Seattle Rep issues statement, will host townhall on race & art regarding yellowface #Mikado

Actors from the Seattle's Gilbert & Sullivan Society revival of "The Mikado". Photo credit: Greg Wood / Getty Images.
(corrected) Actors performing “The Mikado”. Photo credit: Greg Wood / Getty Images.

Much of the Asian American community is in an uproar over this year’s production of “The Mikado” by the Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society, which features unabashed yellowface. Yesterday, I published a wonderful guest-post by LA-based activist Sean Miura (@seanmiura) about the production.

Both the Gilbert & Sullivan Society and the theater where “The Mikado” is playing — the stages of the Seattle Repertory Theater — have found themselves thrust into the spotlight. Today, in response to the controversy, the Seattle Repertory Theatre issued a public statement clarifying their relationship to the production. The Seattle Rep writes that they have no relationship with the Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society, and that the Bagley Wright Stage where “The Mikado” will run this month is rented to the Society by way of a contract between the Rep and the City of Seattle. Thus, the Seattle Rep clarifies that they did not authorize the Society’s yellowface production of “The Mikado”.

The Rep also commits to hosting a community townhall on race, art and cultural representation that can address some of the issues raised.

Full text of the press statement after the jump.

A Clarification and an Invitation
in regards to the production of The Mikado
by the Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society
appearing on the Bagley Wright Stage
at Seattle Repertory Theatre

We have received many emails and tweets in follow up to Sharon Pian Chan’s opinion piece in the Seattle Times on Sunday, July 13th, in which she castigates the Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society for staging The Mikado in our building in a racially insensitive way. A few points of clarification:

  1. The Mikado is a production of The Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society, not Seattle Repertory Theatre. We have no association with the Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society and no influence over their programming or artistic decisions.
  2. While this production appears on the stage of the Bagley Wright in our facility, we did not rent the space to the Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society. As a part of our lease with the City of Seattle, we are required to open up time and space on the Bagley stage every summer for productions by the Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society. The Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society’s rental arrangement is with the City of Seattle, not with Seattle Rep.

Seattle Rep remains committed to presenting work that accurately depicts and reflects the many diverse and unique voices of our local community. Because The Mikado is being presented on the same stage where Seattle Rep’s own productions happen to appear though, we have been mistakenly implicated here. While unfortunate, we believe this provides an opportunity for Seattle Rep to exert some leadership within the Seattle cultural community on this important issue at this moment of controversy.

To that end, we will be hosting an open community conversation in early August regarding The Mikado and, more broadly, issues of race, art, and cultural representation. We are currently working on a date, a moderator, and panelists and will have specific information available very shortly.

In the meantime, please contact feedback at seattlerep.org with any questions or for more information. We look forward to seeing you there.

  • Braden Abraham
    Acting Artistic Director
  • Jeffrey Herrmann
    Managing Director

This statement acknowledges the issues surrounding a yellowface staging of “The Mikado” and appears to sympathize with how such a production is offensive and insensitive to Asian Americans. This response stands in stark contrast with the Gilbert & Sullivan Society’s bizarre doubling-down in defense of their own yellowface.

So, as we proceed in the conversation over the inappropriateness of yellowface regarding “The Mikado”, I think that as a community we should be sure we are targeting the right folks. It seems like anger at the Seattle Rep may be largely misplaced, and we should probably focus our displeasure on the Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society.

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  • Rebelwerewolf

    Meh. The schtick is always to pretend to sympathize, then tell us to get over it, and the show goes on having had much extra publicity. Rinse and repeat every few years. I don’t recall a single racist theater production to ever have been canceled. I will be floored if this one is.

  • Radiovoice

    Will someone out there in cyberland realize that the photo reproduced here is NOT and NEVER WAS from the Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan Society’s production of “The Mikado”? I’ve seen their production, I’ve seen the performers up close, and this photo in no way represents the makeup they wear in this production.

