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Rainbow-washing: When everyone else gets to play a Chinese character

In our arts column – In Review – Victoria Moy reviews plays and other storytelling forms that deal with the immigrant experiece. This week she reviews " Golden Dragon ," a play that focuses on the lives of five Chinese cooks in an Asian restaurant. The play cast actors from different racial groups to play Chinese characters. Moy talks about her concerns about the lack of Asian actors in the play, and speaks on this phenomena of "rainbow-washing."

The performers on stage

In the midst of ongoing controversies over cultural appropriation and whitewashing of Asian roles in Hollywood, the latest show at Pasadena's Boston Court TheatreGolden Dragonis doing something different: rainbow-washing. The five Chinese cooks in a Chinese/Vietnamese/Thai restaurant called “Golden Dragon” are played by a white woman over sixty, a young Latina woman, a white man over sixty, a young black man, and a young Asian man. They speak with Chinese accents.

Watching this, I wasn’t quite sure what all of this was supposed to mean. Did it mean anyone can be Chinese? Or that Chineseness isn’t real? At first I had no idea I was hearing Chinese accents. I thought that the white actors were doing Slavic accents, and that the African-American actor a Jamaican accent, etc. This to me would have been a positive and fascinating choice, suggesting that diverse immigrant experiences are universal at some level. But alas, I was told that those accents were meant to be Chinese Mandarin accents, and that a coach was even hired for accuracy.

Perhaps what I saw was a projection on my part of what I wanted to see, because watching these non-Asians imitate Chinese accents was too painful an idea for me, a Chinese American, to bear? And that despite the current denunciations of whitewashing, potentially hurting Asian Americans’ feelings isn’t as important to Boston Court Theatre as whatever they were trying to say with their art?

In a post-show discussion, the director explained that the script specifies the gender and age of the actors that play the Chinese cooks. The multi-racial casting, however, was a directorial choice by Michael Michetti. The play, by German writer Roland Schimmelpfennig for presumably a German audience, employed Brechtian techniques that contribute to “the alienation effect,” also known as Verfremdungseffekt. The concept, coined by German playwright Bertolt Brecht in 1935, is to make the familiar strange, so much so that audience members remain distanced and never get too emotionally attached, which enables them to remain clear-headed and make rational judgments about broader social issues that lead to necessary social change.

Actors perform on the stage.

Such Brechtian techniques were used in Golden Dragon. Stage directions such as “short pause” were said aloud, interspersing the dialogue. Characters were performed by actors who do not match in age or gender. For defamiliarization to happen, one supposedly must see characters we think we’re familiar with in an alien way. Instead of getting to identify with the Chinese cooks closely, we are distanced from their lives and circumstances so we can stay analytical about what’s happening.

Essentially, the Chinese cook becomes a metaphor or vehicle to get to “broader social issues.” But what are the “broader social issues” of Golden Dragon? The story of the play is that a Chinese boy joins a kitchen staff and has a rotting tooth that brings him much pain. He can’t go to a doctor because he doesn’t have his papers. A starving beautiful cricket that dances beautifully lets an ant pimp her for food. Later we find out this cricket and ant are actually people, and the cook and the cricket are brother and sister.

Without any previous knowledge of what the director was intending, I had two takeaways:

1. Asian immigrants get exploited—physically, sexually, and emotionally. But did we need actors of five different races performing in “Chinese accents” for us to understand this?
2. Whitewashing is not a concern. Rainbow-washing adds even more diversity. 
As you can see, I’m not sure quite how to feel. I can’t fully support it. But I can’t fully condemn it either. I think I’d feel just as uneasy seeing a rainbow cast play white immigrant cooks or black immigrant cooks.
The production was successful in getting me to feel emotionally unattached and to cerebrally experience what I saw. But instead of being roused to action, and knowing what correct social changes I am to make, I was just not sure what to make of the play. It was interesting but not mindblowing.
I wonder, though, how audience members are supposed to view Asian restaurant workers after seeing this play. Are Chinese people just concepts and metaphors, not people? An ongoing complaint of Asian Americans with whitewashing is that Hollywood loves Asian culture and Asian stories but not Asian people.

Actor and actress perform on the stage.

An interview with the director was requested, but he was not available. In the program notes the artistic directors explained their some choices made in this production. Having non-Asians to play Chinese cooks, they said, is like “asking the tuba to play the violin part” and vice versa in an orchestra. This “gives a whole new awareness and empathy” and “forces a new, enriched comprehension of our world and the players within it.” They explained that the Chinese cooks represent “the other” in any of a host of current situations in our country today. The question they pose to the ongoing discussion of diversity is “Who has the right to tell what stories?”

The question reminded me of a moment when I was teaching a class of middle school students. We were reading aloud a comprehension passage. One student, when it was his turn, started reading in a British accent. I laughed. The next boy read as if he were Apu, from The Kwik-E-Mart. I told him that was offensive. “Why?” he asked. Why was it funny when the other student pretended to be British but rude when this student pretended to be Indian? I had to think about it. It has to do with power dynamics. It’s funny to jab at those who hold power, but not funny to poke fun at those oppressed.

Golden Dragon is a German man’s fantasy of a Chinese man’s plight. He has every right to tell this story, and he told it with empathy. But, in spite of Schimmelpfennig’s empathy, some stories just feel more relevant and interesting than others because of who tells them. I found it extremely uncomfortable seeing a white man’s telling of a Chinese story when we barely ever get to hear Chinese stories from Chinese people themselves.

Golden Dragon will be running till June 5 at the Boston Court Theater in Pasadena. For tickets and showtimes you can visit the theater's webpage

About the Author: Victoria Moy is a New York-born, Los Angeles-based writer. She has a MFA from University of Southern California, where she studied playwriting, screenwriting and TV writing, and has a B.A. from Dartmouth College in Theater. She is also the author of Fighting for the Dream.

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