Addressing Yellowface in Opera, Theater and Film

October 21, 2016 • Entertainment, Homepage Feature, In-depth

British actor Christopher Lee, in yellowface makeup, played the fictional “Oriental” villain Fu Manchu in several movies.

One JACL Philadelphia chapter board member discusses his ongoing discussions with Opera Philadelphia over offensive stereotypes in its production of ‘Turandot.’

By Rob Buscher, member, JACL Philadelphia board of directors

(Note: For about six weeks from August-October, Philadelphia JACL had been involved in on-going discussions with Opera Philadelphia over offensive stereotypes in its production of Giacomo Puccini’s “Turandot.” Philadelphia board member Rob Buscher is sharing information about this process in case other JACL chapters facing similar issues in their local areas find it helpful.)

Back in October 2015, I caught wind of the “Turandot” production that Opera Philadelphia was planning when a Chinese American theater artist brought it to my attention. They announced the production at the simulcast of another opera in a public park in Philly, using a trailer with footage from the Cincinnati production of the same opera that features blatant yellowface makeup by white actors.

I reached out by email to the opera to explain why the images in the video teaser were offensive to our community, and I requested a meeting to discuss ways in which it might alter it to avoid causing a major uproar in the AAPI community, similar to what happened with the 2014 “The Mikado” production in Seattle.

Opera Phila responded in March 2016, at which point I and three AAPI theater artists met with the vp of public programming and a community liaison. We had a great hourlong conversation about yellowface, orientalism, exoticism and other topics. After an engaging discussion, they told us there was nothing that could be done since the costume, wardrobe, makeup and character design were intellectual property of the original designer, and they were contractually obligated to do it as originally designed.

Needless to say, we were fairy discouraged, but they did provide the opportunity for one of the artists to write a piece for their study guide that critiqued the more problematic aspects of the show. They also promised further dialogue as we got closer to the start of production on Sept. 23.

Time passed, and we all got busy with our own paid and volunteer work, so we didn’t pursue anything more until about late August, when Opera Phila began heavy promotions for the production. Opera Phila continued using the teaser video with yellowface intact and, to add insult to injury, incorporated the tagline, “A Beautiful Exotic Adventure.” At this point, several other artist-activists contacted Opera Phila, and I guess their personnel finally realized that they were going to have to address our concerns in some way more than the lip service they had given us the first time.

A second meeting was convened between JACL Philadelphia President Scott Nakamura, myself and the other theater artists from the first meeting with the president, director of marketing and others from Opera Phila.

As a result of this meeting, they agreed to 10 points of action to address our concerns, which I was then able to publicize through a statement from Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf as a member of his Advisory Commission on APA Affairs. The object was to hold them accountable, and they have kept good on all promises made to date.

rooney_as_mr-yuniyoshi

Mickey Rooney donned yellowface makeup in the 1961 movie “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.“

Some of the action items I was directly engaged in were to design a lobby exhibit on the history of yellowface, participate in a video explaining our perspective to be shown before the simulcast, participate in classroom visits to interested area schools to discuss yellowface and publish my critique of Puccini’s opera as written on Opera Phila’s website. Additionally, this resulted in some coverage from a few dozen AP-affiliated news sources and a local radio spot I did for WHYY, which was partially transcribed to the NewsWorks website.

The discussions kind of came to a head a couple weeks ago with the Beyond Orientalism forum, a public discussion about yellowface and institutional racism in mainstream Philadelphia theater. The forum was planned months before this issue resurfaced, but because of the timing, it became a focal point for a lot of the artist-activists involved in these discussions.

We were able to attract an incredibly diverse audience of AAPI artists and audience members, other People of Color artists and allies, as well as a dozen or so representatives from various establishment theaters, who all happened to be Caucasian. The panel was incredible, and everything was great up until the point the moderator opened it up to the floor for discussion. At that point, the Caucasian theater directors and administrators spent about 20 minutes defending the lack of diversity in their productions and complaining about how difficult it was from their perspectives.

Needless to say, this really hurt a lot of the AAPI theater-activists, especially from a younger demographic. What began as a good faith discussion on improving diversity devolved into a session for “well-meaning” white liberals to alleviate their guilt. Moreover, the theaters represented weren’t even the larger ones.

The good news is that the three Opera Phila representatives who were present refrained from making similar excuses during the discussion, or patting themselves on the back for taking corrective actions. We had coached them enough that they realized it wasn’t their place to speak, and afterward, I even heard them explaining to another Caucasian theater administrator why what they said was offensive to our community.

I really believe that we changed the hearts and minds of this company, and I think they will genuinely approach the AAPI community pro-actively in discussion about whether to even attempt a potential future production of “Madame Butterfly” (tentatively slated for 2019).

One reason I believe we were successful with regards to the opera is because we had a diversity of opinions in the room when we began round two of discussions late last month.

Each of us came to this issue from a slightly different place — some hurt and angry, others somewhat apologetic to the opera, although the majority of us were somewhere in the middle: upset, but willing to engage in constructive dialogue as long as mutual respect was given.

Having some folks in the conversation that were highly critical and others who were more diplomatic in their tone created a good balance and made it easier for the opera representatives to understand and accept our message.

While my personal preference would have been to withdraw the characters of Ping, Pang and Pong from the production, we were able to make a compromise that worked for both parties.

I hope that this can be a starting point for further dialogue on better inclusion of our community in Philadelphia theater, and perhaps a model for future advocacy around issues of representation in stage plays and theater productions.

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