  • @Radiovoice, you’re correct — the image in this post was mistakenly attributed to the Seattle G&S society from the source I got it from; but it’s clearly “too professional”. That being said, the makeup used in the Seattle production is not “less offensive” than what is seen here; it is only cruder.

    This earlier post of mine features a promotional image from the Seattle G&S Society, and this link provides an additional photo. I have corrected the misattribution, but I think the point is still valid that Seattle’s G&S production is engaging in yellowface.

  • radiovoice

    Much as I appreciate your rapid reply, your first link shows only one actor from the Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan Society production in what could possibly be construed as “yellowface” makeup (in the lower left hand corner – the others seem to be wearing no makeup at all) and the second link takes us to a photo of a production currently running at the Bruce Ariss Wharf Theater on Fisherman’s Wharf in Monterey, California. I have no objection to a calm and rational debate on this issue but I do think that every effort should be made to present an authentic representation of what is being objected to.

  • Hi Radiovoice,

    Sorry, the second link was supposed to be this one (I happened to be reading the other article at the time of your response and pasted in the wrong URL in my hastiness to respond to you). I absolutely agree with you that accuracy is necessary in this debate, and appreciate your efforts to correct me.

    But more specific to your point:

    Much as I appreciate your rapid reply, your first link shows only one actor from the Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan Society production in what could possibly be construed as “yellowface” makeup (in the lower left hand corner – the others seem to be wearing no makeup at all)

    I think perhaps there is a misunderstanding as to the definition of yellowface. Yellowface doesn’t require makeup; it refers to costume (which includes but isn’t limited to cosmetics), mannerisms, and other forms of aesthetic props used to attempt transracialization. Their insidiousness lies in the fact that they often rely on stereotypes (accents, for example, are frequently used in yellowface) to create an exaggerated image of a person of colour, and how they draw upon America’s history of minstrelsy (which includes yellowface) as a form of subjugation and dehumanization of people of colour. The same tradition of blackface that was used in American minstrel shows in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century to caricature African Americans were used against Asian Americans at the same time period, but the latter is far less well-known.

    I thought I had a historic reflection on the problem with yellowface on this site, but apparently I never actually wrote it. This post scratches the surface of why yellowface is problematic — and how it does not require actual makeup of the kind sold by Revlon — albeit using a different incident. I had actually planned a more thorough primer on why yellowface is problematic this week in response to some of the comments made by the Seattle G&S Society, and this may be the kick-in-the-butt needed to lay it all out.

    But in short, yes, all the actors pictured are in yellowface, not just the one wearing makeup.

  • A related issue with the production is the inherent Orientalism of the production. Here is a discussion of Orientalism and how it is damaging, related to a Katy Perry stage performance. I suggest you read it too.

    Again, I apologize — many other Asian American bloggers and writers have delved into defining yellowface and Orientalism related to this specific incident, so I haven’t offered up anything new from this site choosing instead to let their voices take the lead. I did plan something for this week and couldn’t get to it, so all of my links right now are related to other incidents.

  • Radiovoice

    Not to single you out, Jenn, but in many ways, the way you addressed “The Mikado” issue on your blog is indicative of the overall problem I had with the way concerns over the Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan Society’s production were addressed overall. You and others were deeply offended by the production and castigated the SG&S for racism and insensitivity, claiming that they should have known better in the first place and should have responded better to criticism.

    Yet, despite the fact that this production was announced a year in advance, no one expressed any of their concerns to the SG&S in advance, when discussions could have been held, objections expressed, and possible changes made in the final product. The SG&S last presented “The Mikado” in 2008 and both photos and a video of that very similar production are readily available – including via the Seattle Times website, which archives their largely laudatory review of that show. To claim outrage after the fact, particularly when it is coupled with “they should have known” statements about the SG&S, implies that those who were most outraged by what they presented either weren’t aware of the concerns regarding productions elsewhere either or just wanted to leap on the bandwagon of outrage after it had already left the garage,

