Episode 9 - Renditions, Vocal Yellowface, Delays


August 13, 2020


[Voicing Across Distance theme]  

Masi: Hello and welcome to Voicing Across Distance! This is Episode 9: Renditions, Vocal Yellowface, Delays. My name is Masi Asare. 

There are 3 parts to this podcast, a brief reading from a book on voice and sound, a conversation with a scholar on voices in our times, and an exercise or guidance for voice practice from an expert. This week I begin by reading an excerpt from the book Tropical Renditions: Making Musical Scenes in Filipino America by Christine Bacareza Balance. Then I’ll be in conversation with theatre scholar Donatella Galella, and to close, sound designer and composer Andy Evan Cohen shares some guidance for voice practice in the age of Zoom. 

I also want to give the credits now for a few clips of interstitial music featured on this episode. First, a clip of the show tune “Another Hundred People” from the album The Story of My Life: Lea Salonga Live from Manila, and a clip of Conrad Ricamora and company performing “The New Silk Road” from the Original Cast recording of the musical Soft Power by David Henry Hwang and Jeanine Tesori. 

[voice theory intro chant: “theory theory theory theory voice theory”]  


Masi: This podcast began in April 2020 as a way to engage and listen for voices in the era of Covid19, voices sounding across social distance. In recent episodes I also extend this work by attending to voices that operate across racial difference as well as at a remove geographically. 

One of the things I discuss with Dr. Donatella Galella on this episode is the way various accents deployed on the musical stage to convey racialized identity are built on expectations of how certain people “should” or “shouldn’t” sound. It’s like some people are thought to  have funny voices, the kind of voices which can be taken up, put on, and “worn” by others like a garment. Some people’s voices are thought to be ordinary, respectable clothing and some people’s voices are thought to be costumes, funny garb (or garbling, as the case may be) from which comedy is fashioned. Which way this thinking flows depends on who is doing the thinking (and the laughing), and determines whether the dialogue and songs onstage end up presenting vocal yellowface or vocal whiteface, for example. But the idea of a voice as a kind of a costume may also be grounded in the belief that an accent is a fixed, essentialized vocal adornment—as fixed as, say, skin color—that signals unchanging racial identity and renders racialized people as objects, the punch line of a joke. It is toward this reductive idea of vocal expression as racial essence that I want to offer as an intervention this episode’s reading on sound and voice. 

In her book Tropical Renditions: Making Musical Scenes in Filipino America, Christine Bacareza Balance elegantly theorizes the performance of “renditions” and specifically, renditions shaped by the literal and imagined spaces of the tropics, to refute the supposed primacy of an original or authentic song. Attending to what is brought into the world anew in a rendition is part of the practice she names as “disobedient listening,” listening that revises the narrative that Filipino people, referred to in early 20th century US colonial policy as “America’s little brown brothers,” should listen to and obey the commands of white men’s voices above all. For artists in Filipino America, Christine teaches, renditions are also sounded from within the context of the burden of racial representation, the imperative to render racial identity explicitly visible and audible. This is a project which is particularly fraught for individuals with ancestry in the Philippines, a southeast Asian, Pacific Island nation that has endured Spanish and US colonial rule, historically home to peoples of many different ethnicities and races that don’t always map neatly onto widespread US expectations of “Asianness.” 

Renditions are also always on the move, ever in the process of being re-made. And so, like voices on a Zoom call, they operate in the space of the translocal, in multiple geographic places at once...or nearly at once. Apps like Zoom and Skype before it and the long-distance phone call before that, present long-familiar contours for the imperial subject and the postcolonial immigrant, those for whom the voices of loved ones and the sounds of the now dimly imagined homeland are always heard with a delay, that sonic hiccup in time. The translocal circuits of production, circulation, and reception of popular music whose scenes Balance studies in Filipino America clatter away along similar rhythms to the uploading, propagating, and downloading that Andy Evan Cohen maps in this episode as the sonic routes of data zoomed through the internet. And, too, both remain vulnerable to corporate interests that dictate and control flow of movement. 

So, these are just some of the resonances Balance’s text has for me with the conversations on this podcast. And here is the passage from her book: 

Rather than challenging Western anthropological and colonial discourses, ones that presuppose culture as the property and possessions of a certain class of people (those who “have” culture), while others merely stand in for culture (those who “are” culture), within Filipino American studies, this popular discourse continues to uphold simplistic notions of Filipino objectification and objecthood, offering no possibility for the object’s resistance. In this popular discourse, the distinction betweeen Filipino and Filipino American reenacts the cultural divide between homeland and diaspora, those forced to perform as cultural belonging(s) and those who need to possess cultural belonging(s). 

Of course, mimicry also does not fit within civilization logics and its colonial idiom. Instead, it disrupts these logics. Rather than assume mimicry as not productive of culture, tropical renditions prove it as vital to the performance and proliferation of Filipino musical life. In the classical musical sense, rendition marks the expression or interpretation of an originating written composition. While this initial text, its own visual and written recording of the music, offers a template for the notes to be played, and directions on how they might be played, in the end, the (re)sounding of the music depends upon the performers themselves. Through a performer’s renditions, the original is destabilized, unmoored from its fixed and entrenched position. By emphasizing performance as interpretative and transformative, renditions betray those desires for an origin or original.” 

[Reference:  Tropical Renditions: Making Musical Scenes in Filipino America by Christine Bacareza Balance. Duke University Press, 2016, p. 16.] 

[Music clip:  Lea Salonga - “Another Hundred People” by Stephen Sondheim - [sound of applause and cheers / spoken over piano vamp:] Wow. What a great way to come home. Jet lag? What jet lag! [audience laughter / sung:] Another hundred people just got off of the plane / and came up through the ground, / while another hundred people just got off of the bus / and are looking around / at another hundred people who are looking at us / who got off of the train and the plane and the bus /  maybe yesterday / It’s a city of strangers...] 

Scholarly Conversation 

Masi: I'm so excited to welcome my guest scholar for this episode, Donatella Galella! 

