US play sparks debate over whether Asian actors should play Asian roles

A Washington play has sparked a debate about racial casting and whether Asian actors alone should play Asian roles, writes Jessica Goldstein

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 04 February, 2014, 11:58am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 04 February, 2014, 11:58am

Can a white actor play an Asian character?

Never. Sometimes. Maybe. It depends.

Yellow Face, by Tony Award-winning playwright David Henry Hwang, wrestles with this question under the direction of Natsu Onoda Power at Theatre J in Washington.

Inspired by the real-life controversy surrounding the casting of Miss Saigon on Broadway in 1990, the latest staging of Yellow Face is set to revive the debate over racial bias in stage casting and beyond, which is still very relevant today.

A quick refresher on the Miss Saigon dispute: producer Cameron Mackintosh wanted to keep Jonathan Pryce, white star of the West End cast in London, as the Eurasian engineer in the Broadway production.

Hwang wrote in protest to the Actors' Equity Association, which objected to the casting and refused to allow Pryce to undertake the role.

Alan Eisenberg, then the AEA executive secretary, said: "The casting of a Caucasian actor made up to appear Asian is an affront to the Asian community."

Cue the immediate backlash. Frank Rich of The New York Times wrote that the barring of Pryce was "insupportable on every level" and accused the AEA of practising a "hypocritical reverse racism".

Mackintosh threatened to cancel the show; the AEA reversed its decision.

"It blew up into this big, culture war," says Hwang. "It was only two weeks. But it was an intense two weeks." Racial appropriation - or misappropriation, or reappropriation - is an issue that never seems to fade from public consciousness for long.

Just when it seems we all understand that wearing blackface is unacceptable, Julianne Hough dresses up like Crazy Eyes from Orange Is the New Black with blackface, or Katy Perry decides to get dolled up like a sexy geisha, or Selena Gomez wears a bindi while singing Come & Get It, or Miley Cyrus stakes a claim to ratchet culture with a twerk that inspires a thousand think pieces.

Or John Slattery performs a minstrel show on Mad Men, or Karlie Kloss struts down the Victoria's Secret runway wearing a Native American headdress.

Where is the line between appreciation and appropriation? Who gets to decide if something or someone is racist or not? And how does one determine if a person is "really" part of the culture he claims as his own?

Casting is its own heated microcosm within this conversation, where the issues are not just ethical but economic and aesthetic, too. Can race be a non-issue in casting a play?

"Part of the reason I write plays is to find out how I really feel about something deep inside," says Hwang. "So after the Miss Saigon controversy … it made me wonder: How do we even begin to move forward and have a discussion about race and casting?"

In Yellow Face, a semi-autobiographical version of Hwang called DHH, leads the protest against Miss Saigon only to inadvertently cast a white actor to play the Asian lead in his new play. DHH tries to cover his tracks by pretending the actor, Marcus, is actually Asian, an identity Marcus adopts to the extreme by becoming an Asian rights activist.

Hwang says: "It's never OK to cast a Caucasian actor in the role of a minority, but it's good in the reverse … because one helps to level the playing field and the other keeps the playing field unfair."

According to the Asian American Performers Action Coalition, 77 per cent of all roles on New York City stages during the 2011/12 season were filled by white actors. Asian-American actors came in at 3 per cent, tied at the bottom with Latino actors.

"In most industries, that would be considered a bad statistic, both politically and socially," says Hwang.

"It's just bad business. The business is drawing from an increasingly shrinking population for its cast and audiences. That's not good for the future of theatre."

Theatre J artistic director Ari Roth felt that Yellow Face connected to the theatre's expanding mission to "evolve and include kindred communities and kindred experiences with other second-generation immigrants in America" beyond the Jewish population.

Yellow Face examines both casting issues and the broader idea that anyone can be guilty of "wearing yellow face", even someone of Asian descent.

Director Power describes the process of figuring out who should play DHH's mother. He ultimately decided the scene "felt uncomfortable" with a non-Asian woman delivering the lines.

Hwang says: "There's a part of me that feels that, as some sort of end goal, everyone should just be able to self-identify as anything they want to self-identify with."

Yellow Face posits this thesis to some extent. For example, Hwang says, Marcus "is being more 'Asian' than DHH" by the end of the play.

But that Asian heritage is arguably not Marcus' to claim, says Power. She cites a moment in the play when DHH tells Marcus: "You don't have to live as an Asian every day of your life."

Choosing a culture, as opposed to being born into one, "comes with a different set of baggage", says Power.

"Race, in this country, is still so physical," says Power, who grew up in Japan and moved to the US for college. "Wherever I go, I'm an Asian woman. It's the first thing they notice about me. You can't get away from it."

In theatre, that fact is problematic. With limited time and space, and with only dialogue, appearance and physicality as a way into these characters' hearts and minds, audiences are perhaps over-reliant on visual cues, one of which is race.

Power doesn't believe that race-blind casting is necessarily the answer.

"We cannot be blind to race because we are not in real life. We can do race-conscious casting, fully acknowledging the race of the person and making the most interesting choice."

That divide is the difference between, to use two Washington-area examples, Shakespeare Theatre Company's 1997 production of Othello, in which Patrick Stewart played Othello alongside an all-black cast and Arena Stage's Oklahoma! from 2010, which had a multi-ethnic cast.

One could argue that, given the suspension of disbelief that requires an audience to go along with people bursting into song, it's not too much to ask theatre-goers to also buy into the vision of 1906 Oklahoma as a post-racial utopia.

Hwang hopes that by writing a comic play in which "my character looked like an idiot", he's created a safe, humorous space to spark a conversation about race, in casting and beyond.

"To make people laugh about race, I feel, is a pretty good achievement, because we're often so uncomfortable and so tight around the subject," he says.

"So if we can laugh, that can be the beginning of a discussion."

The Washington Post