There's no doubt there's been a flood of whitewashing and yellowface on film, TV and stage recently. From a Tilda Swinton impersonating a Tibetan Ancient One to a theatre company performing The Mikado with all white casts, this inundation of cultural appropriation can be discouraging.
But don't let appearances fool you. The community can and does win victories against stereotyping. Slapping hashtags like @whitewashedOUT and #starringJohnCho on social media is only a beginning; activists are doing this and much more, making a definite difference against misrepresentation of Asians in the media.
Let's look at the stage. Everyone knows by now about the Seattle production of The Mikado by the Gilbert and Sullivan Society. An editorial by Seattle Times op-ed writer Sharon Chan kicked off this controversy, which saw daily picketing by grassroots protestors, pushback from the Gilbert and Sullivan Society, and a whole slew of feature articles and editorials, both pro- and against The Mikado.
What also happened, however, is that what followed was a forum involving the general Seattle theatre community. This forum discussed the balance of artistic expression versus responsibility to under-represented communities. Initial expectations were for a crowd of 30-50; instead, more than 300 people demanded to discuss the issue.
Following both the production and the forum were a series of racial equity workshops offered to the Seattle arts community from both Theatre Puget Sound (the Seattle area group for theatre professionals) and Seattle's Office of Arts & Culture... and were promptly filled to capacity. Workshops have been offered in increasing diversity in casting, as well... and those too were promptly filled.
Sounds good, but has that translated into action?
Though it's too soon to say for sure, we do know one of Seattle's largest theatres, ACT, has included an Asian American actor in their Core Company of seven, and has featured at least one Asian American plays such as Jeanne Sakata's Hold These Truths per season. Seattle Repertory Theatre has featured up and coming Asian American playwrights like Kimber Lee and Qui Nguyen in consecutive seasons, as well as the immersive musical, Here Lies Love, that recounts the story of the First Lady of the Philippines, Imelda Marcos. Finally, this past year saw an period that saw no less than 12 different productions produced by or showcasing Asian American artists crammed into a breathless six weeks. Many of these actions aren't directly traceable to The Mikado, but the energy it generated seemed to have fed this flowering.
Similarly, the New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players (NYGASP) had planned a traditional Mikado production for their 2015-16 season, complete with Axe Coolie. New York playwright Leah Nanako Winkler stood up, writing a blog post outlining her opposition, which set off a flood of complaints via email and on NYGASP's web page. As well, prominent national arts bloggers like Howard Sherman and Jacqueline Lawton took up the cause, questioning the appropriateness of a yellowface Mikado in the 21st Century. NYGASP backtracked from their original plan, delaying The Mikado until 2016-17; right now they are doing a retooled production, consulting with Asian American theatre artists, and recruiting Asian American performers for both this show and other shows in their season.
Finally, artists from Ferocious Lotus and Crowded Fire Theatres met with the Lamplighers, who had planned a Mikado production for this year. After posting an open letter as well meeting with the Lamplighters' sponsor, the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, a revised production debuted this year, with a new setting in Milan, Italy. Reviewers found it just as funny and pointed, while slyly noting cultural appropriators are on that little list of those "who would never be missed."
Are there some lessons to be gleaned from this? After talking with a few of organizers, a few items emerged.
1) Anchor publicity with a blog post or web page statement. Tweets can spread the word, but they should refer to an easily found web page. There, you can lay out the argument succinctly and forcefully, and put your best foot forward.
2) But don't forget social media! Hashtag activism alone may not be enough to induce change, but it can be a great addition when thousands of posts flood email boxes and Facebook home pages. And, Asian Americans are wired in with respect to social media and smart phones.
3) You have allies. Numerous allies. Some of them have loud voices (publicity!) some are powerful ($$$!), some with both. Find them!
Does this mean everything is hunky dory and yellowface and whitewashing will soon be a relic of the past? Alas, there will always be a few not-so-swift folks who think it's perfectly fine to whitewash a part or dress up in yellowface (and against stupidity, the gods themselves contend in vain...). But the lesson here is that community pushback is effective in moving the ball forward for representation, and that the work is often overlooked in the heat of the first news about whitewashing and yellowface.
Two of the groups driving the push nationally on stage are the Beyond Orientalism forums (a co-hort of Theatre Communications Group, the national groups for professional non-profit theatres) and the Consortium of Asian American Theaters and Artists (CAATA).
Beyond Orientalism is on a national tour taking the temperature of the country on the fight against misrepresentation of Asian Americans on stage. It kicked off in New York this past May and will be hitting Philadelphia on September 26; five additional cities are on tap after that.
CAATA will present the Fifth National Asian American Theatre Conference and Festival in Ashland, Oregon this October, with one track devoted problem of yellowface, including the session "In Case of Yellowface, Break Glass," an extension of this article, devoted to developing ever more practical steps to take if yellowface or whitewashing occurs in your community. Please check them out!
Roger Tang is an advocate for Asian American theatre, as well as being a producer and playwright. He runs the Asian American Theatre Revue, the web's foremost website on Asian American theatre, is the Executive Director of Pork Filled Productions (the Northwest's oldest Asian American theatre group) and is a board member for the Consortium of Asian American Theaters and Artists (CAATA).