Yellowface in 'Jerome Robbins Broadway' is as Confusing as it is Inappropriate


The historic and prolific St. Louis Municipal Opera Theatre (commonly known as The Muny), is marking a rare feat for regional theatres, its 100th season. It's a milestone that should rightfully be celebrated in not only the St. Louis theatrical community but here in New York City as well, as many a performer has graced that stage at one time or another. 

However, their season is off to a bumpy start with how they've decided to stage various numbers in their production of Jerome Robbins' Broadway. The show, which serves as a tribute anthology to shows that Robbins worked on, features fully produced recreations of his choreography. That means these numbers are done in the context of the shows they’re from and with full costuming. And that is where the problem lies. 

During the number from The King and I, "The Small House of Uncle Thomas", while other featured roles within the ballet are played by Asian American and Pacific Islander(AAPI) performers, the role of Tuptim is being played by white actress, Sarah Bowden. This is evidenced by both her bio on the show's website and her now-deleted Instagram post(pictured below).

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To make matters worse, I've been told from those who have seen the show, that Ms. Bowden performs Tuptim's narrations during the ballet in a "broken English accent" which has been described as "jarring" and "insulting".

So there's a lot to unpack here. 

Obviously, if this was a fully staged production of The King and I the role of Tuptim would have been played by an AAPI performer. Or at least I would hope so. 

However, because Jerome Robbins' Broadway is a tribute anthology with fully staged re-created numbers, the role of Tuptim still should have been played by an AAPI performer. Especially for a number like this, where the ballet is seen as an anti-slavery protest to the King of Siam. By casting a white actress in the role, with a "broken-English" accent included, really comes off as tone-deaf and doesn't serve the piece at all. 

My disappointment and anger with this aren't mine alone. Last night, a group of AAPI performers and others who were in town for the Theatre Communications Group's "Aesthetic Perspectives" event, staged a protest and walk out during the number. The video of the protest can be seen here. In the video you can also hear a little of Ms. Bowden's "broken english" accent at the 1-minute mark's bad. 

Now I would be lying if I thought that staging a protest and walk out during a show was always appropriate. However, I can certainly understand where the protesters were coming from. 

What makes this situation so frustrating is that it was so easily avoidable. Knowing that they had to cast featured roles for this number, the correct amount of AAPI performers should have been hired. The same was done for the West Side Story suite in the show, so why not here? 

Why didn't the director, Broadway AAPI icon Cynthia Onrubia, insist on having such a role be cast correctly? Why did she direct the actress to perform it with a broken-English accent which Ms. Onrubia had to have known would be seen as offensive?

Also keep in mind that this is The Muny we're talking about, not some obscure little theatre in the middle of nowhere. They attract hundreds to their auditions each year, both in St. Louis and NYC. So they had the audition pool to pull from when it came to making sure roles like these were covered. Why weren't more AAPI's cast?

While I don't put 100% of the blame on the actress, Sarah Bowden. I do have to ask why she didn't think it was wrong that she was performing a role, meant for an AAPI, in Yellowface? Although, being told by an AAPI director that it's okay, would have probably quelled those questions. So the other part of the blame is on Ms. Onrubia. 

The show closes tomorrow, so this article, the protest, they aren't going to change anything. But what it will do is hopefully let the directors at The Muny and elsewhere know that these types of casting practices need to end. There are no excuses anymore for appropriation like this to be taking place on our stages. If you're a professional company, able to hire the correct amount of performers of color for specific roles, you need to do so. If you're an amateur company looking to do these types of shows but don't have the performers of color in your community, don't do the show. 

And white performers, we need you to start being better allies.