Donatella Galella is Associate Professor in the Department of Theatre, Film, and Digital Production at the University of California, Riverside. She is the author of America in the Round: Capital, Race, and Nation at Washington DC's Arena Stage (from University of Iowa Press, 2019), a critical history of the first professional regional theatre in the US capital. Her second book project investigates the ways that yellowface remains producible, profitable, and pleasurable in musical productions post-Miss Saigon. Professor Galella has published articles in Theatre Journal, Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism, and Continuum, and she has contributed chapters to Reframing the Musical: Race, Culture, and Identity; The Sixties, Center Stage; and The Disney Musical on Stage and Screen. She is also known for her 2018 article in Theatre Survey entitled "Being in 'The Room Where it Happens': Hamilton, Obama, and Nationalist Neoliberal Multicultural Inclusion." Her critical work has led to interviews with the Washington Post, the Cincinnati Inquirer, and The New York Times. And in 2019, Assembly Member José Medina honored her as a 2019 "Woman of Distinction" for her service and its positive impact in California's 61st Assembly District. 

Thank you so much for joining me today, Donatella! 

Donatella: Thank you so much for having me! I'm so happy that we met at that Song, Stage, and Screen conference in Los Angeles. 

Masi: Yes! I know, two years ago. Two years ago we met, and I ran up to you and said, "I'm so excited to meet you! I love that you work on musicals and race!" And then I have just kept bothering you since that time. 

Donatella: It's no bother. 

Masi: So your scholarly research and writing does really important work on the politics and economics of US performance, in particular the study of musical theatre as it intersects with critical race theory. And musical theatre is also my area of study and practice, as you know. And part of what interests me so much about it is that the sound of voices in musicals can carry and inflect such complicated histories of race and politics. So, again, I really admire that you work on musicals and race. I think that it's a profoundly understudied area across its many sort of aspects. And I'm just, I'm honored to know you and thankful that you do this work. Could you share a little bit with us, as we jump in, just about your overall research interests and how you became drawn to this work? 

Donatella: Of course. So I would characterize my research interests as thinking through how white supremacy and capitalism shape and are shaped by contemporary American theatre. And I'm particularly interested in looking at popular theatre, so that often being musicals, and exploring why are they popular? And I'd argue that it's often because they have these apparently progressive politics to them but at the same time they're quite conservative and reify all these different kinds of hierarchies. So my first book America in the Round started because I was an intern in the dramaturgy department in 2009 when I had just graduated from college. And, as you might know, I'm from New York City, so I was quite spoiled about professional theatre, and quite narrow-minded about it. I thought it was just Broadway and Shakespeare in the Park. So that experience in Washington DC showed me that theatre—regional theatre is quite important and exists in these circles of economies with New York City. And I learned that Arena Stage was one of the first theatres to develop new plays and musicals and send them to Broadway, and to do plays that had just come from Broadway. And it had originally started as a for-profit theatre and then became a nonprofit. And I argue that Arena helped to make the blueprint for what nonprofit theatres are today as they try to make programming that will appeal to a lot of audience members and get those ticket sales, and also appeal to theatre critics to win awards and to win grants. So, you're trying to get money but you're also trying to get accolades to rationalize yourself as a nonprofit theatre. So after that experience I realized—this is going to be my dissertation project. Which it wasn't originally. I came in thinking I was going to be a specialist in the English Renaissance because I thought that was what you were supposed to do. 

Masi: Wow, that is a big shift! [laughter] Okay! 

Donatella: Yeah, and so my interests developed more toward thinking about economics and racial politics, in part because of Occupy Wall Street happening in New York during my graduate studies, and because of the emergence of Black Lives Matter. And those experiences truly radicalized me, and made me think about my complicity with conservative politics, of thinking we'd already solved inequalities...thinking that African American plays didn't matter to me. But I then realized, oh, these plays are so much more interesting, actually, and I'm tired of white, middle class, hetero romances. So...those experiences really shaped what I started to read, like bell hooks for instance, and that totally changed the direction of my research. And then I also just started thinking a lot about casting and musical theatre. Because musicals were—they have been— the most successful commercial productions for Arena Stage, alongside specifically African American productions. And so I show how Arena really capitalized on African American audiences, because Washington, DC in the 70s became about 70 percent Black, because of white flight and other structures of racism. And it historically was known as the Chocolate City. And so Arena really changed its programming, partially because of a motivation for racial justice, but also to balance the, you know, the sheets. They wanted to make money, and there started to be more diversity grants for this kind of programming and multiculturalism, especially in the late 1980s-early 1990s. So I track that change, and two of my main case studies are: the musical version of A Raisin in the Sun, which originated at Arena; not a lot of people even know that this musical happened. 

Masi: I didn't know that it originated at Arena, so that was new information for me, yeah. 

Donatella: Yeah, so that was the world premiere. It was the first black musical at Arena, so it really I think started a trend of black musicals at Arena and it sold very well. It was way more popular than the play at that time. So yeah, it moved to Broadway and won the Tony Award, it went on a big national tour, and it really helped to also diversify the audiences at Arena Stage. And another main case study for me is Arena's 2010 production of Oklahoma! with a multiracial cast. And so I analyze, what does that mean in the age of Obama? Physically sharing that spacing in Washington, DC...how Arena was staking a claim to Americanness being equated with racial diversity. Especially at a time when the theatre itself was rebranding as "Where American Theatre Lives," because it was the first theatre in DC and then suddenly it was competing with something like 90 other theatre companies. So it really had to distinguish itself, and so it decided to focus on Americanness and articulating that as racially diverse and specifically foregrounding African Americans. So I think through what does that mean, and the casting—are we supposed to see the characters as people of color? Are we supposed to be post-racial? 

Masi: It's always a little mysterious, right? Any time we see these things I think about it. I think last year, I think not too far from a year ago I remember seeing both Hadestown on Broadway and the Disney Hercules in the park. And these, you know, Greek stories with all kinds of Black people and Asian people and Latino people in the cast and were just kind of...the sort of sense we are expected to make of that is quite complicated. 

