The Yellowface Debate: Orphan of Zhao Roundtable and comments on Western Opera casting practices

Roundtable discussion: Interculturalism, universality and the right to representation in the RSC’s The Orphan of Zhao. Friday 23rd November, 3-5pm, Centre for Creative Collaboration, Acton Street, London.
Speakers: Dr. Broderick Chow, Brunel University, Dr. Amanda Rogers, Swansea University, Dr. Ashley Thorpe, University of Reading (chair), Daniel York, Actor, writer, director and Vice Chair of Equity Minority Ethnic Members Committee.*
(c) RSC

(c) RSC

Following on from my Orphan of Zhao post on ‘yellowface’ and colourblind casting, I attended the above roundtable last November hosted by the Asian Performing Arts Forum.  But, well, what with teaching, marking, looking after my young family, article writing, PhD and Christmas, I still haven’t written up my notes from it.  So, luckily for me, panellist Dr Amanda Rogers (University of Swansea) has done a sterling job at addressing the issues in a series of posts on her blog Theatrical Geographies, and Anna Chen/MadamMiaow recorded the whole event and put it on Youtube.  Thanking them both, I’m shamelessly reblogging! Click the link here:

Orphan of Zhao update and roundtable.

My own review of the production, and the aspects I found both most potent (there was much that was potent and beautiful) and most problematic (there was much that was problematic), will be coming soon.
After my initial post on The Orphan of Zhao, my friend Rosie Carlton-Willis commented on my post to let me know about the situation in the world of Western Opera, which, frankly, makes the RSC look like pioneers of diversity in comparison, and which also illustrates just how far this debate extends.  My students will also cite the sci-fi movie Cloud Altlas.  I’m copying part of Rosie’s comment here:

The weekend (15-16 December) was interesting. After some intense conversation on the use of blackface in opera, media responses to this phenomenon and related issues, I went to the cinema to see a production of Verdi’s ‘Aida’, beamed live from the Metropolitan Opera House, New York. Wonderful singing, but of course, in an opera which does not have a single white character, there was not a single black artist in a principal role, and the two Ethiopian characters, Aida and her father, were in dark makeup, to differentiate them from the Egyptian characters.

I looked on the Met’s website to see their casting for this season. In a season of 29 full scale opera productions (including an ‘Otello’ – yes, white tenor in blackface), there are maybe 5 people of colour named in principal roles on the website. One African American artist, one East Asian and a small handful who would maybe identify as Latino/Hispanic. Does this represent the balance of available talent? I doubt it.

I’ve tended to think that for achieving racial justice in the opera industry (some way to go yet…) so-called ‘colourblind casting’ would usually be the best option – casting solely on voice-type and ability, not necessarily relating the race of the character to the race of the performer. But this is not what I’m seeing at the Met this season: instead, what I’m seeing is an overwhelming bias towards hiring white performers in all roles. Is there one solution for the opera industry? Does a more just state of affairs involve hiring only black artists for ‘Aida’ and East Asian artists for ‘Madama Butterfly’ and ‘Turandot’ and by extension, only white artists for ‘Der Rosenkavalier’ and the ‘Ring Cycle’? That looks something like justice but seems restrictive to me, given that a dramatic tenor, say, may be equally well suited to Otello, Radames, Siegfried and other roles, and should not be restricted to a smaller number on account of race. But the current situation is outrageous. Is it time white artists started turning down roles like Aida? Singers and scholars, I’d welcome your thoughts. By Rosie Carlton-Willis

Carol Chillington Rutter’s chapter ‘Shadowing Cleopatra’ in her book Enter the Body: Representations of Women on the Shakespeare Stage challenges us to stop and think about the extent to which we accept without questioning traditional casting practices – and looks at the tendency of liberals to defend or justify these practices.

* Amanda mentions that none of the RSC team who were invited to the roundtable came, but for the record I would like to note that my friend Dr. Li Ruru was touring China at the time with a group of Leeds University student actors performing Cao Yu’s The Sun is Not for Us.  Ruru and I may take different positions on the casting of the RSC production, but she works tirelessly to promote Chinese theatre in British academia and beyond.

8 thoughts on “The Yellowface Debate: Orphan of Zhao Roundtable and comments on Western Opera casting practices

  1. I thought that the term “yellowface” is used to denote an intentionally derogatory or racist impersonation of an asian character by a white actor (like Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s).


