The catalyst that initiated the conflict in Yellow Face was producer Cameron Mackintosh’s casting of Jonathan Pryce in the role of The Engineer in his musical Miss Saigon. Although we discussed some of this in class, there are several aspects of the controversy that we were not able to address. For example, we never saw what Jonathan Pryce actually looked like in yellow face.
This video gives a lot of background on the controversy. It provides some of the only available footage of Jonathan Pryce in yellow face, where he “wore eye prostheses and bronze crème to make himself look more Asian.” We even get an elaboration on the quotes referred to in Yellow Face by Actor’s Equity and Cameron Mackintosh. Mackintosh refers to Actor’s Equity as “….a poisonous atmosphere in which creativity and artistic freedom cannot function or survive….” In their defense, Alan Eisenberg, an executive secretary of Actor’s equity, responds by saying that “…the casting choice is especially disturbing when the casting of an Asian actor, in the role, would be an important and significant opportunity to break the usual pattern of casting Asians in minor roles.” These quotes reflect the two very different views on yellow face in the acting world. Is Actor’s Equity really infringing upon Mackintosh’s creative freedom by not allowing Jonathan Pryce to play an Asian character? Or should Mackintosh be considerate of the community of Asian-American actors and cast one of them in Pryce’s play, even if the actor is not at the same level as Pryce?
Lea Salonga, Kim in Cameron Mackintosh’s Miss Saigon, wrote this article 19 years after the incident with Actor’s Equity. She describes what occurred when she was cast as Kim, and provides a timeline for Miss Saigon’s journey to Broadway. This article provides a much more personal perspective of the event and gives us some insight on how the actors felt. She notes that during their first rehearsal Jonathan Pryce introduced himself by saying, “I’m Jonathan Pryce, and I’m nervous.”
Although this does not directly involve Miss Saigon, it does answer some of the questions that we asked David Rhee about casting. Lea Salonga believes that blind casting, disregarding race when casting for a play, is more prominent now and will continue to increase as directors become more open and actors become more diverse. For example, Billy Elliot and Les Miserables are two of the plays that she has acted in with blind casting.
Here are just a couple fun links of readings of Yellow Face by David Henry Hwang and actors Francis Jue and Kathryn Layng. Notice the stereotypical Asian accent that Francis uses for the character of Henry Hwang, something that David Rhee has had to battle with since the beginning of his career.