Donatella: Totally, right. And sometimes it switches between modes. Sometimes a line suddenly becomes very racialized and embodied. And sometimes we're just supposed to forget difference, right? And there are lots of implications for both inclusion, the idea that we can cast and welcome people of color only into these Western works, right? If you abide by these rules. 

Masi: Correct. Correct. 

Donatella: But on the other hand, it can help us maybe imagine these different worlds where there is real equality. But on the other hand it's like, at what cost is that equality happening? And you're making me like forget about these specificities of racial difference and histories. And to me that's so pernicious when we have all these studies showing, at that time, pre-Trump presidency, that most white Americans really thought that structural racism didn't exist. And so it's disconcerting to me if these folks are seeing these multiracial shows and just having that ideology confirmed. Even as, at the same time, I totally understand, for some of us seeing other people of color, people who look like us, in these classic works—it can be really life-affirming. 

Masi: It's very meaningful. 

Donatella: Right? It's so moving to me. But at the same time, I'm like, at what cost is this happening? And so, that relates the work that I've done on Hamilton and casting. I at once felt so inspired seeing this multiracial cast telling these American stories. And on the other hand, I just kept thinking about the whitewashing of the legacies of genocide and slavery in this country. And I don't really see this nation as the horizon of equality, as professor Nikhil Pal Singh says. I just think that we can have different kinds of formations that give us equality but also let us hold on to our differences and our identities. I don't think they have to be erased. 

Masi: Go Donatella! 

Donatella: Thank you. I don't know if we've also talked about this, but I'm a big Star Trek fan, and so... 

Masi: Oh really? [laughter] I don't think we have, but this is awesome, yes, let's go! 

Donatella: So I really hang on to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine led by Avery Brooks as-- 

Masi: I have a human in my life that I'm very close to who adores that show, and so I have been brought into it...I have been brought into the world of Deep Space Nine, so carry on, yes. 

Donatella: I'm so glad to hear this, yes! 

Masi: But Star Trek also provides this idea of a world...there's all kinds of...we could talk about different kinds of racialized futurisms, but also a world in which difference is not elided but is also celebrated. I don't know if that's related to what you were going to say. 

Donatella: Yes, this is exactly where I was going with this! I mean, look at Benjamin Sisko's dad and his Creole restaurant, and... 

Masi: Okay, you know...you're like much deeper in the specifics...this is like high priestess level knowledge, yeah. [laughter] 

Donatella: There's just a specificity of history and culture, and at the same time, they...in the Federation they've gotten rid of these national boundaries, they've gotten rid of racial inequality, but they remember the histories, they hold onto them. And they've also gotten rid of capitalism and people get to do the work that they want to do. It's so inspiring to me, and so that shows me that that is possible. 

Masi: Right, there are other models than the ones that we are fed that are...we are told are the only ones for representation and multiculturalism. Right, there are different things that could be opened up, I agree. Absolutely. 

Donatella: Exactly, yes. 

Masi: I want to maybe continue on to the next question, if that's okay. Yeah, so, as you know the focus of this podcast is voice. Now, voice can be a lot of things. I'm hopeful that that topic will open up the opportunity to discuss things that aren't always considered when we think about voice, or that are sidestepped. Voice training in the US, whether for actors or for singers, can be very...non-politically engaged [laughs] and sort of make all kinds of assumptions around what voice is and means to everybody, right? In sort of these...flattening of hierarchies and of difference. So part of what I'm interested in is a kind of specificity that we can talk about in terms of voice and cultural and racial experience, lived experience. And that's part of what I'm excited to talk to you about. Would you say a little bit about your current project, about yellowface in musicals and how you think about voices--speaking or singing voices--in relation to this work? 

Donatella: Of course. So I'm first thinking about how scholar Krystyn R. Moon, in her monograph on yellowface, defines yellowface performance in part through dialect. And so the kind of accent that people put on when they're performing a stereotypical Asianness is part of the characterization of thinking through what Asians sound like, and is also part of what they look like and so on, how they move. So that has a long history. And for me, coming to this project about yellowface in contemporary musical productions started in part because of having to hear and see yellowface continuously in professional productions. So for instance, I remember seeing at Madison Square Garden a production of A Christmas Story, and at the end of the musical...I'd been having a great time seeing tap dancing children, but at the end the family goes to a Chinese restaurant, and a couple of actors come out to play Chinese waiters, and it starts to become clear to me that they are not Asian. But they are performing with black wigs, and vocally they're performing by singing a Christmas carol, they're singing "fa la la la la" but they're not pronouncing the L's correctly. 

Masi: Wow. What year was this that this production was? 

Donatella: I think I saw this in maybe 2014 or 2015. 

Masi: All right! Yep. 

Donatella: And it was on Broadway just slightly I think a year before that. And you know, had a national tour. This is you know Pasek and Paul...these are people who are valorized in our field. And they were still doing this! Anyway, so these actors are switching L's and R's and then people around me just started laughing uproariously. And it felt like the loudest laugh in that whole production. And I don't know if that's true or if that was my subjective experience, but what I remember was hearing the laughter, hearing that accent, and I yelled something in the audience. And I don't know what it was that I yelled, but I yelled something because I was so taken aback and felt like I had to do something viscerally, and then-- 

Masi: So you had a...that's interesting, you had a vocal response! Okay. 

Donatella: I had a vocal response! And then my now-spouse shushed me! And that just made me even madder. And he's white, and I'm Asian American and also white. And we left during the bows, and... 

Masi: Oh, man. This sounds like one of those like scarring moments of theatregoing. 

Donatella: I mean, I remember this experience physically. And I remember we walked out and I was so upset with him. And I said something like, How dare you shush me, when what was going on onstage was so much worse than my incivility, yelling in the audience. And he apologized, but-- 

Masi: Good job him. [laughter] 

Donatella: This is why we're together. 

Masi: Yeah. Okay. Good. 