  2. Regarding actors playing other ethnic groups or “races” (for lack of a more common word), I think that this is in fact several issues being bundled together and presented as 1 collective issue – thus requiring a single all-inclusive solution.
    Firstly, I believe that a distinction needs to be made between cinema and theatre. These are similar in many aspects but for the issue at hand there is one key difference. Theatre rarely strives for realism. In a (modern) film, if they used paper mache and wooden cut outs to make the scenes, you’d never take it seriously (unless it was a Melies type artistic piece). In theatre, a lot of what the audience is presented with is symbolic. The props, the costumes, even the narrator, are there as cues to the audience to let them know who the characters are and where the scene is taking place. This includes the make-up as well. So little of what we see on the stage is realistic that we don’t expect things to be realistic. If some visual cue tells us that the character is Asian or Black then that is it’s function. The original blackface performances were not attempts to realistically make a white person look black. They were extremely unrealistic, in an attempt to degrade black people by portraying them in caricature. There’s a big difference between that type of makeup and having a white guy with brown makeup to try to look like a “black” person so that the audience knows that the character is a Moor. So, given the extreme vagueness of stage performances, is it really necessary to have an actor of Asian heritage portray a character of similar heritage? And if so, how far do you take the attention to that one detail? Could someone of Korean descent portray a Japanese character? (A lot of Japanese CAN identify non-Japanese Asians.) What about ethnic groups? Is it correct for an English actor to portray MacBeth? Or should that role be reserved for a real Scotsman? (How often is MacBeth even performed with a true Scottish accent?) Is that an insult to the Scots? Is it even intended as one? I’m sure that you must have seen at least one Chinese production of something by Shakespeare while you were in China. Would it be considered poor quality theatre to have Chinese actors portraying Italians speaking English? I would say that as long as the audience can identify the intended role and background of the characters, it’s irrelevant who portrays the characters.
    If a performance is intended to mock a group of people (be that racist or sexist or other) then THAT is wrong. In much the same way, it is wrong to incite hatred of a group (through any media). But it’s wrong regardless of who portrays the characters. There are plenty of examples of Asian actors taking roles that insult their own heritage or ethnic group. It is no less racist than if the actor is non-Asian. It is the piece itself – the story and the character that are insulting (and to some extent the people willing to perform it).
    Is it a problem that the RSA has hired very few Asians? Probably, yes. I say “probably” because I have no idea why they haven’t hired more. Maybe they are racist. Maybe they have fewer Asian applicants – in much the same way that it’s rare to have non-Chinese performing with the Beijing Opera. I don’t know. But in any case, it’s a separate issue from whether or not non-Asians should portray Asian characters in the theatre.
    So, the issues that I see that are being lumped together are 1. non-Asians portraying Asian characters, 2. performances that parody Asians, and 3. the hiring practices of the RSA.


  3. You’re right about the origins of the term, but now yellowface, like blackface, has moved from its ‘vaudeville’ parody roots to also be used in the context of the the high arts when white actors are cast as another ethnicity – particularly when costumed and made-up in stereotypical ways to look East Asian or black. The blonde, blue-eyed Lucy Briggs-Owen (above) donning a black wig and applying heavily made-up ‘Chinese’ eyes adds to the problematic Chinoise mise-en-scene in Doran’s well-meaning but ill-conceived production. I haven’t seen ‘Cloud Atlas’ and it’s a different genre, but I guess that East Asians and their supporters are using these current opportunities to protest about massive under-representation on stage and screen. They have to strike while the iron’s hot… The RSC have only employed 4 East Asian actors in 20 years. I think that the terms are being introduced into these contexts to try to underscore the fact that many of these current casting practices come out of accepted cultural norms which are racist in their origins even if the practitioners have not consciously set out to be racist. The term yellowface is a more recent derivation from the term blackface, I think, probably appropriated because of its political implications, although the practice of painting on East Asian features to white actors goes way back.
    Thanks to everyone who has been posting on both these blog posts and raising a number of important questions or points from different perspectives – and in such a respectful way. Please feel free to carry on leaving comments on this topic.


  4. I think that the debate brings up a few more points that have to be cleared up or at least defined.
    – What is stereotypical about the way the way the makeup is done? With most faces, there’s a definitely limit to how much you can make the person look of different racial heritage. What would be considered non-stereotypical yet still convey the fact that the character is Asian?
    -What constitutes racism? (Or even race for that matter – although that’s probably a whole other debate.) Where do you draw the line between someone who is very sensitive feeling insulted, and actual racism? Surely there’s a limit there somewhere. I would think that for something to be actually considered racism then it would either promote unwarranted hatred of a particular identifiable group or make fun of such a group. How easily identifiable does the group in question have to be for it to be considered racism? What about East European immigrants? They aren’t so easily identifiable. Is it racist to portray them in a bad way? What is I myself felt upset about the Lumberjack sketch from Montey Python? What if I felt that the lumberjack character was a stereotypical racist portrayal of Canadians? Is there any sane person who would take that seriously? I think that to talk about racism, there has to be an actual definition of it, and one which the user is willing to apply across the board, not just in certain situations.
    – And that brings up the question of the situations in which the definition of racism can be applied. If an Asian actor (I’ll use Asian as an example simply because it was the main topic of the article) portrays a role which is considered racist towards Asians, is it still racist? If the story (and the characters) were created by an Asian, is the story/role still racist?


  5. Pingback: A World Elsewhere: The Orphan of Zhao at the RSC Review Part 1 « Shakespeare Travels © Saffron Walkling

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