    I also note that you, too, were deeply concerned about this production – when you had the time to be concerned about it, that is. From what I see here, your concern lasted only a few days and was abandoned when you just couldn’t get back to it and moved on to something else. (I’ll overlook the fact that you’ve never chosen to remove the misleading photos of other unrelated productions of the operetta, despite the fact that I pointed them out to you and you acknowledged them.) The SG&S spends an entire year putting a production together; your blog I would guess takes a couple of hours to write. If you light a sudden fire, or add fuel to one recently set, it doesn’t take too much of your time. When the SG&S – a volunteer run amateur organization with only one paid employee – suddenly finds itself on fire on an insanely busy opening weekend, you criticize them for their response to the flaming – but, from what I can see, you don’t seem to be doing much to address the issue now that its been aired via your blog. Be outraged, fuel the fire, then walk away and move on to something else.

    If you wish to simply attack something that offends you or state your opinion about something that makes you mad, fine; just get a blog or an FB account and start typing. But real change – and the sharing of more than just outrage or name calling – requires more than that. It requires listening as much as talking and understanding the other point of view as much as stating yours. Until you understand that, you’re just one more pissed off voice on the web who helped set fire to a sixty-year-old theatrical company but couldn’t be bothered to stick around long enough to see if it could be rebuilt in a way that actually addressed your point of view.

    I hope to see you at the Rep next Monday night – but I somehow doubt that I will.

  • Radiovoice – you make a poor argument. I recognize that it’s easier in this instance to reject the claims of people who are offended by yellowface theater if you believe those people have never attended productions from the sixty-year-old theater company in question, but you should remember that the attendance records of the company’s detractors are not important. Frankly, no one offended by yellowface theater (which should be everyone, really) is required to invest time and money in supporting the theater company through this trying time sparked by their clearly wrongheaded yellowface revelry.

    And that’s the worst part – the notion that there is another side to colorface worth public debate. There isn’t. Memo to theater companies: no one needs to tell you that yellowface productions will remain uncontroversial in 2014. Radiovoice, what possible ‘other point of view’ should bloggers like Jenn listen to; the point of view that enjoys bigoted depictions of American minority groups for public entertainment? Those who find increased visual pleasure in gaudy face paint and Fu Manchu mustaches? People who like actors to speak in broken accented English? Your perspective strikes me as ridiculous, Radiovoice: the tragedy of this controversy is not what happens to the theater company. They will either continue to perform theater, or they will not. The tragedy here is that, yet again, fellow American citizens view nothing awry in racially lampooning racial minority groups, while they accuse writers and activists from those groups of needless rabble-rousing when they protest this ill treatment.

    Radiovoice, your language might be nicer than some, but concern trolling is still trolling. It’s not unreasonable to expect fellow citizens to refrain from racially lampooning others with colorface farce. If theater companies, or anyone, chooses to promote racial stereotypes and bigoted comedy in 2014, they deserve condemnation from every blogger, columnist, and activist online and elsewhere.

    And none of us need debase ourselves by buying a ticket to the show.

  • @RadioVoice

    Not to single you out, Jenn,

    … but to do it anyways…

    You and others were deeply offended by the production and castigated the SG&S for racism and insensitivity, claiming that they should have known better in the first place and should have responded better to criticism.

    Yes, because it’s not as if the outrage against yellowface was, in general, invented last month. As I’ve linked to you in my previous comment, yellowface has a more than century-old history in this country, and vocal and concerted outcry against it has dated back at least two decades if not longer. It is absolutely not unreasonable to expect Seattle’s G&S Society to be aware of the insensitivity of donning yellowface, as we would expect any responsible member of our society to be aware of these kinds of issues. In theater, these issues become more pronounced — yet, repeated defensiveness from troop members like Dave Ross betray that the G&S society didn’t take even a minute to think about these issues prior to finalizing the show.