Donatella: So this sort of thing just kept happening. I would be enjoying myself in the theatre but yellowface just kept happening, and so I felt compelled to have to do this research. And so that's why this second book project is asking: Why does this keep on happening? How does it keep on happening? And then, what have Asian American artists and activists been doing to try to counter yellowface? So if we talk specifically about voices, I'll give another example of one case study that I've been researching. And that is contemporary productions of the Cole Porter musical Anything Goes. 

Masi: Okay! Let's go. 

Donatella: So, super briefly, there are these two Chinese characters. And in the end, the implicitly white main characters take their clothing and then pretend to be Chinese at the end of the show, to solve the mix-ups in the different romantic relationships. So, in the original show in the 1930s—and even, it stayed in the revised version at Lincoln Center in the 80s—they would have the white characters pretend to be Chinese, or pretend to speak in Chinese. So they would say things like “Piak tya huy fong mon toy pfui pfui, and double pfui!” 

Masi: Whew! 

Donatella: Or they would say things when they were in yellowface, they were pretending to be Chinese, and they would say things like "We come long way, travel far to have big talk with English gentleman." So I argue that the Chinese characters were really only there as dramaturgical tools for the yellowface to happen later, and for that comedy to happen later. And this is still preserved in a lot of productions today. And then I examine...Arena Stage did a production in 2018 with a multiracial cast, starring Corbin Bleu, and they got permission to change some of the lines, and to give more agency to the two Chinese characters. And they cast them with Asian American actors, and I was interested in...how are they going to handle the anti-Asian racism? They were very aware of it—Molly Smith, the director—from the very beginning, and asked for input from the Asian American actors. So, some of the changes included that the characters, the two Chinese characters, John and Luke...they specifically spoke to each other with American accents, but if they were talking to any other members of the crew on this ship, they put on these "Chinese" accents. So they were trying to...they're stowaways, and they're trying to adhere to the expectations of them as Chinese Americans who are treated as perpetual foreigners. 

Masi: Yeah. I mean, it's so much work, though, to try and instrumentalize these stereotypes in service of the plots about white people. Like it's just so much maneuvering, you know what I—sorry...it's just, it's exhausting. 

Donatella: It's so much, and it's so not necessary. And when you analyze the original libretto, you realize they didn't even need to do the yellowface, it was just because one of the actors was known for doing a yellowface schtick. 

Masi: Ugh. 

Donatella: So it doesn't actually help the couples get together in the original. But in the Weidman rewrite, they made it more integral. And so what's interesting is that the rewrite is more dramaturgically sound but in some ways it's actually more racist. 

Masi: Yeah, yeah. It justifies the yellowface more. 

Donatella: Exactly. Exactly, it justifies it being there. And so what happened, though, in the Arena version...so they give more agency to John and Luke. And then they have to deal with the yellowface that's still in the script. And so what they did is, first of all, there's some of the lines, like I was saying the "We come long way, travel far to have big talk"...that now becomes: "We have just completed an extensive peregrination in order to confer most urgently with this English gentleman." So they actually go in this whole other direction of a formal diction for the characters to say. 

Masi: You know, I remember hearing you speak about this last year, again at the Association for Theatre in Higher Education conference, and it crossed my mind that this also aligns with minstrelsy practices around like dandyism and sort of...the racialized other who's using big words that he really shouldn't use and that that is sort of the source of the comedy. I don't know if that totally maps, but I mean...whether or not the character is supposed to be using less than excellent English for comic purposes or exaggeratedly excellent English for comic purposes...like, there are violences in either direction. 

Donatella: Yeah, I hadn't thought about it that way before but I think you're right that there is comedy in the incongruous juxtaposition in that you would not expect a Chinese person to sound like this and so that's funny...but that also has these racist implications on what you think a Chinese person would sound like. And so, what they did is, Corbin Bleu is just speaking in his like 1930s Mid-Atlantic accent throughout the show, and he's doing it as he's pretending to be a Chinese person with the Chinese clothes on. And everyone onstage is like, what are you doing and saying? It doesn't register to them that he's "Chinese." And he also has this, you know, mixed race, Black embodiment going on. And so then, Molly Smith directed the two Asian American actors playing John and Luke to whisper in the ears of Corbin Bleu's character...so something's happening and then  Corbin switches and now he has this Chinese accent added on. And so, when I interviewed the actors, their perspective was that there's a specific Chinese accent going on. When I interviewed the creative team about this, they saw this as an exaggerated accent showing up. And so the idea was, okay, this is yellowface but it's like a sanctioned yellowface by the Chinese-characters-slash-Asian-American-actors, and showing it as a performance. 

Masi: Yes. They have endorsed it. 

Donatella: Right. They've endorsed it. It's a performance. And I think that it does some critical work. But again, when the audience is laughing and I'm there witnessing it, it's very unclear to me...are you laughing because you think this accent is hilarious? Or are you laughing because—oh, it's so ridiculous that these racist people think these things about Chinese people, and that Corbin Bleu is playing a Chinese person. So I just try to unravel that. 

Masi: Yeah. Well, let's...you know...I have my doubts as to whether or not people are doing complex analyses in their heads as to the cleverness, you know, that now says they should laugh, right? It's so interesting. 

Donatella: Yeah, yeah. So those are the aspects about voice to some extent that I've been analyzing for the yellowface project. 

Masi: Amazing. Thank you. Thank you for walking us through that. These questions that you're bringing up about how are people making artistic decisions about how to stage actors of different races in relation to one another...these questions are not going to go away. I mean, certainly, the conversations happening nationally and internationally to some extent around the racial reckoning in this country right now make it clear that these questions are not going to away. And that people will continue to need sharp analyses, and education, in order to sort of know the histories and know the fraughtness that we're entering into. I have to say, I personally am more interested in new musicals. Which, as a writer of musicals I guess is probably why. I think there are opportunities to kind of pay attention to people who are writing new stories about what it means to be Asian in the US today, or in historical context, that are not just framed by these historical shows that require so much maneuvering, as we were talking about, in order to try and make them...less terrible than they could be. 

