[UPDATE: Dallas Summer Musicals has responded to the casting outcry. See below.]
Yet another theater production is accused of rocking the yellowface. Dallas Summer Musicals' upcoming production of The King and I is drawing criticism for casting a Caucasian actor in the role of King Mongkut.
Dallas Summer Musicals' THE KING AND I Casting Causes Controversy
Rodgers and Hammerstein's popular musical tells the story of Anna Leonowens, a British schoolteacher who is hired as a live-in governess to the children of King Mongkut of Siam in the early 1860s. Despite their many differences, Anna and the King eventually grow to understand and respect one another.
In case you were wondering, the king of Siam was not a white guy.
Last week, the Asian American Performers Action Coalition wrote an open letter to Dallas Summer Musicals expressing "shock and dismay" at the decision to cast a white actor as King Mongkut. Yup, this again. This production joins a long and unfortunate history of yellowface casting in American theater.
To Dallas Summer Musicals,
We are writing to express our shock and dismay at your decision to cast a Caucasian actor in the role of King Mongkut in your upcoming production of The King and I. Twenty-four years have passed since the uproar surrounding the casting of Jonathan Pryce as The Engineer in Miss Saigon on Broadway and it seems unfathomable that we must continue to have the same conversation again. While there is a historical precedent for white actors playing this role, this precedent was the product of a long history of yellowface casting that is no longer acceptable today. The perpetuation of this practice is hurtful to Asians and disdainful to many others.
You are very aware that many excellent, trained, Asian actors with Broadway and regional credits exist. Indeed, you recently sent out a casting breakdown specifically seeking Asians (as well as more Caucasians) for supporting and ensemble roles. The optics of your production would suggest that Asian actors are suitable only for smaller roles, to kowtow to the King but not to be the King. Some might even say you seek Asian actors only insofar as our presence on your stage would legitimize a production that has already proven itself uninterested in any semblance of authenticity. Dallas Summer Musical's production of The King and I is a glaring example of the continued lack of employment opportunities given to Asian American actors. Our invisibility reinforces how Asian artists are often denied a voice in shaping how Asians are represented, particularly when it comes to the appropriation of Asian cultures and themes.
To be clear, our issue is not with any of the actors cast in the production who all simply want to work. The director of your production, Glenn Casale, cast a Caucasian actor in an Asian role without holding auditions for any actor of Asian descent. This is, then, partly a fight for equal access to opportunity, but we are also addressing the larger social, political, moral and artistic ramifications of yellowface casting and an underlying bias about who has the right to play which roles. We could not find any evidence of an Asian actor who has played a leading role in any previous Dallas Summer Musical production that was not a touring production. It seems that while Caucasian actors can play Asians, the opposite, an Asian actor in a traditionally Caucasian role, does not hold true in equal measure at your institution.
Asian impersonation denies Asians our own subjecthood. It situates all the power within a Caucasian-centric world view. This begs the question, "Who is your production really intended for?" Dallas Summer Musicals touts itself as "bringing the best of Broadway to the Dallas/Ft. Worth area." If that is true, then we expect you to take a cue from the standard that is being set on Broadway with the upcoming revival of The King and I directed by Bartlett Sher who has appropriately cast Asian actors in all of the Asian roles. As a Broadway presenter and as an entity that hires professionals out of New York, we hold you to a higher standard. Making a casting decision such as this one calls artistic integrity into question: it is hard to argue that the casting of a white King dramaturgically undermines a story about a clash between Western and Eastern cultures. You pride yourselves on and receive funding for your children's education and outreach program, yet in a city where Asian Americans are one of the fastest growing demographics, you have denied a whole subset of your audience and scores of Asian American children the ability to see themselves as the hero of their own stories.
Ask yourselves this question: Had this been a story of an African monarch or another real-life historical figure such as Martin Luther King Jr., would I have ever conceived of casting a Caucasian actor in the role? We're guessing your answer would be no--at least, not without realizing that there would be long lasting consequences in doing so that would damage your audience outreach, your brand, and your ability to attract corporate sponsors. Michael Jenkins, President and Managing Director of Dallas Summer Musicals, produced the revival of Flower Drum Song on Broadway and championed its national tour. Mr. Casale has cast Asians non-traditionally in other productions he has directed. It is doubly disappointing that this injury would come from people we thought were reliable allies. There must be a disconnect of some kind if even well-intentioned allies find no fault in their actions and did not consider it an artistic or social priority to find and cast Asian Americans in a story set in Asia. Perhaps it is because Asians have remained silent on this issue for too long. If so, it is incumbent upon us to say as loudly and as clearly as possible: Yellowface may have been common practice 60 years ago. It may have been excusable to some 25 years ago. But we are telling you that we will not stand for it in 2015. It is not right. It is, in fact, wrong.
We hope you will take this issue seriously. We seek to understand how this decision came to be made and how your institution plans to change underlying casting assumptions moving forward, if at all. We hope you will engage with us and choose to open a dialogue about this issue in your community. Any meaningful attempt to assuage this situation can only begin by publicly acknowledging the pain you have caused. We hope you can start with that.
The Asian American Performers Action Coalition (AAPAC)
New York, New York
Jan 23, 2015
This, on top of all the problems one might have with The King and I. And there are many.
If you agree that yellowface casting has no place on the stage, and you agree with the AAPAC's letter, be sure to let the people at Dallas Summers Musicals how you feel on their Facebook page. You can also email Michael Jenkins, the President of Dallas Summer Musicals, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
More here: THE KING AND I at Dallas Summer Musicals ACTION NEEDED
UPDATE: Dallas Summer Musicals has responded to the outcry over the casting in The King and I ("WE HAVE HEARD YOU"), and has announced that they are going back to cast an actor of Asian descent for the role of King Mongkut. Here's the response from Michael Jenkins, President of Dallas Summer Musicals:
In Response To The Asian American Performers Action Coalition And Others:
Glenn Casale and I are in receipt of your numerous emails and form emails. The reason for the delay in answering is that during the holidays I was in the hospital, and I have been recovering at home from a deadly blood disease.
First, Mr. Casale, our Director, has directed multiple years of productions using not only Asian actors and actresses, but diverse ethnic groups. Second, I have produced probably the most shows using Asian actors and actresses. For example, Flower Drum Song on Broadway, Flower Drum Song national tour, Brooklyn the Musical, and Bombay Dreams, just to name a few.
I can assure you that neither Glenn Casale nor I ever intended or conceived a thought that this would be disruptive, negative or disrespectful to anyone.
It’s interesting. Going back in the history of The King and I, Mr. Yul Brenner was actually from Russia, and Mr. Lou Diamond Phillips was born on a naval base in the Philippines and is an American. Mr. Paul Schoeffler has played the role in theatres across America in the past. And after looking at several Asian prospects for the role, they were all “on hold” pending a call back from the Lincoln Center Production.
The cast for this new production consists of 28, of which 25 are of Asian-descent. Of the 15 children in the cast, all are of Asian descent. We even went to a Thailand Temple to audition children for the production to be as authentic as possible.
Both Mr. Casale and I would never intentionally do anything contrary or negative to your culture, and we have both provided numerous opportunities to the Asian community in the past.
Mr. Casale and I visited yesterday. We have heard your comments, and we have heard your concerns, and we are now going back to find an actor of Asian descent for the role of the King. WE HAVE HEARD YOU, and we are working to guarantee a positive result for both you and also for a quality production. We have heard you and we take your comments seriously.
Thank you to the folks who led the charge and brought this to the attention of the community.