Apparently, there’s a new production of Gilbert & Sullivan’s musical The Mikado up in Seattle (produced by the Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society) that’s rankled some in the community for its “yellow face” casting—all 40 Japanese characters in the show are played by 38 white actors and 2 Latinos in full-on “Oriental” mode.
In general, it’s almost never OK to do yellow face so if you’re a non-Asian and you’re considering following in the footsteps of the Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society,
fuck you just don’t do it. But like all rules, there are a few exceptions and here they are:
1) IF YOU’RE ACTUALLY SATIRIZING OR MAKING FUN OF THE PRACTICE OF YELLOW FACE AND/OR THE IDIOTS BEHIND IT
As a general rule, if you wouldn’t put a white actor in black face in any particular situation, you shouldn’t be OK with putting them in yellow face. However, I can think of at least two recent examples where the use of black face was justified—on a couple of episodes of the NBC series 30 Rock and the Ben Stiller flick Tropic Thunder. In both instances, white actors donned black face but it was to point out the absurdity of the white characters who were doing it in the first place (yes, it’s all very meta). So if you want to do a play or film poking fun at a clueless white theater company in an otherwise diverse city that chooses to put on a production of a play set in Asia with a white cast in yellow face, then this would be OK.
2) IF IT’S NECESSARY FOR HISTORICAL ACCURACY
If you’re producing a project that, say, takes place in 1937 Hollywood and one of your characters is a white actor who has been cast in a film based on a best-selling book set in China to play a Chinese peasant in yellow face—that is historical accurate and would be OK. But if said character falls in love with one of the exotic and beautiful Asian prostitute-playing extras and shows her how the West is superior to the East, this is not OK.
3) IF YOU’RE LINDA HUNT
I’ve previously blogged about the yellow face performances that I find interesting, but of all the yellow face performances I have seen, there has only been one that I would argue was completely justified and necessary—Linda Hunt in the 1982 film The Year of Living Dangerously. In that movie, set during the backdrop of the 1965 Indonesian coup attempt and for which she won an Oscar, Hunt plays a male Asian dwarf. She is none of those things in real life yet delivers a performance that is both so authentic (no “ching chongy” bullshit here) and so bizarrely surreal that I am convinced no other human being on the planet could have played the role better than her.
4) IF YOU’RE TRYING TO INFILTRATE THE KU KLUX KLAN AND THE ONLY WAY TO DO SO IS TO TAKE A ROLE IN THEIR PRODUCTION OF THE MIKADO
Let’s say you’re an FBI agent tasked with infiltrating the KKK or some other white supremacy group. And let’s say those white supremacists are producing their own version of The Mikado using all white actors in yellow face and the only way you can win their trust is to take a role in that production, then by all means slap on those buck teeth and slanty eyes and bust some KKK heads.
5) IF YOU’RE LIVING IN A POST-APOCALYPTIC SOCIETY WHERE ALL THE ASIANS ARE DEAD AND, DAMNIT, YOU JUST NEED YOUR MIKADO FIX
If you’re living in a world where intelligent apes have taken over and released some sort of simian flu in the process that apparently has targeted and wiped out the Asian population for some unknown or unexplained reason and you’re just craving to perform in an “authentic” version of The Mikado, I’ll reluctantly give you a pass. At the least, there won’t be any Asians alive to accuse you of being a racist prick so what would you care anyway?
6) IF IT IS THE ONLY WAY TO GET SCARLETT JOHANSSON TO HAVE SEX WITH YOU
If Scarlett Johansson’s dream role was to play the role of the Japanese woman who kills herself for the white dude in Madama Butterfly and she wanted to do it as authentically as possible (i.e. be Japanese) and she came to
me you and asked me you if I you would support her in this decision in return for a night of hot passionate love, in that situation the correct answer would be—Hell friggin’ yes!