Donatella: Definitely. And I think that brings us to Soft Power

Masi: Yeah! So speaking of new musicals, let's talk about Soft Power, which is a musical I know you have studied in a lot of detail. This musical by David Henry Hwang and Jeanine Tesori, which was presented at Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles two years ago and then I believe at some other places on the west coast, before coming to New York City's Public Theater this past fall, in 2019. I know you saw this show in multiple iterations, and of course there is now a wonderful cast album that was released from Ghostlight Records in April of 2020. So let's talk about the Soft Power cast album. What do you listen for, and how are you hearing the voices in this show and in the cast album in relation to your research? 

Donatella: Yeah, I think I first need to give a bit of a summary of what Soft Power is about. And so, it is first a play in which David Henry Hwang is a character, and he is being commissioned to write some artistic production (it's different depending on the version) for China, to try to make China look good and gain soft power. And then there is a meditation on The King and I, and it turns out that is part of a campaign rally for Hillary Clinton, because this is prior to the 2016 presidential election. And the characters specifically articulate that musical theatre emotionally and ideologically manipulates all of us. So a show like The King and I is haunting and beautiful and moving, but it also reifies Orientalism. So that is the setup, and then David Henry Hwang gets stabbed in the neck, probably as an anti-Asian hate crime—which has dramatically increased since the era of Covid. And this did, in real life, happen to David Henry Hwang. And as he's bleeding out, the play bursts into a musical called Soft Power that revisits a lot of what we've already just seen in the play, and now it kind of flips the script on The King and I and imagines...what if that media executive who commissioned David Henry Hwang—Xue Xing—what if he is like the "I" and Hillary is the "King." And so he's like the rational person, and that China's now gained dominance. And Hillary Clinton and the United States are seen as backwards and needing of education. And this musical is imagined to have been written 50 years into the future when China has gained that domination and gained that soft power, and it's in the style of a Broadway musical. And so the musical itself is doing this cultural work of emotional and ideological manipulation. 

Masi: You just did that so well. It's not a simple show to give a concise summary of. So yes, carry on. 

Donatella: Thank you, I hope that that was clear. And so with the cast album, first of all, I wondered, do people understand the context for what they're listening to? And with regard to voices and accents, Conrad Ricamora is playing Xue Xing, this Chinese executive, who is embarking to the United States. And he's using his regular American accent throughout the whole course of the musical, but then when we're in the hospital with David Henry Hwang, suddenly on the cast album you hear that he has this very distinct Chinese accent. So I think that's really interesting to distinguish the musical, and then when we're back in the play— 

Masi: The sort of dreamed musical, versus the play that bookends it. 

Donatella: Yes, exactly. In listening to the album...you and I had spoken about, do people know that it's an almost all Asian American cast? Because most of them, aside from Conrad Ricamora, and Francis Jue, who's playing David Henry Hwang, they are Asian American actors pretending to be white Americans for the most part. And one of the ways that they do that is vocally and musically. So you'll hear on the album that they have these exaggerated whitened accents. So for instance, when they go to McDonald's, they'll have a character be like, "Dude, so welcome to McDonalds!" And so you have this kind of California surfer accent. Or you'll have other people put on these exaggerated cowboy accents. 

Masi: I think that's Ray Lee. Is that Ray Lee, the actor who does that bit? I mean I don't want to mix things up, but... 

Donatella: It is. And so I think that what that's doing is an array of literally all over the map white American accents from all different time periods, and I think that that's supposed to be in contrast to whenever white Americans do Asian accents and it's just generic, it's not specific to a certain place or time. And so again it's like flipping that on its head. Especially when Asians are so often seen as faceless, as part of hordes, as people who aren't even seen as "people." So it's just such, again, this brilliant and hilarious way of turning that hierarchy upside down. 

Masi: Yes. So smart, such a smart show. Complicated...complicated, but I'm excited about it. To do this inverted King and I with sort of talking about contemporary globalization and also...you know, soft power in all its...I don't know if I even really knew what that term was...Could you maybe just say a little bit about soft power? 

Donatella: Yeah, so "soft power" was a term invented by a scholar named Joseph Nye, pretty recently. And he uses it to describe the kind of influence that a country has through its cultural productions and exports in order to try to change other countries' view of that country and to try to shape policy. So this is in opposition to, for instance, military might. That is a very different kind of power. And so soft power can be this more subtle way of shaping opinions and spreading your influence. There's a long history, obviously, of the United States doing this as part of its control of the world that is part of diplomatic relations. We saw this especially clearly in the Cold War, with the USSR and these competing different...like different kinds of cultural exports, again, to try to sway people's opinions. 

Masi: I feel like I've made you give a giant lecture, and I want to make sure we can wrap up soon...Can I just ask you a question, before we close, about this idea of vocal whiteface. I feel like I heard you use that phrase “vocal whiteface” in relation to what the actors are doing in Soft Power, as you mentioned sort of like in that McDonald's moment. Or, adopting these kind of exaggeratedly white accents...accents of whiteness from different regions of America and different historical moments. But specifically to perform whiteness vocally. Am I understanding that correctly, and is that how you use that term? 

Donatella: Yeah, so I'm quite influenced by scholar Faedra Chatard Carpenter in her book Coloring Whiteness, in which she thinks about whiteface as performed by African Americans. And so for me there's this distinction between just playing a white person versus doing whiteface. 

Masi: Okay. 

Donatella: So, if you're just playing a white person, for instance if you're performing in Tartuffe, if you're doing Molière, you're playing this French person, then you're not doing whiteface...there’s just something else— 

Masi: As an actor of a different race. 

Donatella: Right. You're kind of sincerely playing that character who is implicitly white and implicitly we're supposed to forget about race. But whiteface, vocal whiteface, is specifically about trying to send up whiteness and point out that white is also a race that too often just goes unmarked. And it's a way to try to satirize and subvert white supremacy. So it's not a...an innocent kind of project that...I think we talked about how I think playing white characters has these elements of inclusion to them and assimilation, versus whiteface is I think a lot more radical, to really draw attention to white nonsense, through that kind of exaggeration. 

