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The Milton Measure

The Yellowface Behind Milton’s Yellow Face Production

by on Friday, April 28th, 2017

Next month is May, also known as Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. The history of APAHM began in October, 1978, when President Jimmy Carter designated the first ten days of May as Asian Pacific American Heritage Week. President H.W. Bush later officially appointed May as Asian Pacific American Heritage Month in October, 1992.

This spring at Milton, Peter Parisi is directing David Henry Hwang’s play Yellow Face. This play is Milton’s first show which focuses on Asian-American issues. The show is semi-autobiographical and highlights the time period after Hwang won a Tony Award. Although he is a character in his own production, he plays with the line between fiction and fact. In the play, he leads protests of the casting of Jonathan Pryce in a role of an Asian character in the Broadway production of Miss Saigon and deems the phenomenon “yellowface.”

A current issue for Asian American actors/actresses, Yellowface is the portrayal of an Asian character with a non-Asian, usually white, actor/actress. For example, Scarlett Johansson recently starred as a Japanese character in the film Ghost in the Shell. In the classic movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Mickey Rooney, a white man, similarly played a Japanese man. Not only do these movies promote yellowface but also racist stereotypes of Asian people. Mickey Rooney taped his eyes, bucked his teeth, pretended to be overly myopic, and faked an offensive, aggressive accent.

In the play, Hwang accidentally casts a caucasian actor, Marcus G. Dahlman, who takes on a stage name to better fit his asian roles—Marcus Gee. He mistakes Marcus for mixed-raced, Siberian Jew, casting him as the lead Asian role in his own Broadway comedy, Face Value. The play enters the late-1990’s, when many white people in America alienated Asian Americans.

Not many people know about issues Asian American people and students face every day. Due to the lack of representation of Asian American voices and presence in the world as well as in the Milton community, the making of Yellow Face became more and more urgent. Cecilia Guan (II), who plays multiple roles, including Marcus Gee’s mother, voices the necessity of this play in our community. She talks about how Hairspray, a play performed last year, discussed important issues but was geared mostly towards white and black people.

Cecilia explains, “The core casting [in Hairspray] reflected the play accurately, but the creation of the subgroups almost felt like an afterthought.” These subgroups Cecilia refers to were the group of three Asian girls called the Fortune Cookies. She acknowledges the importance of the play but states that the choices made to unintentionally exclude Asian students did not reflect the diversity of the school, although everyone was welcome to join. She says, “I didn’t feel comfortable being in a play that showed my culture as sort of an afterthought, with no real development or reason other than that people were available.” She, along with other acting Asian students, believes that Milton needed more awareness of the specific issues Asian American people encountered in day to day life.

Kelly Lo (II), who plays Hwang’s mother in Yellow Face, states that social justice issues at Milton “work towards the voices of black people and Latino people, a specific demographic,” and although these efforts are amazing and should not stop, she also states that “Asian Society and International Students Club are not doing as much as the [other culture groups on campus in terms of whole community awareness].”

Although the play talks specifically about Asian Americans and the acting industry, Mr. Parisi, Ms. WuWong, and the cast of Yellow Face hope that this play will open up conversation about the Asian experience at Milton and in the world.

Furthermore, Yellow Face not only addresses issues of erasure in Asian identities, but also in other races as well. Marcus Gee, the white man pretending to be Asian, says, “I don’t have to live Asian every day of my life. I am choosing to do so.” Hwang fires back with, “Funny thing about race. You don’t get to choose. If you’d been born a minority, you’d know that.” The play reaches out to all minorities with this— this feeling of not getting to choose, and having people not understand this feeling of not having a choice.

I encourage every Milton student and faculty member to watch this play because it is the first Asian American play at Milton Academy. It is not only the symbol of the many voices that will now be heard, but also the many voices that have been silenced by society up until now.

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Posted by on Apr 28 2017. Filed under More Opinion, Opinion, Recent Opinion. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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