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Wednesday, August 13, 2014

On NPR, a Chinese playwright was talking about going to see a production of Gilbert and Sullivan's 1885 comic opera THE MIKADO. Her issue was yellow-face. The D'Oyley Carte company was all Caucasians made up to resemble Japanese courtiers:


We don't tolerate blackface performances any more. Not only don't we tolerate Amos'n'Andy style sterotyped Stepin Fetchit blackface, we generally expect that black characters in drama will be played by actors of color. Laurence Olivier could not play Othello these days.

So if we don't tolerate blackface any more, her question was, why tolerate yellowface?

That's an interesting and fraught question. I'd never thought of THE MIKADO making fun of the Japanese. I've thought of it as a parody of Meiji era Japanese mores and culture — arguably a stealth parody of Victorian mores and culture dressed up as a parody of Japanese court culture.

I would be happy to lose Mickey Rooney's horrible bucktoothed Mr. Yunioshi in BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY's. But THE MIKADO?

No doubt it would be offensive to have European actors in actual yellowface. But from what I can see from Google Images, D'Oyly Carte doesn't seem to put any kind of pseudo-Japanese makeup on its actors. In some performances their actors just look English, in Japanese clothes. In others they're wearing Kabuki makeup. (Whiteface!) Is it still offensive to have Europeans playing nominally Japanese characters, if not made up to look Japanese?

On the other hand: do we really need the kimonos to have the opera? You can dress your singers in sort-of European garb and Kabuki makeup, but still have characters called Nanki-Poo and Pooh-Bah, the Lord High Everything Else. Is that better?

I guess part of the reason I never felt offended personally by THE MIKADO, while I find blackface offensive, is that no oppression is involved. The English were not oppressing the Japanese, especially not Japanese courtiers, in 1885. The Japanese were simply outlandish strangers that everyone wanted to know more about. (W. S. Gilbert conceived the opera after looking at a Japanese sword he'd picked up. Japanese stuff was all the rage in London in the early 1880's.)

But there's still that nagging question. Is it always bad if a white guy plays a non-white guy?
I love LAWRENCE OF ARABIA. Alec Guinness is wonderful as King Faisal and Anthony Quinn plays Abu Ben Tayi with great gusto. But they're both white guys playing Bedouin Arabs. (Omar Sharif, at least, was Egyptian.)

They play Bedouins with great respect. But is that enough?

There's a sort of vague consensus in Hollywood that, I think, goes something like this: any Asian can play any Asian. Any brown person can play any other brown person. (I have an Armenian friend who mostly plays Arabs.) Only black people are allowed to play Black people. Only Natives and Inuits can play Natives and Inuits.

And white people can play anyone except Black people. Because all we only have white and Black stars.

It gets confusing at the borders. Is it okay if Angelina Jolie plays Mariane Pearl, who was of mixed heritage? Is it okay if Fred Armisen plays Barack Obama, whose mom was white? Some Black people still subscribe to the "one drop" theory: if you have any African heritage, you're black. Jolie got a lot of criticism for playing Mariane Pearl. Halle Berry says she considers her daughter to be black, even though her daughter is mostly of European descent (and, I'm guessing, Halle Berry too). Ironically, "one drop" was a white racist rule from slavery days. Sally Hemings was 3/4 white, but Thomas Jefferson's slave; her children were 7/8 white, but they were still slaves until Jefferson legally freed them.

(Of course, there would be an uproar if you cast a white actress to play Sally Hemings. But it might not be a good artistic choice, anyway. Virginians would have seen her as Black, even if she probably didn't look it.)

I'm not sure how to frame this consistently as a moral issue. I can't think of a logical moral argument why it's okay for an Armenian to play an Arab but a Mexican can't play an American Indian. It would be considered ridiculous for Danish actors to object when Hamlet is performed by Englishmen, or for Italians to complain that Romeo and Juliet makes them look like a bunch of hotheads. As a Jew, I don't feel that the Merchant of Venice should only be played by a Jew.

But there is a sense that it is unseemly for white people to play non-white roles. Especially when there are so few decent ones. 

And maybe there is sort of a calculus of oppression. A Mexican can't play a Native American because we've oppressed the Native Americans so much. 
European ambassadors (black caps) meeting
a Moorish king (white turban), who does not look
like Laurence Fishburne.

To further confuse the issue, some racial casting is based on faulty assumptions. In America, Othello must be played by an African-American. But the Moors were Mediterraneans (Berbers and Arabs), not sub-Saharan Africans. Should Arabs complain when Laurence Fishburne gets to play a Moor?