Masi: And the friction between races. 

Donatella: Exactly, exactly. On the one hand it's possible that through the humor you can make a more critical point and make people listen more. On the other hand, I totally can envision that these whiteface performances can offend white audiences and make them quite upset. It's not a coincidence that most of the white people to whom I've spoken about Soft Power don't really like Soft Power...and I think it's because it troubles them. But the last component is, maybe this is a show and the whiteface is for me, and I finally get to be at the center of this, and I get to enjoy myself. And I don't have to fear and brace myself for the yellowface that's about to come when I experience these other musicals. It's just so pleasurable and again, like subversive for me to see vocal whiteface. 

Masi: Amazing. Thank you so much for walking us through all of that. For spending some time. It's been just a pleasure to speak with you and to hear your thoughts on voices and voicing in these ways. So thank you. 

Donatella: Thank you so much! I love speaking with you. 

Practitioner Conversation 

Masi: I’m so pleased to welcome Andy Evan Cohen who is joining me vocally as our guest practitioner for this episode. 

Andy Evan Cohen composes and designs sound and video for theater, film, and other media, with over 50 stage, TV, and film credits, including productions off-Broadway, internationally, regionally, on PBS, UN Radio, and more. He has been the recipient of many NY Theater nominations and awards from the NYIT, the New York International Fringe Festival, and Planet Connections. As a composer, his music has been performed at theaters and by classical ensembles all over the world. His recent projects have involved designing sound Off-Broadway premier plays and editing a podcast series for the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College. With degrees from Oberlin and the Manhattan School of Music, Andy teaches sound design and technical theater in the CUNY system in New York City.  He is also a founding member of the New York-based theatrical production company Roly Poly Productions, providing creative, technical, and theatrical management services. 

Andy, thank you so much for joining me! 

Andy: Thank you so much for hosting me. 

Masi:  I was trying to remember how I know you and where I met you, and I really couldn’t remember. I feel like it was one of those composer projects along the line. 

Andy: It could’ve been a composer project. It’s also likely that we just have many friends in common, we’ve seen each other a lot,  I’ve noticed on Facebook when we’ve communicated... 

Masi: Yes. 

Andy: Lots of people that we know in common and have also commented on the post. 

Masi: So true and in fact just the other day...or who knows the day of the week? Time is amorphous...but I was wondering online about who is talking to tech companies about reverse engineering platforms like Zoom for more than one voice at a time. Because I don’t know how this works, I just know that it’s hard for singers, and things like if we wanted to do musicals on Zoom...which people are, people are writing operas for Zoom, etc. and theatrical performances, but the challenge is that you can pretty much just hear one voice at a time. And I thought at the time, well how do we get around this? And you mentioned that you were seeing this and—chat about this—in the music tech community and that it has to do with compression algorithms. What is it that you’re seeing or can help us learn about why Zoom only allows for one voice at a time, and how and if that might change? 

Andy: The easy answer to this is that Zoom was developed as a conferencing application. 

Masi: Yep. 

Andy:  Zoom as well as Skype or any of the other competitors...WebEx has a system, it’s very similar...they all revolve around the business platform that quickly got adapted into the teaching platforms by teachers because it’s a great way to have a lecturer giving a presentation to an audience. So all these platforms were designed around one person being the focus of the platform, do the best quality audio and video for that one person, and stream it to as many people as possible. Then COVID-19 happens and now we need some way of doing more interactive programs and Zoom or WebEx or sit or Skype or any of these programs aren’t well suited for that. So it’s one thing to see with the limitations are, the longer and more difficult challenge is what can you do to overcome those limitations. So how Zoom works or any of these conferencing software works is that it is a three-part process. I say something to you and the fiile of the audio and the video gets uploaded to the Zoom servers, Zoom servers and propagate that to whoever is on the chat and then from there propagation gets downloaded to each person and the client is responding to that chat. The result is that there’s three places called latency, latency is just a fancy way of saying lag or delay of time. So between the upload, the propagation, and the download there’s any number of things that can happen. If I’m talking over a Wi-Fi connection using a phone, my upload speeds gonna be pretty slow because Wi-Fi is not designed for fast upload speak. If Zoom has problems with your servers their propagation speed is gonna slow down. This is one of the issues that we have in our campus situation with Blackboard. I don’t know if you use blackboard at your university... 

Masi: I’ve used it before, but we usually use Canvas at Northwestern, but I used Blackboard at NYU, yeah. 

Andy: Yeah, with those companies they weren’t in designed for the sheer amount of usage that they are now getting. 

Masi: And maybe I should just say for anybody not in academia that these are the websites that are sort of like the course managers for classes where, or maybe I should let you say where they are [laughs] I don’t know, where... 

Andy: Well, yeah! That pretty much it’s a system for online content, it's a system for online classes and it’s great when the online class it’s just.. I am teaching one online class per week to a handful students. blackboard and Canvas are great with that it’s when it’s every class is now 24/7 online constantly being used that they need to have the amount of servers that can handle that material, and they just simply don’t. And Zoom has been on the quick end of the reason why they’ve been so quickly adopted is that as the saw demand they just kept building more servers and adding more space so they can keep up with demand and companies that haven’t been able to do that havent lasted as long and keep dropping out Zoom now is the number one choice for this sort of work . 

Masi: That’s so helpful tips and sort of know that I mean I know that Zoom is everywhere, but I wouldn’t have known that that is kind of the reason why, yeah. 

