipino, it doesn’t matter. What does matter is the commitment to telling the story and to an understanding of that journey.”

Is insisting on Asian-specific casting a racially essentialist position?

In recent decades, we’ve come to understand that identity categories such as race, gender, and sexual orientation are social constructs. That means that the way we interpret differences regarding skin color, genitalia, and sexual behavior is determined by the values and conventions of the societies that we live in rather than transhistorical essences tied to biology that remain constant regardless of time period or geographic location.

So, while it may once have been thought that black Africans were genetically inferior and therefore appropriate to be made to serve as slaves, this was not an essential characteristic of blackness. Similarly, the idea that a woman’s place is in the home was a social convention of an era that we have hopefully left behind, and not an essential attribute of the female gender.

How does this translate to discussions about casting? If you start with the idea that race is socially constructed, then that implies that it is not actually necessary to be a part of a preexisting identity category in order to take on signifiers associated with it. After all, isn’t that what acting is all about? Playing someone who is different from you? You don’t have to be a murderer to play Macbeth and you don’t have to sleep with your mom to play Oedipus. So why should you have to be Asian in order to play a character that is Japanese?

But this argument only works up to a point. Remember how I said that identity is a social construct? That means it has effects and meanings determined by the society that we live in. Race is not a neutral value. We, as a society, project meanings onto racial constructs, and that has everything to do with the relative power and privilege that certain groups have historically possessed. And while we might be willing to suspend our disbelief in regards to the fictional lives of various stage creations, we often get stuck on the way they are physically embodied. So, if a character is said to be Asian and we see a white guy in yellowface, we’re going to read into that. It is tied to a history of unequal representation, both on stage and off.

A belief that identities are socially constructed is not out-of-keeping with political organizing around such identities. Postcolonial theorist Gayatri Spivak coined the term “strategic essentialism” as a way of deploying existing identity constructs for specific political purposes. Therefore, the insistence that Asian characters be portrayed by ethnically Asian actors, which is advocated by organizations such as Asian American Performers Action Coalition and British East Asian Artists, is a strategic use of racial identity categories that highlights the lack of opportunities within Western countries (I’m specifically thinking the U.S. and U.K., but this can apply elsewhere, as well) for actors of Asian descent.

There is a related discussion to be had here about non-traditional or color-blind casting, but this post has already gotten longer than I intended, so I will save that for a future blog entry.