Over the weekend I was alerted to a youth production of Disney's Mulan Jr. at a community theatre in Australia. Looking at pictures of the show, it looked like the cast consisted mostly of teenagers. However what stood out to me the most was the fact that there didn't appear to be a single Asian person in the cast. Instead, characters such as Mulan, Fa Zhou and Shan-Yu were all played by white teenagers.
While their make up wasn't as egregious as I've seen it with other productions, the actors still had on eye makeup in order to look "Chinese" and many of the men had drawn on fu manchus.
Normally something like this would certainly be called "yellowface" and incur the rage of many out there trying to put an end to such a practice. However what I feel is the greater discussion to have is how when shows like Mulan Jr. are performed, especially in youth theatre, there needs to be an educational component in how to portray these characters.
The goals of youth theatre certainly including entertaining and introducing performing arts to a younger generation. But I also believe they need to educate as well. And teaching young aspiring performers about portraying characters of a different race in an appropriate way is a great opportunity to increase understanding in performing arts. However, too many times I've seen youth theatre directors simply tape eyes back, add terrible accents or make incorrect assumptions about the ethnicities these kids are portraying which end up being exaggerated stereotypes.
Because of practices like these, you have an entire generation of performers growing up believing its okay or justified to whitewash roles or don yellowface or brownface.
When licesning Mulan Jr., Disney and MTI provide costume rental availability. Costume designs are based on authentic Chinese styles of the Tang Dynasty during which the story of Mulan unfolds. It's my hope that they start including workbooks that education students into the history of this period as well, in hopes to build a better understanding of who these people were. If not provided by Disney, I hope directors take it upon themselves to do it. It would make for some much more of an enriching experience.
Whitewashing, yellowface, brownface, I believe there is context in all of this. While I will certainly rail against certain theatres doing it, when it comes to youth theatre, I'm more disappointed that an educational opportunity was missed along with introducing the joys of performing to newcomers.
So I hope that if a youth theatre decides to perform Mulan Jr, Once on this Island Jr, or Hairspray Jr, and have to cast white kids in roles of color, that they take a moment and educate them on the people they're protraying.