Andy: Yeah, and we’ll soon see other rivals to Zoom...Cisco, WebEx, or whoever will then say, “well, if Zoom is the number one we don’t want to be number two”, they’ll start adding servers they’ll start adding features they’ll start doing things to get more clients and then Zoom will have to then compete with them and right now we’ve got a whole online streaming race, yeah and the wildcard is that you even have video game platform like “switch” that are coming because people are saying well why not use that why not use Discord, and what’s happening is that  since the gamers have their system for online streaming why not just instead of using it for a role playing video games use it for delivering content for lectures presentations performances  so we may will be at the place we are the next big item in the next few years could be a video gaming console that also handles online streaming for all your classes at school. 

Masi: Wow, I knew that there must be something like this in the works, but I don’t have a window into this world, and that is so that makes total sense to me 

 Andy: Yeah, so to finish up how Zoom is working I’m uploading right now as were doing a Zoom conversation uploading audio uploading video Zoom is then propagating the audio and video to you and then you’re downloading it from the server and all these things are happening at whatever rate since I do a lot of online work I have a fairly robust high-speed Internet connection I have a direct connection  by the ethernet which is the fastest way to do it right now. Ethernet, hard line connection is always can be faster than a Wi-Fi connection with the limitations of how Wi-Fi works the frequencies and Wi-Fi works on and the various Wi-Fi companies and their bandwidth and what they are allowing so if you were told for example to use an ethernet connection it’s because they’re gonna be more robust, more reliable, and capable of delivering higher quality and higher content of audio. The future for sound design in theater has been with platforms like Dante... it’s a digital distribution system for sound and soon to be video content and the now common thing is for audio engineers to set up things using digital Dante where everything is now ethernet connections ethernet from the computer to the mixing board to the amplifier to the speakers and letting you stream up to 512 channels of audio which is a ridiculous amount especially when you’re thinking like a big musical may have 100 channels  and Dantes letting you have up to 512. 

Masi: OK OK. So, there maybe ways to kind of have these virtual performances I mean there already are people are doing them, but and I guess anything that I’ve seen it has to do with musicians performing at the same time it does I haven’t understood it all entirely but it seems like it’s often like you have to have your own ethernet connection like what if it’s like a Jam Kasam or like some of these other things where you have to have a gear, but in theory we could get to a point where we can have a choir with people singing at all different points around the globe and it all being streamed simultaneously 

Andy: Yes, but that’s gonna take a lot of development of hardware and software to get back because right now like with my classes very few people are able to have their own ethernet connections. Yeah, a lot of people are using wifi right which is not fast enough for that sort of set up. The other thing is that you often see a lot of videos the famous Hamilton video where everyone singing from it which are actually all done in post production 

Masi: Yeah, no. That's the thing, and I think a lot of people don’t realize that I actually had somebody ask me online…. oh I guess it was the thread we were both on, but being like what about all these choirs and these videos I’m seeing and it’s all edited together after the fact right so it’s not like people just logging onto Zoom and then the choir sounds. 

Andy: Right, because what’s happening is that everyone with their own connection now everyone different speeds if we both have fast ethernet connections, great then we can use it to communicate back-and-forth with each other pretty quickly, but if you’re on the phone on Wi-Fi and I’m on ethernet it’s gonna take longer for you to get my information than for me to get yours. The result is that you can get the delay between the two so you're gonna get the sense of I will play a chord on the piano and then a second later you hear it and that’s not gonna work for live theatre. 

Masi: Right. What I think is really important and I didn’t realize about what it is your mapping out here is that, and I don’t totally know what compression algorithms are but you mentioned to me the reason that you can only hear one Zoom speaker at a time was because compression algorithms 

Andy: Yes, so let’s start with  understanding of compressions. This is something that is used all the time for anything with sound if you hear music on the radio streamed off of the Alexa type thing that music's been compressed.. it's been given to you in a compressed format. Compression used properly is an important tool for all audio so compression in that you have the lowest of low range you have the highest of the highs. You want to then have the two of them as close to each other as possible and if somethings not compressed I will demonstrate what bad compression will score no compression sound  *inaudible mumbling*  Hear how my voice is getting louder and softer? There’s too much dynamic range. 

Masi: Dynamic range--a term your meaning volume, right?

Andy: Exactly, by dynamic range like musical dynamics forte versus piano the volume of the sound in a live orchestra that’s great we love the fact that we can hear the end of the Haydn Farewell Symphony and just go down to two solo violins playing piano it sounds gorgeous, but if you were to have a recording of that those two violins are gonna get lost if you’re recording while jogging down the street with traffic because they are simply to soft so you need the compression to make it louder so that you can hear the louds and the softs as well as possible. So, Zoom needs to do this in order to deliver the audio‘s that you can hear things clearly. If Zoom was not compressing it then the softer tones of my voice would obviously be dropped or you would have a hard time getting all the data of the audio as quickly as possible because compression is also data compression, so zip file is compressing data it’s taking a large amount of data and putting it in a small package. 

Masi: So, if we are to say for simple compression algorithms in relation to Zoom does that encompass both of those things or...

Andy:  Yes.

Masi: Oh it does? Okay. 

Andy: It’s encompassing both of them gets the compression for audio which is something that you can set within the Zoom settings as well as the data compression needed to get the information as quick as possible over those transmission networksand the algorithms are telling the computer to do things to maximize the Zoom for example with Zoom one easy way to get audio is by limiting sounds and tones that we don’t need the  human voice for speaking voice has certain frequencies frequencies are the equivalent of pitches for Those who haven’t had this audio background I can explain for example when an oboe plays the tuning note A and they’re playing a frequency of 440 or 440 hertz, hertz is how you measure it. So at 440 hertz we are hearing the oboe tuning note A. If you start going lower than 440 you start getting lower frequencies you get lower notes you get out of the range of the oboe into the ranges of the cellos, the double bases, and low end of the piano.  If you’re going above that tone, and then you’re going higher tones since into higher oboes and flutes and Piccolo’s and eventually you’re going outside the range of music and more into the range of sound. The human speaking voice works best with a range of about 250 to about a range of 4000 to 6000 on the top. What that means is that if I’m trying to get my voice out to you as possible I don’t need anything outside of that range if it’s below 250 or below 200 let’s just eliminate all that data it doesn’t get to you if it’s above 6000 we don’t need that data all it’s gonna sound like a really high buzzy sounds 

Masi: So, let me interrupt you really quickly just because I think this might also have to do with one of the challenges of teaching voice over Zoom. Because we have certain kinds of resonances in singing voices that it’s not or it’s not just about the communication of information, but there may be sort of like I don’t even know my acoustics I’m not up on this, but there are times where the sound is vibrating on  multiple frequencies.  And so if some of those are sliced off in this in the Zoom context then you may not, as a singing teacher you may not hear the full resonance of the voice, the way it sounds in the room where the person is singing.

