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 Theater J. Inspired by the real-life controversy surrounding the casting of “Miss Saigon” on Broadway in 1990, “Yellow Face,” in previews beginning Wednesday, aims to do something Hwang used to joke is “more intimate than sex”: have an honest conversation about race with someone of a different race.
A quick refresher on the “Miss Saigon” dispute: Producer Cameron Mackintosh wanted to keep Jonathan Pryce, white star of the West End cast, as the Eurasian Engineer in the Broadway production. Hwang wrote in protest to Actors’ Equity Association, who objected to the casting and refused to allow Pryce to play 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 Mr. Pryce is insupportable on every level” and accused Equity of practicing a “hypocritical reverse racism.” Mackintosh threatened to cancel the show; the AEA reversed its decision.
“It kind of blew up into this big, culture war event,” said 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 you might think we’ve all, say, reached a place where we know wearing blackface is unacceptable, Julianne Hough dresses up like Crazy Eyes from “Orange Is the New Black” in a costume complete with blackface or Katy Perry decides to get dolled up like a “sexy” geisha (and later tells GQ that Japan is “the capital of adorableness”) or Selena Gomez wears a bindi while singing “Come & Get It” or Miley Cyrus stakes a claim to ratchet culture with a twerk that launches a thousand think pieces. Or John Slatteryperforms a minstrel show on “Mad Men” or Karlie Kloss struts down the Victoria’s Secret runway wearing a Native American headdress (Happy Thanksgiving?).
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 as well. Can race be a nonissue in casting a play?
“Part of the reason I write plays is to find out how I really feel about something deep inside,” Hwang said. “So coming out of 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 partly autobiographical version of Hwang named 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.
From an employment perspective, “it’s never okay to cast a Caucasian actor in the role of a minority, but it’s good in the reverse,” said Hwang. “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 percent of all roles on New York City stages during the 2011-2012 season were filled by white actors. Asian American actors came in at 3 percent, tied at the bottom with Latino actors.
“In most industries, that would be considered a bad statistic, both politically and socially,” said 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 theater. ”
Theater J Artistic Director Ari Roth said he felt that “Yellow Face” connected to the theater’s expanding mission to “evolve and include kindred communities and kindred experiences with other second-generation immigrants in America” beyond the Jewish community.
At Theater J, these issues arise “frequently when we think about, does a character ‘feel’ Jewish or not, within a Jewish family,” said Roth. “We’re looking for renderings that look authentic and have the whiff of believability to it [with both Jewish and Israeli characters] . . . even though a great majority of our actors who play Jewish roles are not Jewish.”
Roth cites a “surprising shortage of key nationalities and even key religions” in the local talent pool. “There are not that many Jewish actors in D.C.,” he said. “And when a Jewish actor comes in the door at our theater, attention is paid. It doesn’t necessarily become a determinate . . . but a person’s closeness to the experience of being Jewish is an asset . . . and we measure that against the actor’s talent and rightness for the role.”
“Yellow Face” examines both these specific casting issues and the broader idea that anyone can be guilty of “wearing yellowface,” even someone of Asian descent. Director Power described the process of figuring out which member of the cast should play DHH’s mother and ultimately decided the scene “felt uncomfortable” with a non-Asian woman delivering the lines.
Power wrote and directed “The T Party,” a play about gender that had its world premiere at Forum Theatre last summer. In interviewing many people within the transgender community, Power explored the idea that “the gender you decide — the gender you feel that you are inside — is the gender you are. Nobody can contest that. Is that true of race?”
Hwang said, “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, Hwang said: Marcus “is being more ‘Asian’ than DHH” by the end of the play.
But that Asian heritage is arguably not Marcus’s to claim, said Power. She cites a moment in the play when DHH tells Marcus, “You don’t have to live as Asian every day of your life.” Choosing a culture, as opposed to being born into one, “comes with a different set of baggage,” said Power.
The dialogue is reminiscent of a line from “The Religion Thing,” a play by Renee Calarco that Theater J produced in 2012: “You can’t be a Jew like you wear a sweater. Too cold, put it on. Too hot, take it off.” Which is to say, if you can “put it on” or “take it off” at will, are you really it, whatever it is?
“Race, in this country, is still so physical,” said Power, who grew up in Japan and moved to the States 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 theater, that fact is problematic: With limited time and space, 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 sort of the difference between, say, 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 multiethnic 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 theatergoers to also buy into the vision of 1906 Oklahoma as a post-racial utopia.
Paul R. Tetreault, Ford’s Theatre director, said that with limited exception — basically, for “A Christmas Carol” — Ford’s doesn’t do colorblind casting.
“If we’re doing a show with a slave in it, set in the Civil War, the slaves can’t be white,” he said. “And it gets tricky with us, because we want to give roles to everyone, but if we’re doing something historical, we have to be historically accurate.”
Tetreault says he is “less interested in colorblind and more [interested in] color-specific casting, because I think it can be more interesting.”
The Ford’s 75th anniversary production of “Our Town” boasted a racially diverse cast, despite the all-white look of the original. In 2010, Tetreault cast an African-American actress as the lead in “Sabrina Fair” to add a racial dimension to the class issues raised in the play. The casting choices for “Our Town” and “Sabrina Fair” earned Tetreault some “nasty letters and e-mails” from people who demanded “How could you take that classic play and do that to it?”
For last year’s “The Laramie Project,” the documentary play based on the murder of Matthew Shepard and its aftermath, even though the residents of Laramie, Wyo., depicted in the play are white, “We chose that it would make more sense and have more resonance to cast a sort of more rainbow group of people,” he said. “Several people came up to me and said adding people of color really almost made the story that much more universal,” including Matthew Shepard’s parents.
“To me, anytime you’re dealing with issues of class and race and you’re trying to be colorblind, you’re almost doing a disservice,” he said.
“It is not an easy issue,” he added. “Race, in our country, is not an easy issue. So whenever you deal with it, I think you have to deal with it honestly and openly and frankly, and also very intelligently.”
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 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 said. “So if we can laugh, that can be the beginning of a discussion.”
Goldstein is a freelance writer.
by David Henry Hwang, directed by Natsu Onoda Power, runs Wednesday-Feb. 23 at Theater J. $25-$50, with pay-what-you can previews Wednesday and Thursday. 202-518-9400. www.theaterj.org.