And of course, every time some white chick plays Cleopatra, Facebook explodes with people complaining that she should be played by an African-American. Cleopatra was Ptolemy, meaning a Greek descended from one of Alexander the Great's generals. We have lots of coins with her face on them.

And then there's Ridley Scott's new movie EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS, where he cast white people in all the leads, and all the villains and servants with Black people. This is wrong both ways. Moses and Ramses were almost certainly not white, but they weren't Black either.

Egyptians riding chariots, attended by Nubians.
The ancient Egyptians probably looked more like modern Coptic Egyptians than like Ethiopians or Southern Sudanese. Ancient Egyptian art makes a clear distinction between Nubians, who are painted in dark pigments, while the Egyptians themselves are painted in reddish pigments.

On the other hand, there are some statues of Ramses that have vaguely African noses.

All of which is to say: I'm confused. I can understand how a Japanese person could feel insulted by THE MIKADO. But I hope she wouldn't be. And I think it's a bit of a stretch for a Chinese person to be insulted by THE MIKADO. But then, I'm not an Asian person watching THE MIKADO. One of the best definitions of privilege that I've heard is "when you don't think something is a problem, because it's not a problem for you."

Is there any valid criterion, other than "this feels uncomfortably racist, and that is just silly"? I can't stand Mickey Rooney in BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S and I'm not going to rent SONG OF THE SOUTH. But LAWRENCE feels okay. And I'd really hate to lose "I am so proud." Why do I draw the lines here and there? Should I draw them somewhere else?


All I can say is:  I hope we get to the point where it no longer matters. In Shakespeare's day, Italians and Danes really were foreigners. One day, maybe no one will feel insulted by THE MIKADO because they don't feel that the show is in any way directed at them, and they can enjoy the three little maids who, all unwary, come from a ladies' seminary.

What do you think?

Next post:  I babble on about the Ukrainian crisis. 

3 Comments:

A fascinating question with no easy answers. Are we most concerned with artistic merit (Alec Guinness in "Lawrence"), the boorish caricatures (Mickey Rooney) or employment opportunities (black actors should play black characters because there are so few good roles)? The notion of color-blind casting has been used on stage very effectively. I recently saw a Romeo and Juliet production where both families were a mixture of ethnicities and, after a moment, it completely ceased to matter or even be noticed. I'll be interested to read other comments.

By Blogger VLucas, at 1:55 PM  

This comment has been removed by the author.

By Blogger odocoileus, at 10:52 PM  

What we call race isn't fixed. It varies over time and from place to place. Vanessa Williams, for example, is black in the US, but she'd be colored in South Africa, and white in Brazil. We Americans have a particularly hard time dealing with mixing. So we say that Eartha Kitt was black, but her daughters are white. We call National Security Advisor Susan Rice is black, but her daughter is a fair skinned blonde

Basically, race is whatever the people with power say it is. The reason for the disputes is that power is more diffuse these days. Lots of people have a say, so there isn't a single standard.
When I was getting started as an AD, we were advised to be careful about casting Korean Americans as Japanese, especially if the production was funded by a Japanese company. In LA, there are lots of full blooded Koreans, who at least to Western eyes, can pass for Japanese. Full blooded Japanese are harder to come by, because there are fewer of them, and they're more likely to have intermarried, having been in the US for generations.

For the ancient Egyptians, the latest genetics research gives most of the population a Middle Eastern origin, with mixture from sub Saharan Africa and Mediterranean Europe. Of course, Egypt was conquered and ruled by Nubians for a century. Egypt was in existence for thousands of years, and their looks varied with migration, and intermarriage. New Kingdom noblewoman Tiye http://goo.gl/Hgg4Ni looked like what most of the world calls black, as did Middle Kingdom Pharoah Menjuhtope II http://goo.gl/A2kIYU .

Does it matter? Who's paying for the production, and what is the target audience?When we say black, do we mean, black like black Americans, or black like Nubians? http://goo.gl/xB6gt5

Manute Bol was a Dinka, an ethnic group that's close cousin to the ancient Nubians. Charles Barkley, on the other hand, is the typical mixed black American, with African, European, and Native American ancestry. Even today, quite a few Egyptians look more or less like Barkley.

Are Mexican actors allowed to play Native Americans? They match in terms of looks and genetics, but the politics are risky. Do actors have to at least look Norwegian to do an Ibsen play? That makes the plays impossible to cast here in So Cal. You'd have better luck in Minnesota.

By Blogger odocoileus, at 10:56 PM  

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