Visiting theater pros cite yellowface, 'hurtful' stereotypes at the Muny | St. Louis Public Radio

Visiting theater pros cite yellowface, 'hurtful' stereotypes at the Muny

Jun 16, 2018

Updated on June 18 at 1:50 p.m. to include the Muny's written response — A group of theater artists visiting St. Louis for a professional conference staged a demonstration during the performance at the Muny on Friday night, objecting to what they described as offensive elements in “Jerome Robbins’ Broadway,” a revue of scenes from famous American musicals.

The group, which numbered about 15, booed in unison during an excerpt from the musical “The King and I.” Muny employees quickly led the protesters away and and ejected them from the venue.

Demonstrators objected to the portrayal of a character from Burma (now called Myanmar) by a white actress. They also decried other parts of the show as displaying inappropriate cultural appropriation.

“Looking at that work was painful for us. We were just shocked,” said Leilani Chan, artistic director at TeAda Productions, a Los Angeles-based company that describes itself as a theater of color.

She said the performance reinforced negative stereotypes. “It’s just really hurtful and it does have an effect on the way we are treated out in the world,” she added.

The protest comes at a time when casting practices in the United States are coming under increased scrutiny, with the casting of white actors to portray persons of color routinely denounced by activists as “whitewashing.” Beyond denying roles to people of color who could more credibly portray them, critics say the practice also denies people of color the chance to tell their own stories.

Mike Isaacson, artistic director and executive producer of the Muny, acknowledged that the role of Tuptim, the narrator of “The King And I,” who is an enslaved person from Burma taken to Siam (now called Thailand), is played by a white actress. But he said that casting choice does not tell the whole story.

“That piece was led by two extraordinary Asian-American dancers. And the director of the show is an Asian-American woman,” he said, referring to director Cynthia Onrubia. “What’s very painful to us is that this is a theater of inclusion … our history with diversity on our stage, and Asian-Americans and African-Americans, I stand behind very strongly and very proudly.”

The demonstrators were attending the annual conference of Theatre Communications Group, the most prominent professional organization of nonprofit theaters in the United States. The Muny show was one of several performances offered to conference attendees as worthy samples from the St. Louis theater scene.

Kamal Hans, artistic director of Chicago’s Rasaka Theatre Company, which showcases work by South Asian artists, said he and his colleagues had heard in advance that the performance included an instance of yellowface -- a term activists use for when a white actor portrays an East Asian character, often in a way seen as demeaning. Yellowface may or may not include the use of makeup to affect physical characteristics associated with East Asians.

But the show, which also includes scenes from “On The Town,” “West Side Story” and “Fiddler On The Roof,” included a series of culturally insensitive depictions, Hans said.

“There was a preparation for protest but we were unprepared for the pervasive nature of offense within the piece,” he said. “We took in the [Native American] headdresses, the hula skirts, the Sharks [in “West Side Story”] who were not Latin and were representing Puerto Rican culture. We took all that in and then at intermission we came together and shared what we’d experienced, which was unexpectedly horrific.”

Isaacson said the protesters displayed a “shallow understanding” of the material, citing moments of the show out of context. The instance of white actors donning traditional Native American headdresses, for instance, came in a fast-moving sequence in “On The Town” in which sailors on shore leave pass through New York City souvenir shops, he said.

“It is a moment of craziness, of euphoria, of drunken sailors doing a series of silly acts. In no way is there any form of representation [of Native Americans] or comment or degradation of anyone,” Isaacson said.

“The King and I” has been staged many times in the United States with predominantly white casts; famously, a white Russian-American actor, Yul Brynner, portrayed the King of Siam for years on Broadway and on national tours. That casting practice has grown increasingly controversial and infrequent, however. A 1996 Broadway revival was widely admired for featuring all Asian performers in the major roles.

In a video of the Muny protest published on Facebook and Twitter, the protesters can be heard yelling “No yellowface!” They did not resist the order to leave, but continued vocalizing their displeasure as they were escorted away. The demonstration was clearly heard by the performers onstage, Isaacson said, causing confusion and concern for their safety.

The demonstrators later crafted a group statement which they presented in another video. The statement says, in part, that on Friday “representatives of theaters of color nationwide demonstrated the power of collective resistance to systemic oppression against people of color. When those who benefit from those systems fail to acknowledge the ways in which those systems oppress others, it limits our ability to live up to the promises of who we say we are as a nation.”

Isaacson was scheduled to make a brief appearance at the Theatre Communications Group conference on Saturday, to present an award to Ken and Nancy Kranzberg of Kranzberg Arts Foundation. He cancelled that appearance hours earlier, when he had been advised that his presence may have been received with more heckling, Isaacson said.

The Muny issued a statement on Sunday which said  "Jerome Robbins' Broadway" is a particularly difficult show to cast, given the need for featured performers to appear as several different characters. But the theater acknowledged that the casting of the "The King and I" section reflected a "bad decision that has caused hurt." 

The statement went on to acknowledge that "moments in the production have caused hurt and offense — a disappointing and unintended result for which we have great regret." 

Follow Jeremy on Twitter: @JeremyDGoodwin