The Rappaccini Variations: separating intent from impact

Allison Li

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Starting off my senior year, one of the things I most looked forward to throughout the week was rehearsal for the Rappaccini Variations. I was eager to improve my acting skills and participate in a play at school for the first time. I was particularly excited by the concept of this production, a retelling of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Rappaccini’s Daughter through various forms of theatre. Each of the nine scenes in the play represented a different style of theatre, beginning with a modern day oral presentation and moving back in time all the way to ancient Greek drama — an homage to the tradition of theatre, meant to educate both the actors and the audience.
One particular scene was a recreation of traditional Japanese Noh theatre, a minimalist form of theatre in which actors wear masks and recite poetic text. Though I initially had my reservations about this scene, I wasn’t able to articulate any concrete objection to it until we rehearsed it in costume for the first time. When I learned that a white actor was going to wear a yellow mask with slits for eyes and a black wig for the scene, I was in disbelief.
After a few cast members expressed their discomfort with the costumes, our stage manager raised the issue with the theatre department, and we held a meeting to discuss the scene before our Saturday rehearsal the next day. Coming into this meeting, I figured that if enough people opposed the scene, it would be modified, and we could just move on with the production. However, I was surprised to hear that most of the cast did not see a problem with the scene, and believed that as long as we portrayed Noh theatre accurately and respectfully, it wasn’t offensive.
I felt upset that most people seemed to disregard my opinion, and that they believed that they had reached some sort of consensus on the matter, when in reality I was still opposed to the scene. Despite our conversation, the costumes did not change, and I ultimately decided to drop out of the scene.
Reflecting back, it is important to remember the difference between intent and implication. Though we intended to portray authentic Noh theatre in a way that would educate the school community about this art form, the implication of putting a white actor in yellowface is entirely separate. Our good intentions don’t negate the offense caused by our actions, nor can they be used to justify why a person should not react in a certain way. If some members of the audience were offended by the scene, then harm was done, regardless of our intentions.
While I understand this type of costume is a part of Noh theatre, we have to keep in mind that theatre does not exist in a vacuum, but rather in a specific context–in this case, the context of our school, where we are hyper-conscious of racial issues, and of the United States, with its painful history of discrimination against Asian Americans and yellowface. Seeing this costume reminded me of the caricatures of Asian people I’ve seen in the media, meant to mock, dehumanize, and reduce us to a stereotype; of every time someone treated me differently because of my race; of feeling frustrated that people could have so many preconceived notions about who I was before even meeting me. Though the costumes in our production did not have this malicious intent, the context they belong to might have shaped the way that our audience interpreted and reacted to the scene. Therefore, I believe it had great potential to offend and hurt members of the community and further divide us.
Though I do not want us to shy away from discomfort in theatre, there is a line between making people productively uncomfortable and offending them. Earlier this year, the HMTC held a reading of the play Bang Bang You’re Dead in response to the Las Vegas shooting, exploring a controversial topic in order provoke discussion about the issue and ultimately provide an educational experience — an example of theatre as a means of opening up an uncomfortable conversation. For me, the Noh scene crossed that line; I don’t believe there is anything educational about the discomfort caused by seeing yellowface on stage — it’s just offensive and harmful.
I want us to learn from this experience and be more mindful of the difference between intent and implication, as well as between uncomfortable and offensive. I encourage our community to make theatre a safe space where we can explore different themes, perspectives, and cultures creatively and provocatively without being offensive.