“The West Chamber”

As highlighted in a previous blog post, John Laurence Seymour’s
production of A Protegee of the Mistress constituted the first
production of that particular play in the United States. Nine years after that
performance Seymour picked another play to perform for the first time in the
United States. For the first time ever, the English-language production of
The West Chamber took stage in 1938. Touted as a “Chinese
Classic” in local newspapers the show included meticulous research on
traditional Chinese stage-makeup, props, and staging in order to faithfully
re-stage the production in the United States. However, one glaring issue with
the production is that the entire cast was white. Actors donned makeup which relied
on thick black eyeliner to create sharp, angled eyebrows and also to create the
illusion of almond-shaped eyes. This heartily begs the question, is this considered
an example of “yellowface”? A significant effort was made by Seymour
to share his appreciation of Chinese culture and to teach both actors and the
audience about traditional Chinese Theater (see program notes included
below). Far from creating a caricature of Chinese peoples and cultures,
the production seemingly constituted a faithful recreation of the play originally
written in 1250AD by the Chinese playwright, Wang Shih Fu. Regardless of good
intention though, it is hard to forget the fact that the Chinese Exclusion Act
would not be repealed until 5 years after this production.


One year prior to this production, the Hollywood movie version
The Good Earth was released. Set
in Northern China during the years leading up to WW1, the film follows a
Chinese farming family and their numerous struggles. Even though Asian-American
movie star, Anna May Wong had been considered for the main role, she never
received an offer for the part because of the white, male lead, Paul Muni. Due t
o anti-miscegenation rules in Hollywood during that time, any actress
playing Muni’s wife also had to be white. Due to these kinds of laws and
ever-present racism, it became basically impossible for Asian’s and
Asian-Americans living in the United States to tell their own stories in any
kind of theater.

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