A recent production of The King and I in Dallas, TX, drew criticism for its casting of a Caucasian actor in the role of the King. It was far from the first instance of yellowface casting in King and I's history, dating all the way back to the original production in 1951. Let's take a look back at how the Asian theatrical community was able to make their voices heard and ultimately tell their own stories through modern productions of The King and I, including the thrilling Lincoln Center revival that recently opened to near-unanimous rave reviews.
The King and I is based on a semi-biographical novel by Margaret Landon, titled "Anna and the King of Siam." The book was an immediate success upon its publication in 1944, and in 1946 a film adaptation of the same name was released. The actor chosen to portray the role of the King of Siam was Rex Harrison, best known to musical-theatre fans today as Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady. By today's standards, it's an odd casting choice and a difficult performance to watch, largely due to Harrison's reliance on Asian stereotypes in his interpretation of the character. And Harrison's performance doesn't stand alone — many of the supporting Asian characters are portrayed by Caucasian actors in yellowface.
Yellowface is a term that refers to Caucasian actors playing Asian characters, often with make-up used to alter the actors' appearance to be more stereotypically Asian. The practice's effect goes beyond the denial of work to Asian actors; it sustains a depiction of Asian people in popular culture that is caricatured and culturally insensitive.
In 1946, World War II was fresh in everyone's memory. It's not hard to imagine why the Asian-American community itself would have been reticent to point out instances of cultural insensitivity. Concurrently, the economic and societal hardships thrust upon the Asian-American community both during and after World War II made the task of assembling a full cast of Asian actors a difficult one. This "perfect storm" of circumstances allowed yellowface to become standard and largely unquestioned, even long after blackface became taboo. How the realities of this environment intersected with what we would now call at best cultural insensitivity (or at worst, racism) is unclear, but it's an important context to keep in mind when looking back at this time in history. It is especially important when looking at the writing and casting of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II's musical adaptation of "Anna and the King of Siam," The King and I, which opened on Broadway in 1951. The piece contains powerful themes of tolerance and understanding, to say nothing of its clear stance on gender equality. Furthermore, these were all themes that Rodgers and Hammerstein were hardly foreign to. These are the same writers who wrote "You Have to Be Carefully Taught," South Pacific's condemnation of racism. Hammerstein also made race inequalities an important part of his landmark 1927 musical Show Boat.
In any event, many historical accounts of The King and I's development (including Thomas S. Hischak's "The Rodgers and Hammerstein Encyclopedia") illuminate that the creative team's initial choices for the role of the King included Rex Harrison, Alfred Drake (the original Curly in Oklahoma!) and Noël Coward. For a variety of reasons, none of them panned out. In the end it was Yul Brynner, a Russian-American actor, who won the role and made it the hallmark of his career. He won a Tony Award for his performance on Broadway and earned an Academy Award for the 1956 movie adaptation as well. He became so closely associated with the performance that many people today incorrectly assume that he had Asian heritage. Though some biographies cite a distant Mongolian background on his father's side, it is unclear how much of this was based in fact and how much was hyperbolized by Brynner himself once he became associated with his role in The King and I.
As had been the case with the earlier film adaptation of the story, Brynner was not the only non-Asian actor appearing in an Asian role. The production did, however, feature two Asian dancers, Michiko and Yuriko, as the leads in Jerome Robbins' Act 2 ballet, "The Small House of Uncle Thomas." Baayork Lee also appeared as the original Princess Ying Yaowalak, an experience that later became part of her character's story in A Chorus Line.
Yul Brynner continued to play the King onstage almost continuously right up until he died in 1985, months after completing a run on Broadway opposite Mary Beth Peil as Anna. Up to that point, the only other actor who had played the role of the King on Broadway was Michael Kermoyan, who replaced Brynner for 24 performances while he took a brief vacation from a 1977 revival. Kermoyan was California born and Caucasian.
Fast-forwarding to 1990, the problems of yellowface casting were brought to the forefront when Cameron Mackintosh announced he intended to have English actor Jonathan Pryce reprise his role as the Vietnamese Engineer in Miss Saigon. Prominent Asian artists working in the Broadway community, including playwright David Henry Hwang and actor B.D. Wong, wrote public letters to the Actors' Equity Association (AEA) detailing the reasons why Pryce's casting was not acceptable. AEA initially determined Pryce would not be allowed to play the role on Broadway, but reversed the decision after Mackintosh cancelled the production in retaliation.
However, for the first time in the theatre community, a public case had been made against yellowface casting, and it was heard. After Pryce left the role, every replacement actor hired was an Asian performer, a standard that has carried forward to all major subsequent productions as well, including the current West End revival. Mackintosh, to his credit, changed his tune on the issue recently, calling his actions during the controversy his "biggest mistake."
