Theatre: The King and I – from Yellowface to top Asian representation in musical theatre

After many years of desiring to watch The King and I, the acclaimed musical by Roger & Hammerstein that has been going since 1951, I have finally managed to catch a recent touring production of it as it made a stop at Manchester’s Palace Theatre. The classic show, which is based on the 1944 novel Anna and the King of Siam and the memoirs of Anna Leonowens, so is essentially a partially true story, is one of East meets West and the host of clashes that come from schoolteacher Anna and King of Siam (now Thailand, of course) disagreeing about almost everything – from royal duties to women’s rights.

The King and I shares similarities with Roger & Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music, in that Anna comes along to teach the King’s children English like Maria looks after Captain von Trapp’s children and teaches them singing, and both Anna and Maria do not always see eye to eye with their new bosses. However, what was pleasantly surprising is that The King and I is not seen as a love story, despite some allusions to the two main characters apparently having feelings for each other that they appear to hide. Instead it is a relationship that is soon formed through respect and even friendship.

King Mongkut, whom the King of Siam is supposedly based on

But what The King and I is, is a story that aims to shine a light on a culture and country that is often little understood – and certainly was during the 1800s when it is set. This is mainly done through some of the detailed costumes of the King’s wives and children as well as the music and choreography, most especially the ballad performance of The Small House of Uncle Thomas which, despite lasting at least a good ten minutes, has audiences captivated in awe by the tale, visuals and music.

And now, more than 70 years on since The King and I first debuted, Thailand has gone from a mysterious country the West has been enticed by and sought after to a hotspot holiday and backpacking destination. Yet thankfully, while the King of Siam is often seen as a “barbarian” by the British, rude and sexist, the portrayal of his people are largely at least neutral, especially considering the time in which the show is set, bar the odd scene or song that has them talking in stereotypically broken English accents and sees them as uneducated. For a show set back in such a different time, this is actually not bad…

L: Russian-born actor Yul Brynner, who allegedly had some Mongolian ancestry, was the first man to play the King of Siam. R: The current King, Darren Lee

The only problem? The show’s production history is riddled with casting issues that I’m surprised has not caused more controversy in the past. The lead role of the King was almost consistently played by non-Asian actors in early productions and revivals up until recent decades, and even roles such as Lady Thiang and Prince Chulalongkorn have had White actors do Yellowface. You can read a bit more about that issue in this blog post. And unfortunately, people not calling out such racist and exclusionary casting choices as well as derogatory “creative” choices over time has meant the majority of the general public also haven’t. But with a change in attitudes and a drive for diversity that more production teams are striving for, this has meant ethnic minority talent can finally enjoy the spotlight.

As someone who advocates strongly for increasing positive Asian representation, particularly in theatre, it was delightful to see a predominantly ESEA cast fulfilling the majority of roles in this touring production. This shows that the task to find ESEA children and adult talent can and has been done and there’s no excuse for anybody to be cast in ESEA roles when they do not identify as such. Those that stood out the most include Darren Lee as the King, Cezarah Bonner as Lady Thiang, Marienella Phillips as Tuptim and Caleb Lagayan as Prince Chulalongkorn, as well as the host of adorable children playing the countless other heirs to the King’s throne.

The predominantly ESEA cast of The King and I celebrated their 100th show on tour recently.

The question that is then posed from this is, what next for them? As I’ve said before, ESEA people in theatre shows can sometimes be briefly spotted in ensemble casts, without a name and without lines, yet bigger than minor roles that either they are fulfilling or are written specifically for them are too far and few between. Mainstream plays, musicals and other theatrical art forms that do require ESEA actors but are not problematic because of the story, characters or themes are practically non-existent.

Though there may be a gradually increasing number of shows of them, larger productions and more well-known ones have yet to pop up. It is still astonishing that in this day and age, The King and I is still the only major show that intentionally calls for ESEA actors. Additionally, they should not have to be reliant on just bit parts or ESEA characters that they can go for; if the likes of Elsa, the Pevensie children, Hermione Granger, Jamie New and even Cher can be Black at some point, why can’t they also be Asian in the future? If a casting director is struggling to find them to play these kinds of roles, then perhaps they need to check out the cast of The King and I

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