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Saturday, August 15, 2009

The King and Eyes

I have been debating with myself for a while about just how to broach this subject that has been troubling me for a while now. One, I wasn't sure that others will find it as troubling as I do, and, two, I didn't quite know how to raise the issue without it looking like I am pointing a finger. Then again, maybe a little bit of finger-pointing is called for in this case.
I asked around. I did a couple of informal internet surveys. I did a bit of background research.
All of these things have ultimately led me to the conclusion that broaching this subject is not only okay, but necessary as well.
First, a little background about me. I grew up on and around the Southern Ute Reservation in southern Colorado. Many of my friends were full-blood Southern Ute. Some were Navajo, Apache, or Hopi. Some were Latino or Caucasian, but most were mutts like me.
I can remember sitting on the floor of a friend's house whose family was full-blood Ute. It was a Saturday morning and we were watching cartoons followed by an old western. At one point in a cartoon, Bugs Bunny found himself confronted by some cartoon "injuns." My friend's grandmother came in and told us to change the channel. Midway through the western, in which the Native Americans were all played by anything but, she told us to turn off the T.V. and go outside. That was my first real wake-up call to the idea of Native American stereotyping and what I later heard called "redface."
I still cringe when I see a production of Peter Pan and it comes to the Tiger Lily scenes. I tell myself that it was a different, more naive time when J.M. Barrie wrote that character and a still somewhat innocent time when Comden, Green and company brought it to the Broadway stage. It still feels wrong.
Jumping ahead to 2009, I find myself with a similar shudder when I see that two local, well-respected companies will be producing The King and I as part of their seasons.
Since the city of Denver's ethnic make-up is only 3% Asian/Pacific Islander (very, very few of whom pop up at auditions around town), I assume that the casting of these shows will go along the same lines as the 1951 Broadway production (58 years ago), and Caucasian actors will play the role in bronze make-up with slanted eye-liner, referred to among the Asian community as "yellowface." (This is also the name of a very thought-provoking play written by David Henry Hwang, if you're interested.)
One of the individuals of Asian descent whom I encountered on-line responded to the news this way: "it is the Asian equivalent of 'black-face'!! I find it unacceptable, horribly offensive and degrading to all parties involved!! I suggest that if they can't find enough Asian actors then start protesting until they put a different play on!"
Now, I'm not presenting that opinion to spark protest. I just think it's an opinion worthy of note.
Some of the responses from non-Asians pointed out that Mary and Joseph are often portrayed by non-Jewish actors in Christmas pageants. Others pointed out the same about Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Or can a Korean play a Japanese character, or do you have to find someone who's Japanese? Valid points all.
However, I remember watching an interview with George Takei on Turner Classic Movies a year or so ago in which he said (and I'll have to paraphrase here), if something "grotesque" must occur for you to portray another ethnicity, then there's something wrong. He was referring to Caucasian actors appearing in "yellowface" in the movies.
Someone else posed the question back to me if I thought that the King and I "should just never be performed then?"
My answer is, unless it can be portrayed by Asian performers, probably not. I know it's a favorite musical, but so is Porgy and Bess. Why don't we see two productions of that show in a season in Denver (or even one)? The African American population is almost double the Asian/Pacific Islander population in Denver, so why not?
The answer is that few theatre companies in town (if any) could count on enough African American performers to turn out. I highly doubt, too, that when they came up short, they'd be obtuse enough to say, "Well, break out the shoe polish." There would be riots.
I doubt that there will be any riots over Caucasian children putting on black wigs and drawing slanted eyes on their faces to play the King of Siam's children, but the lack of rioting or protest doesn't make it right, either. I'm also really not thrilled about the message it sends to those young actors.
I guess it comes down to whether or not you think "yellowface" is as inappropriate as "blackface." Well, what I've found is that it depends on who you ask, but I give a little more weight to the answers provided by Asians. (That answer was overwhelmingly,"Of course it is.")
Now, I'm not saying that the play selection committees of these two organizations deliberately selected a show so they could project racist stereotypes. That's ridiculous. I think that, like many of the Caucasian people to whom I've spoken, it just never occurred to them.
Sometimes I think America goes a little too crazy with all of the political-correctness. I don't know that Miley Cyrus really owed the entire Asian community an apology for pulling at the sides of her eyes mugging for a snapshot, but others felt she did. I wasn't terribly offended by Jessica Simpson's recent exclamation that she wasn't "an Indian-giver." However, others were. I do think in both cases, a "hey, that's kind of insensitive" nudge might have been called for, but that's about it.
However, I look the way that I do. I have never had to personally deal with the kind of racism that my childhood friends have or that I'm sure my grandmother must have. I may not be qualified to tell the groups who were offended by these instances whether or not they have a right to be offended or to what degree.
When it comes to putting kids in "yellowface" to stage a somewhat out-dated musical, though, I don't have any problem seeing where there's something wrong there.
You may disagree.
I hope that I'm wrong about the casting, and that these companies will find enough Asian actors to perform the roles without having to turn it into a highly inappropriate Halloween costume party, but I just don't know if that can be done.
I'm not saying that these companies should cancel their productions. I know one doesn't have much time, if it hasn't opened already.
I'm just saying that future play selection committees might want to dig just a little bit deeper when it comes to what's appropriate entertainment for their community and what isn't.
Of course, audiences are not free from responsibility here, either. Theatre companies (particularly in this economy) sort of have to give us what we ask for and what we will pay for, so we all need to think about for which kinds of representations we are willing to do both.
Of course, that's just my opinion. Well, not just mine, but I'll take the heat for it. I just feel it needed to be said.

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