While Idris Goodwin of Colorado College's Department of Theatre and Dance didn't set out to stage a response to recent Hollywood whitewashing controversies, the timing of CC's production of Yellow Face reads appropriate. After Doctor Strange cast Tilda Swinton as a Chinese character and Ghost in the Shell put Scarlett Johansson in a role that relied heavily on the Japanese experience, people have started to pay more attention to Hollywood's long, long history of whitewashing.
Yellow Face, named for the practice of white actors portraying (and often stereotyping) Asian characters, functions as a self-aware, metanarrative. The playwright, David Henry Hwang, writes himself as the protagonist, who accidentally casts a white man in the role of an Asian character and pretends the actor has Asian ancestry to make it "okay."
"It's very hip, very contemporary, very funny, but also very thought-provoking, too," says Goodwin.
Goodwin tries to bring unheard and unconventional narratives into his classes, and has taught Yellow Face for years because of its unique voice and structure. But he doesn't just want to reach his students with this work; his goal is to start a conversation within the community.
"We can talk about race, ethnicity, the body, gender and representation and all these things, and the theater can be the catalyst for that. It doesn't have to just be about art," he says.
And the conversation has already begun on the CC campus. The Opera Theatre of the Rockies will open The Mikado this weekend, a Gilbert and Sullivan opera that many (including Goodwin) argue capitalizes on Orientalism, an exaggeration of perceived culture that harms Asians and Asian-Americans (May 13, 7:30 p.m., May 14, 3 p.m., Kathryn Mohrman Theatre in CC's Armstrong Hall, 14 E. Cache La Poudre St., $25-$40, operatheatreoftherockies.org). A panel discussion last week, which included folks from CC and the Opera Theatre, addressed that issue, along with artistic intent, creative license and what happens when people of marginalized communities speak out against something they find offensive.
Those conversations, even if they don't always end in agreement, are not just important, but vital to what good theater tries to accomplish. Goodwin says: "That was my whole purpose in bringing it up — for them to address it and acknowledge it in a serious way."
But the play, and the purpose of Yellow Face, does not need to be wholly serious. "I think we can do both," Goodwin says. "We can go enjoy ourselves and see some good art, but we can also feel like we're engaged in contemporary questions ... My goals are to use the theater as a galvanizing tool for conversations around issues and 'isms' and schisms that we still are wrestling with. And if the theater in some way can help that conversation evolve just a bit, that's what my contribution is."