Yellow-Faced Coolies and Exotic Geisha:.
The Portrayal of Asians in American Theatre and Their Reactions.
Since the inception of theatre, playwrights have used the stage to portray races different from their own, and from the majority of their audience. In the case of American theatre, these portrayals were usually done with a predominately, if not all, white cast. To get around this, various techniques such as black-face, yellow-face, and red-face were used to portray characters such as Africans, Asians, and American Indians. Portraying cultures they knew nothing about, many playwrights relied on stereotypes and stock character types that were widely used and accepted by the public. These characters were almost never an accurate portrayal of the people they were being used to represent. Over time, many of these techniques and stereotypes have disappeared from mainstream theatre due to a growing awareness of how offensive they can be to people of the depicted race. One group, however, that still sees the use of these stereotypes on a wide scale are the people of East Asia. My paper looks into these stereotypes and the use of yellow-face in American theatre. I also discuss how one well known Asian American playwright, David Henry Hwang (M. Butterfly), sought to dispel these stereotypical roles through his 2002 revision of Rodgers and Hammersteins Flower Drum Song (1958).
One of the earliest instances of Asian characters being portrayed in American theatre is in Henry Grimms 1879 play, The Chinese Must Go. On this play, Ester Kim Lee states:.
Two diametrically opposite Asian male stereotypes appear: the first is the childish Chinaman speaking pidgin English (and who is often drunk, high on opium, and chases white women), and the second is the intelligent evil genius Chinaman who speaks perfect English and has the ability to negotiate with white Americans. The latter threatens to take over California and plots to ruin the lives of white Americans while the former corrupts innocent white children and women with his immoral and ignorant acts.