- OnStage Founder & Editor-in-Chief
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?!?!"
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.
However one role stands out when it comes to white performers being cast instead of Asian performers, that's Christmas Eve from Avenue Q. For some odd reason, there are directors out there who feel it's okay to cast a white performer in that role if no Asian performers show up to audition. Or worse yet, when they do and a white performer is cast instead. Don't believe me? Just Google "Christmas Eve Avenue Q", scroll down and be prepared to shake your head.
It's wrong on every level. Both because you're denying a role for a POC that was written for them, but also you're casting a white person in a role, which when played by a white person, comes off extremely offensive.
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.
If your theatre would never cast a white actor in Blackface, then why is it okay to cast them in Yellowface? Or Brownface?
So if you know a theatre in your area that is doing something like these, feel free to forward this column along.