The mainstream theatre industry's evolution in the casting of Asian roles began to affect The King and I with the 1996 Broadway revival starring Donna Murphy. For the first time in the show's history, all major Asian characters were cast with Asian performers, including Jose Llana as Lun Tha and Joohee Choi as Tuptim. Film star Lou Diamond Phillips, born in the Philippines to a Scots-Irish/Cherokee father and a Filipino mother, became the first actor with Asian heritage to play the King on Broadway. The production received mixed reviews, but Phillips did not. Writing in the New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote that both Phillips and Murphy were "giving performances as true and as big as their talents and stage personalities allow." Jeremy Gerard wrote in Variety that Phillips "may have a gem in his name, but his performance in a role heretofore associated exclusively with Yul Brynner is 24-karat gold. And he does it with hair."
Yellowface as a practice has not disappeared entirely, however. Prominent film and television actor Lorenzo Lamas has played the King in at least two productions of The King and I, at the Ogunquit Playhouse in 2007 and North Shore Music Theatre in 2011. Lamas' heritage is Norwegian and Argentinian. Photos from these productions give little evidence of Lamas passing as Asian, but neither production seemed to stir up any major controversy.
The same cannot be said for Dallas Summer Musicals' spring 2015 production. On Jan. 3 Asian-American performer and blogger Erin Quill (known to the blogosphere as "The Fairy Princess") posted a screenshot of an audition notice for a Dallas Summer Musicals spring production of The King and I. The notice included the news that both leads had been pre-cast. Rachel York would appear as Anna, and Paul Schoeffler would appear as the King. Schoeffler has played the role of the King previously in his career (at Sacramento Music Circus), but is nevertheless a Caucasian actor lacking Asian heritage.
The Asian American Performers Action Coalition (AAPAC), an organization created in 2011 to give voice to Asian-American artists working in the mainstream theatre industry, published an open letter to both the management of Dallas Summer Musicals and the theatre community at large voicing their outrage over the casting decision. Citing the 1990 Miss Saigon controversy, the letter said that it was "unfathomable that we must continue to have the same conversation again." It went on to detail the problems with yellowface casting. "Asian impersonation denies Asians our own subjecthood. It situates all the power within a Caucasian-centric world view." AAPAC closed the letter with a call to action, asking readers to contact Dallas Summer Musicals' management and tell them that their casting decision was not acceptable.
AAPAC's letter, along with Quill's blog, quickly went viral on the various social media platforms. Many Asian performers called upon their community to decline any audition appointments sought for the production, despite the potential loss of work and income that this posed for the performers.
Dallas Summer Musicals was forced to respond to the flood of complaints. Artistic director Michael Jenkins published an online response in which he initially defended their casting decision by citing historical precedent, particularly Yul Brynner's Russian background, in addition to Schoeffler's history with the role. He went on to ensure the community that their voices had been heard and that they would seek an actor of Asian descent to play the King. Interestingly, they did not have to look far; they ended up hiring Alan Ariano, who had originally been scheduled to portray the Kralahome in the same production. Meanwhile, a new revival of The King and I, produced by Lincoln Center, recently opened to unanimously rave reviews. Japanese stage and film actor Ken Watanabe makes his American stage debut as the King, with a performance that brings out exciting new colors in the role. The production features Asian performers in all Asian roles—46 in total, 29 of whom are making their Broadway debuts. Together with the 1996 Broadway revival, we can now happily call this standard practice with The King and I on Broadway. The results of the controversy surrounding Dallas Summer Musicals' production point to this becoming the standard for regional theatres as well.
The fact that The King and I lives on to reach a new generation of audiences speaks somewhat to its strength as a piece of literature. However, it is perhaps more due to the increased resonance and verisimilitude that has come to modern productions through allowing Asian performers the chance to interpret a story and characters that are a part of their own cultural heritage. Together with Rodgers and Hammerstein's powerful themes of acceptance and equality, which continue to ring true today, this modern way of producing The King and I allows the piece to live on and continue being produced where lesser more-anachronistic works would have been left behind as products of an outdated world view.
It might not yet be perfect, but the theatre industry is changing in how it tells stories involving Asian characters. It's inspiring to see how this change was affected by performers and organizations bravely speaking out, often putting their livelihoods on the line to do so. Together, they have given voice to a minority that has been historically overlooked, and they have gained lots of ground. One need look no further than the Vivian Beaumont Theater to see the result.
(Logan Culwell is a musical theatre historian, Playbill's manager of research and curator of Playbill Vault. Please visit LoganCulwell.com.)