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Dear West End Wilma: Here’s An Explanation of the Yellowface Debate

yellowface West End Wilma and I sharing a tipple at the London Cabaret Awards 2014. Photograph: Courtesy of Samuel Collins

Wading into the yellowface debate, I can’t exactly expect others not to. But West End Wilma’s offering misses the point, causing more offence than thought.

Dear West End Wilma,

You’ve probably guessed by my tweets last night that I’m very upset. Not just about the yellowface debate, but now also about your contribution to it. What happened? I’ve spent some time admiring you, learning from your great success with the publication, and enjoying your opinions. But this? This is a big pile of “WTF!”.

As my reputation for verbosity precedes me, rather than have a Twitter war, I’d rather take the time to write to you and let you know exactly why I find your contribution offensive. I’ve got my cup of tea ready, and I hope you’ve got yours.

Sorry, You Don’t Get To Define Our Language

Yellowface, here, isn’t about false buckteeth, sellotaped eyelids, or sticking marzipan to your cheeks. It’s about a white actor playing an East Asian character, and that’s what we’re angry about…

You think yellowface and blackface are anachronistic terms and shouldn’t be used because this situation doesn’t actually involve putting on yellow face-makeup anymore (thank goodness). We know that’s not happening, but we’re using this word as we feel the Print Room’s casting decision for In The Depths of Dead Love is akin to doing this. What the use of yellowface means here is the erasure of East Asians in theatre. We’re saying: why should an East Asian character not be played by an East Asian actor when there’s every opportunity for it to be done so? Why should a minority demographic in theatre, who are already finding it difficult to get roles because of their outward appearance, stand idly by watching an East Asian character get given to a white actor?

Yellowface, here, isn’t about false buckteeth, sellotaped eyelids, or sticking marzipan to your cheeks. It’s about a white actor playing an East Asian character, and that’s what we’re angry about, and that’s why we’re using the term yellowface. The argument is not yours to own, and therefore not yours to define. So, please don’t.

Just Because Diversity is Elsewhere Doesn’t Make It Universal

…we’re absolutely not campaigning for literal casting all the time. We’re asking then when a role comes up for a Chinese character, be wild, and cast a Chinese actor.

Yes, the National Theatre are brilliant at BAME (black and minority ethnicities) and diverse casting. You’re absolutely right in pointing out that a male Tinkerbell and a female Captain Hook in Peter Pan are brilliant things. The National Theatre have been striving to do such radical castings for some time now because they’re well aware that parts for BAME, PoC (people of colour), and even women (shock horror) are difficult to get elsewhere. I mean, they’ve also dashed the idea of “historical accuracy” by having a black Salieri in Amadeus (good grief), and that’s marvellous!

But I don’t think you’ve quite understood the idea behind blind casting. It’s to give under-represented actors opportunities. It’s asking the question of “why should this character be white and/or male?” The National Theatre, and other great diverse casters such as Shakespeare’s Globe, are actually challenging a norm that is still endemic, but thankfully, improving.

It’s not at all about being literal i.e. having the Les Miserables cast go “he-haw he-haw” every so often (God forbid), which is what you and people like Robert Peacock (bless his cotton socks) are trying to argue. It’s about ensuring we’re not marginalising people who, by all accounts, can be cast in the role, especially when it’s apt to i.e. a BAME/PoC character. If we take the argument for being literal in theatre that you and Mr Peacock are making and flip it, saying it’s always appropriate for any actor to play any role, you potentially end up excusing things like an all-white version of The Kite Runner, which wouldn’t really fly, now, would it? (I’m not apologising for the pun)

So, please be aware that we’re absolutely not campaigning for literal casting all the time. We’re asking that when a role comes up for a Chinese character, be wild, and cast a Chinese actor. Remember, we’re asking this because there are many times BAME, PoC, and women are denied the opportunity to play white and/or male roles when the same role could be easily played by anyone: like Nana the dog!

It’s Not Great for Gay Actors Either

…43% of actors aren’t out to their agents because they fear it’ll affect their chances of being cast in straight roles.

I’m sure you’ve figured out by now that I’m a homosexual. I’ve no doubt there may be some in your own family that you know about. Yes, we don’t see many people openly complaining about why Sir Ian McKellan, Neil Partick Harris, and Russell Tovey (swoon) are playing straight roles. But, in 2012, Equity did a survey of LGBT members, and found that 43% of actors aren’t out to their agents because they fear it’ll affect their chances of being cast in straight roles. I hope that in four years that’s changed at least a little (fingers crossed), but gays playing straight roles is still not an issue to make light of, and I don’t think it was very nice to do that.

Don’t Try to Undermine Us Because You Don’t Think It’s A Problem

…what you’ve done here is “white-splained”. You’ve made a judgement based on a privileged perception, and proceeded to use it as a way to tell people, especially those who are affected, that they’re wrong because you don’t feel the same way.

The thing that has offended me the most is how you’ve described us as having a “moan” and “throwing our toys out of the pram”. Wow. That’s really offensive (sad face emoji). We’re upset and we have good cause to be. This isn’t a grumble from a select few, but a problem the East Asian acting community have been experiencing for decades in theatre and film. I know you seem to have a much more positive outlook about how the theatre world operates, and that’s nice. But you really can’t dismiss people so flippantly because they see things differently from you. We don’t want to shut you out of the argument: you, of course, have a right to have your opinion and to share it. But what you’ve done here is “white-splained”. You’ve made a judgement based on a privileged perception, and proceeded to use it as a way to tell people, especially those who are affected, that they’re wrong because you don’t feel the same way.

You’re a lovely lady, Wilma, and I can’t ever imagine you being behind the #alllivesmatter movement. But at the moment, you seem to be with the #allcastingmatters movement, which is quite similar.

Tea, soon?

…maybe you should think a bit more, and listen a bit more to the voices of those directly affected, before adding your two pence to the debate.

All in all, Wilma, I apologise for being mean to you on Twitter. I’m just very angry at the moment, you see, especially being half-Chinese myself, and coming across your article hasn’t helped my mood at all. The above is just what I feel the debate to be about, so you might want to also have a chat with lovely people like Daniel York, and some other actors who are a bit more East Asian than I am. But, I just wanted to say that, maybe you should think a bit more, and listen a bit more to the voices of those directly affected, before adding your two pence to the debate.

Now that that’s over and done with, maybe we can catch up over some tea, soon: my treat? Or maybe even a gin (Lord knows I need one)?!

Yours grumpily,
James Waygood

ps: Here are some other great articles for you to read, and listen to what we’re actually saying.

Jamie Zubairi
Lucy Sheen (for Resonate)