A letter to the San Diego Opera regarding yellowface in their production of “Nixon in China”

In 2014, the San Diego Opera reached out to us at Pacific Arts Movement about helping them promote their production of “Nixon in China.” We had a meeting with them during which they explained to us that Mao would be played by a white actor. With that, we declined. To their credit, the opera invited us to write a letter to their staff and board about why we could not support yellowface. Honestly, I groaned at the whole thing and wondered why we had to waste mental energy on this age-old debate. But I wrote the letter, and years later I’m pleased that it became an important document for our organization internally.

At Pac Arts, we had originally toyed with the idea of publishing this letter publicly, but decided not to. Well, in case it’s useful to anybody today, here it is.

To the staff and board of the San Diego Opera,

First off, I would like to thank you for the opportunity to express our thoughts and concerns about the San Diego Opera’s upcoming presentation of Nixon in China. It tells us that the Opera is open to dialogue about issues important to the Asian American community, as well as to diversity in the San Diego region more generally.

Much of what I have to say is probably very familiar to the Opera, as it touches upon some of the central debates of American theater of the past few decades. That debate first came to a head in the late 1980s with the casting of Miss Saigon. Eyes shaped slanted by prosthetics, skin yellowed by bronzing lotion: Broadway saw the collision of yellow peril visual culture with the sordid history of blackface. More recently, we have seen similar controversies over the Nightingale at the La Jolla Playhouse, in which yellowface was defended on the grounds of artistic license, and yet the power dynamics of “color blindness” were clear: whites could play Asians but not the other way around. This year, a performance of The Mikado in Seattle sparked debate over whether yellowface could be defended on the grounds of historical preservation.

The very recourse to “historical accuracy” or “color blindness” indicates that by now, the theater community knows that yellowface is a stain in American theater that needs a new framework to think about acting, makeup, casting, and adaptation.  The conversation surrounding Nightingale and The Mikado raised important points about how this new framework might look, and all parties, including Asian Americans, understand the importance of artistic license and cultural preservation.  However, tensions still arise because the playing ground continues to be uneven.  Why are white producers always the only ones evoking artistic license?  Why are the only histories being preserved the histories of white theater?  This new framework cannot simply be devised to protect the interests of white theater artists, their stories, and their traditions.  Non-white communities like Asian Americans can feel when their voices aren’t taken seriously, even when they are offered a seat at the table.

Whether on film, on TV, or in the theater, the history of Asian American performance in the United States has been one of erasure.  Superstar Anna May Wong was denied a role in Hollywood’s high-profile adaption of The Good Earth, and was ultimately driven to Europe and Asia to seek out work.  Budding actor Bruce Lee was passed over for the lead in television’s Kung Fu in favor of a white actor with eyes taped back.  And repeatedly, Asian American theater actors see the most high-profile roles – especially lead roles – go to white counterparts donning yellowface.  This history is as tiring as the controversy that’s trailed it over the decades.  It reminds Asian Americans of their larger erasure from American life: Japanese American incarceration not being taught in schools even today, the significant populations of Asian Americans under the poverty line kept in the shadows thanks to mainstream perceptions of Asians as the “model minority,” the so-called “bamboo ceiling” that continues to keep Asian Americans out of positions of corporate and civic leadership.  Put in this context, any evocation of “color blindness” is as laughable as any proclamation of America being a “post-racial” nation.  Asian Americans groan at the thought of color blindness because every day they are the object of a racialized gaze.

As an artistic director, I take artistic license seriously. It is the lifeforce of creativity and a bastion for freedom of speech. But so rarely is the spirit of artistic license used to push the limits of expression; instead it has become a refuge to hide behind and justify what is actually artistic regression. I’m excited about the possibility of cross-racial casting. The centrality of race in the conversation of American life and history means we should find ways to evoke race that are playful, incendiary, strange, or impassioned. But the conversations we’ve seen with Miss Saigon or The Nightingale don’t excite me. They make race less interesting, more status quo. They aren’t artistically adventurous and demean what it means to have artistic license.

The case of Nixon in China doesn’t get me that worked up, in part because the San Diego Opera hasn’t resorted to claiming artistic license and has, to us anyway, owned up to the fact that the final cast is a compromised one.  But given this long history of erasure and the continued suppression of Asian or Asian American voices – even when Asia is being presented, as is the case of Nixon in China – we are unable to extend our support of the production, nor are we in a position where we can in good faith encourage anybody to see it.  The history of western opera is full of orientalist discourse (Madama Butterfly, most famously) and it pains us to think that the only contemporary productions revolving Asians do little to change that.

Again, many thanks for hearing us out.  We support the Opera because we love opera as an art form with the potential to bring people together, enlighten and entertain, and thrust us into some of the most awe-inspiring music humanity has ever known.  So let’s keep this dialogue going so we can further understand what terms in which the greater San Diego community in fact wants to come together and be transformed.


Brian Hu