Cultural (mis)representation is a hot topic on social media right now, amid a history of Asian stereotypes being played out on NZ's stages and screen. And the issue is not black and white (or yellow). It is timely therefore that American playwright David Henry Hwang's caustically humorous play Yellow Face has its NZ premiere in Wellington next week.
Playwright and director Cassandra Tse talks to Renee Liang about diversity, cultural representation and opportunities.
Writer, producer, director and designer - best to separate out or mix up?
As in one person being all these roles? Having only designed a show once I couldn't really say on that point, but I much prefer to separate my directing and my writing. In my experience, directing a show that you've written means that you can see the final project incredibly clearly from a single vantage point. Introducing another pair of eyes and voice allows someone else to discover new things about the play that you might have missed.
What's been your experience of Asian theatre in New Zealand to date? What's needed to shake it up?
The vast majority of Asian theatre in NZ that I've seen is about immigrants coming to NZ, or about tradition, mythology, history. It's not that I don't find that stuff interesting - but I do find it kind of alienating because none of that is my experience. There are not enough stories being told about how race and Asian identity affects third or fourth generation New Zealanders, and how we reconcile being socially and culturally Kiwi, while still bearing a physical appearance that marks us as 'other'. Although Yellow Face is an American play, I honestly found it so much more relatable on this point than any of the NZ Asian theatre I've seen... though, I'm aware that there are a lot of Asian NZ plays being put on up in Auckland than I've gotten to experience down here in Wellington, so I'm sure I've missed out on some wonderful stuff from the practitioners working up there.
You're an actor as well.. what's been your worse experience of stereotyping to date?
The worst role I've ever played was probably Tiger Lily in the Scots College production of Peter Pan - they're an all-boys school, and so only a small handful of girls from other schools auditioned, of which I was the only non-white one. The terrible faux-mystical broken English she had to speak made even 16-year-old me cringe, so I used to adlib-in better grammar. (Incidentally, I just looked the show up and realised the version we performed was written in the 1990s - so no "it was okay back then" excuse!)
You have a diverse, but ethnic-appropriate cast. How did you find them?
We approached Alex, who plays DHH, beforehand - I'd seen him in a few shows already and been really impressed by his work - and also pre-auditioned James, who I'd had in mind for Marcus from the first reading. The rest of our cast we reached through open auditions, advertised primarily on Facebook and StarNow. I was honestly really thrilled and amazed by the amount of Asian actors who leapt at the chance to audition for the show, including a few who came down from Auckland.
What's been your experience/observations of yellowface casting in NZ?
I find it interesting that it goes unchallenged so often. It's definitely not gone unnoticed by our cast that our show follows a certain Japanese-set production with all white leads and all white production team, which hasn't received any criticism as far as I know. I think white New Zealanders have accepted that blackface is bad (well, most of them) but haven't extended that thinking to other racial groups - and I think that's because they often couldn't actually articulate why it's bad. Here's a quick explanation for any readers who fall into that camp - blackface/yellowface come out of a long history of mocking POC for their 'alien' features and thereby reducing them to stereotypes of villainy or foolishness - given this history, a person dressing up as another race even with the purest of intentions has to acknowledge they don't exist in a vacuum, and are re-enacting a traumatic practice.
One of the common excuses for not appropriately casting Asian actors in Asian roles is that there's not enough of them. What's your response?
First of all, I'd say that there are more than you think. When I first told people that I'd be putting this play on, a lot of them voiced concern that we wouldn't find the performers; the fantastic cast we have ended up with shows that it's more than doable. Secondly, I'm of the opinion that if you can't find an Asian actor, then please at least cast a non-white actor! I tend to think that as David Henry Hwang himself puts it, it's an employment issue. People of colour have fewer acting opportunities as it is - by giving a POC part to a white person, you're taking away yet another opportunity. In today's world, white-washing, as this practice is called, is actually a far more serious issue than yellowface itself.
How have rehearsals gone so far? Any 'discoveries'?
We've been racing through and by the end of this week we'll have the entire show staged, which is something we wouldn't have been able to do without such a talented and dedicated group of actors! I think the best thing about rehearsing any comedy is trying to find ways to crack each other up throughout the process and we have certainly been doing that. For the four actors in the show who are playing multiple roles, it's been interesting digging into how we can differentiate them, exploring accent, posture, tics and the like.
Tell me about your time in New York. Did you meet David Henry Hwang? Any plans to return?
I met him twice! (he forgot who I was the first time). I interned at Signature Theatre off-Broadway, where David is a resident playwright, so he'd pop in on occasion to use the playwright's office they provide for their residents. I was over there when he got stabbed in the neck last year, which was pretty scary. I'd love to return, but there are of course a lot of visa difficulties. And, with the current political climate, I'll probably want to wait until at least 2020...
What are you doing next?
I've got a really exciting project coming up in August - James Cain and I are co-writing a musical called M'Lady, which is a satire set in the world of pick up artists and MRAs. It's going to be an all-female show with all the actresses in drag, with Michael Stebbings composing the original score of something like sixteen numbers.
- Yellow Face runs from the 9-18 March at Whitireia Performance Centre . Tickets are $18 for concession, $20 for full price. This production is funded by Asia New Zealand Foundation.