The producers of an Edinburgh Festival Fringe show have defended their decision to cast a white male actor in the role of a geisha, explaining geishas are “not exclusively ethnically Japanese or biologically female.”
BEATS, an advocacy group founded by British East and Southeast Asians from the Theater and Screen industry, called out SRSLY_yours for their production of “Tea Ceremony,” a play that was staged at Zoo Playground in Scotland from Aug. 5 to Aug. 28, for using “yellowface.”
The controversial play featured award-winning Cypriot actor Marios Ioannou in full geisha make-up and costume.
A geisha — “person of art” in English — is an artist who entertains guests at banquets with dance, music, conversation and other art. In today’s time, geishas, also known as geikos in Kyoto, are employed to help promote traditional Japanese culture.
“It’s also a fact that to many of us who also bear the historical weight of those listed abuses in our family heritages, these lurid descriptions, danced upon by a Yellowfaced performer, are extremely triggering and traumatic,” BEATS said in a statement. “The fact that on the booking site there are audience reviews from people who are NOT Asian of course ‘wondering what all the fuss is about’ is though no surprise. Because, of course, it’s just a man in make-up and florid clothing unless you’ve ever sat there and felt that sense of casual but brutal erasure.”
“We have no wish to see a sanitized and conservative fringe,” BEATS added. “The problem is, though, that with outdated racist performance tropes, a sanitized and conservative fringe is exactly what we get.”
SRSLY_yours hit back at the organization and refuted the “yellowface” criticism in the play, saying two of their Japanese contributors “did not believe it was inappropriate.”
The group also argued that geishas are “not exclusively ethnically Japanese or biologically female” when speaking to The Stage.
“We are pleased that Tea Ceremony is generating discussions of long-standing issues of prejudice and racism,” SRSLY_yours said. “Its themes are challenging for our audiences, but we refute any suggestion of Yellowface or whitewashing – both of which are anathema to the show’s message. It is a very big discussion about cultural appropriation in art, and we are happy to open up a dialogue.”
SRSLY_yours said they were surprised that the discussion was only brought to light after their show ended, which the group described as “not nice.”
The group noted that it would be best to “sort things out” before their next “Tea Ceremony” performance in London, adding, “We were not racist, so it was a very unnecessary comment.”
The August play was not the first time SRSLY_yours has performed the “Tea Ceremony” on stage. The group held the same theme at THOC in Nicosia, Cyprus, on May 17 and 18, 2019.
BEATS said this was not the first time “this kind of lazy racist practice has been seen in a festival,” citing a 2013 performance of “Beijing Cake” by a group of Yale students who were not of Asian heritage.
The play reportedly caused “a similar shock to East/Southeast Asian heritage artists who bought a ticket in good faith on the title alone and were confronted by a display of what can only be described as race-spoofing,” BEATS said.