March 30, 2023
Dr. Josephine Lee, a professor in the Department of English, and founding director of the Asian American Studies Program, lecturing at the University of Minnesota. (Contributed photo)

MINNEAPOLIS (Dec. 17, 2018) — Josephine Lee, a professor of English and Asian American Studies at the University of Minnesota, has been awarded a 2019 National Endowment for the Humanities for “Blackface and Yellowface: American Theater and Racial Performance,” a book-in-progress that looks at racial representation in nineteenth- and twentieth-century American theater.

Professor Lee’s research highlights how American orientalism affected the production of both blackface minstrelsy and African American theater. Blackface and yellowface acts were frequently performed as part of the same evening’s entertainment in pantomime, minstrelsy, vaudeville, and musical theater. Key instances of African Americans performing in yellowface and brownface as Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, and South Asian characters include the popular acts of Thomas Dilward, known as “Japanese Tommy,” who performed with white minstrel companies prior to the Civil War; early African American musical theater such as John Isham’s Oriental America (1897); and later yellowface performances by African Americans such as Juanita Long Hall in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific (1950) and Flower Drum Song (1958). Lee’s project also addresses how contemporary African American and Asian American performing artists have responded to the legacy of blackface and yellowface representation.

Studying these multiple cross-racial impersonations—at historical moments in which the color line was otherwise rigidly policed—offers fascinating insights into racial representation and interaction both inside and outside the theater. In providing historical insight into the connections between stage orientalism and blackface minstrelsy, Lee’s work will inform current discussions about racial representation, programming, and casting practices in the performing arts and media.

Josephine Lee is a professor of English and Asian American Studies at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities and the general editor of The Oxford Encyclopedia of Asian American Pacific Islander Literature and Culture. Her books include The Japan of Pure Invention: Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado (2010) and Performing Asian America: Race and Ethnicity on the Contemporary Stage (1997).

The National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act of 1965 created the National Endowment for the Humanities as an independent federal agency. The law identified the need for a national cultural agency that would preserve America’s rich history and cultural heritage, and encourage and support scholarship and innovation in history, archaeology, philosophy, literature, and other humanities disciplines. The NEH is one of the largest funders of humanities programs in the United States.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this project do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.NEH announcement:
Department of English:

Asian American Studies Program:


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