Andy:  Correct, and that’s one of the big challenges of teaching which is thst it’s great for Zoom to cut off frequencies that are significantly below 200 hertz it’s not so great when you’ve got a great Russian bass baritone whose voice tones actually use some of those lower frequencies now when you lose that like in Boris Godunov, then you lose a big chunk of the opera. 

Masi: Yeah, yeah. Of course, yeah. 

Andy: And similarly with with singers is that the higher frequencies are used for diction, your fricatives, your plosives of everything that you use voice for how to pronounce words that is all on the higher end and since were only keeping so much of the higher in and eliminating others that means that some of that is gonna get lost. And that means that if you’re not over annunciating you may lose certain things like if I say if I want to say the word lose I’m going to watch you put an extra bit of the sibilant sound at the end of lose so that it comes clearly through the live Zoom. In a live room, I wouldn’t need to do it so much because you would be able to pick up those frequencies. 

Masi: That’s so useful to know. Wow okay! So, if we axcept the compression is a necessary factor of just making this all work can you talk me through this thing about why this brings up the question about equitable access to the Internet. 

Andy:  Yeah.  Because this goes to that upload propagating download, which is that everyone’s working at different speeds. That means that everyone is now facing some restrictions in what those speeds very well may be Zoom right now if I’m talking Zoom over a phone is sending a single mono signal. I can send a stereo signal if you wanted to have a much richer sound field of music being sent over Zoom if I’m doing it over computer. 

Zoom will eventually be letting you use the stereo over a phone because the next generation of phones are gonna come with stereo microphones, Apple’s planning to do that in one of their newest iPhone releases, Android will soon be doing it, it’s very likely that every other manufacturer will too. So if you have stereo microphones you can mix to start sending serial signals unless you can’t because the data count. Because stereo signal means more data .

Masi: Ahhh I see. More data that will eat through your allotted amount from your phone company so much more quickly... yeah, okay. 

Andy: And it does it also means data limitations based upon where you are there’s been numerous cases where a city said it would be great for our city to have our own broadband or Wi-Fi system set up so that anyone can go into the library and access broadband or Wi-Fi. And big tech companies don’t like that because that means of the city is now providing service...

Masi: ...that they wanna charge for.

Andy: Yeah and the tech companies are lobbying the states governments to shut down the cities and this is something that happened recently in Kentucky where under the previous Republican administration several cities were setting up their own Wi-Fi or broadband system and the legislature there made it illegal for cities to do that because they took money from the big tech companies and they didn't want to lose themoney. This is an example of Republicans; you can see this happening with the Democrats as well in California.  This is an equal opportunity money enriching scheme 

Masi:  Yeah, I’m really glad that you brought this up because I regret that I’m a little bit ill-informed about this, but I know that equitable access to Internet is something that we all need to be fighting for. Because its perpetuating, I mean especially right now, it’s perpetuating such inequities. I care about voices, I care about who has access to the sounds that come across the Internet and, so it’s just a good reminder to keep this at the forefront  as all these changes keep happening. 

Andy: Yes. 

Masi: So, this is the  part of my podcast where I ask a practitioner to lead an exercise do you have any any practical guidance for how to optimize Zoom or whatever it is someone is using in relation to sound and specifically voice?

Andy:  Yes, one of the things that Zoom let you do is change some of your settings. 

Masi:  Okay. 

Andy: And if I click on where the sound is where the mute button normally is for me, it’s to the bottom left corner of the Zoom app.  And when I click on the arrow next to it I see something that says "audio settings." So I can go onto audio settings and within it you can see microphone levels I can set it to automatically adjust the microphone volume which is right now how it’s currently set and Zoom is using its own compression algorithms to measure my voice.  Like  right now if I looking at my Zoom audio settings with automatic adjust set to be on checked on if I move closer to the microphone I can watch that as my voice is getting louder the input volume moves slightly to the  left to compensate for my  volume. I can turn that off and play around with what sounds best for my voice. If I'm a soft  speaker I may want to turn off automatic adjust and manually adjust the level until it looks like a really good level with all the bars as hot possible without it constantly going to the right.  And within this you can also...within the audio settings there's advanced settings...my version gives me a checkbox that says "show in meeting option to enable original sound." This is Zoom's fancy way of saying enable original sound. Enable original sound is saying don’t use automatic compression settings, use the ones that your setup has.  If you’re just talking on the phone you may not have much of a setup and you may want to use Zoom's. But if you’re talking on a microphone built for  podcasting the microphone may be doing a lot of things that Zoom isn’t, and the microphone may be doing it better and you can if you click enable original sound that will turn off Zoom's settings for volume level adjustments and background noise adjustments  and let your microphone that you’re recording pick it up for you. 

Masi: Thank you, Andy! That was fantastic. I’m so grateful. I thank you again for coming on it and doing this chat for the podcast 

Andy: Glad to do it. 


[Voicing Across Distance theme]  

That’s it! Thanks for listening. I hope you’ll stay safe, stay strong, and return for my final episode of the summer, when I plan to host sociolinguistics professor Anne Harper Charity-Hudley and voice coach Linda Gates. Until then! 

About this Transcript
This transcript is provided for reference purposes, and should not be taken as a literal performance score of every “mm-hmm” and “yeah”and “um” and stutter and laugh that transpired in the course of conversation. The Voicing Across Distance theme music and “Voice Theory” chant are written and performed by Masi Asare.