Race & Theatre: No Asian Actresses for Christmas Eve? Then You Don't Get to Produce Avenue Q

Race & Theatre: No Asian Actresses for Christmas Eve? Then You Don't Get to Produce Avenue Q

Chris Peterson

  • OnStage Founder

Imagine walking into a performance of Fences, one of the great plays of the 20th century which explores the evolving African-American experience in the 1950's. 

The lights go down, the curtain rises and the character of Troy is on stage. Only he's not being played by a talented black actor. Instead he's being played by a white actor in blackface.

I imagine this would cause a lot of outrage. You storm out into the lobby and demand answers from the theatre on why they would allow such an egregious action to take place. 

"It was because we didn't get enough black performers to come out to audition", the theatre says.

I would hope, the only question on your mind would be, "They when on Earth would you do the show?!?!"

Photo by Tessa Sollway.

Photo by Tessa Sollway.

While this scenario might sound ridiculous to you. It's all too common for Asian-American theatre goers. Time and time again there have been instances where roles that were written for Asian actors, are performed by white actors dressed and made to look Asian, which is better known as "Yellowface". I've seen in in productions of The King & I, Thoroughly Modern Millie and Miss Saigon. We all remember the disaster over the NY Gilbert & Sullivan group's production of The Mikado and issues over "Singapore Sue" in the recent Broadway revival of Dames at Sea. 

The latest example to come across my desk is that of a production of Avenue Q at the Vagabond Players in Baltimore which decided to produce the show with a white woman playing the role of Japanese Immigrant, Christmas Eve. (Pictured above)

While this is far from the first time I've seen this character played by a white woman, it's the latest. And while it's not the most infuriating depiction of "Yellowface" for this character (You're still top my list, Highland Park Players) , it's still really insulting. 

So the question needs to be raised, if the Vagabond Players, which considers itself the country's "oldest continuous little theatre", could not find one Asian actress to play the role, then why produce the show? 

Why would any theatre produce a show with ethnically designed characters without having the correct ethnic actors to portray them? 

Per usual, the typical excuse came in the most childish way from the Vagabond Players, captured so perfectly by fellow blogger, Erin Quill. (Pictured right)

I might buy this excuse if they were producing this show where there is a very low Asian population, but it's Baltimore. 

I'm not sure these theatres get the point. If you don't have the minorities necessary to play these roles, you don't perform the show. It's that simple. Yet, it happens often. Usually the excuse is because "acting is about stepping into another person's shoes." This usually comes from theatre admins and directors defending a white performer playing Anita or Usnavi. 

Funny how they don't accept that excuse if suggested a Black Julie Jordan or Asian Willy Loman. 

The bottom line is this. These roles were written a specific way for actors of color to perform them. Purposefully taking that away by replacing them with white actors playing Asian, is offensive and the excuses coming from these companies are ludicrous. I hope the theatre licensing houses take a much needed look at reworking their language to prevent this in the future. 

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