    You rightfully point out that the show has been a year in the making. But it is specious to argue that I, or Asian Americans like myself, have a responsibility to have generated outcry sometime last year. That would imply 1) that Asian Americans are attempting to ban any and all productions of The Mikado (not the yellowface that is being used to stage the play), which is not paying attention to the argument; this is not what we are arguing, but to your credit, this is what G&S Society thinks we are arguing. and 2) that Asian Americans were supposed to magically or telepathically mindread what the production was supposed to look like before it had been staged. We were supposed to know that Seattle’s G&S Society was going to continue a tradition of yellowface, before they had done it yet. That’s hardly a reasonable standard.

    Seattle G&S had a year of preparation for this production. In that time, it should have been their responsibility to consider the impact of yellowface, through researching the reams of writing on this subject relevant perhaps not to Mikado but at least to other examples of yellowface. This blog contains an entire category about racial drag and colourface, and I’m hardly an authority on the subject. They could have done outreach to the Asian American community in Seattle, or to Asian American drama troupe. They could have at the very least educated their troupe members enough to prevent a travesty of an interview like this from happening.

    You are absolutely right that after commenting in this thread, I did not end up writing an additional post about “why Mikado yellowface is actually racist”. That’s because within the days of my interaction with you on this comment thread, Sharon Pian Chan demolished Dave Ross’ defense of yellowface, and then wrote a follow-up op-ed after seeing the show where she reinforced her racial criticisms of the production; this after she broke the original story with her July 14 op-ed. Jeff Yang addressed this topic on CNN. Gwynn Guilford covered it for Quartz. Phil Yu mentioned it on Angry Asian Man. Other people weighed in on why yellowface in Mikado is racist: Colorlines, OCA-Seattle and the JACL. Erin Quill wrote her own “Little List”. And this is just a small sampling of the many articles that covered this exact topic.

    Did I ultimately decide not to write yet another post about why Mikado with yellowface staging is racist? Yes, I did make that decision — there really was nothing more I felt needed to be added. You suggest — pejoratively — that this blog takes “a couple of hours to write”, which you contrast to the all-volunteer production of Seattle G&S. First, you underestimate the amount of time it takes to run this blog: it takes me at minimum 3 hours to write a post, between 30m – 1h to write most comments that allow me to interact with individual commenters. That’s per day. On average, I spend about 20 hours a week on this blog; it is quite legitimately a part-time job in terms of effort. And, unlike Seattle G&S, I do this all on a volunteer basis without a full-time paid employee. You don’t strike me as someone who spends a lot of time on the Asian American blogosphere, so you may not realize this, but new media outlets like myself have a LOT to cover with a very limited amount of manpower in order to adequately cover the kinds of stories our readers want to read. In the days since you disappeared from this comment thread, I either had to cover or was specifically asked by readers to comment about Gaza (multiple times), anti-Sikh hate crimes, net neutrality (twice), James Shigeta’s death, Maxine Hong Kingston’s receipt of the Medal of Arts, suicide rates among LGBTQ Pacific Islander youths and Hmong American history, among a number of “lesser” topics. That’s all on top of my full-time job, which is what pays for this site’s existence. And, that’s not an unusual workload for this site; that is ten major posts — each requiring a significant amount of research — in a span of twelve days, along with two separate Asian American activism Twitter-based discussions I helped co-moderate.

    So yes, I choose to allocate my blogging time carefully, and I should not be asked to apologize for that. It would be a bad use of my time to write a post that had already been exhaustively covered by at least five of my colleagues, and which I felt was adequately explored by a guest-post on my site; and in so doing be forced to sacrifice a story that had not been written about at all. You may not think this is a very compelling use of time, and you might be fair in that judgement; but I would argue that spending a year’s worth of volunteer hours to put on a yellowface production of The Mikado isn’t particularly impressive to me, either.

    Speaking of not being willing to put the time in, I also noticed that in your efforts to chastise me for absence of follow-through, you failed to respond to the two links I provided discussing yellowface in other contexts. Given how desperately you think it is the responsibility of Asian Americans like myself to educate others about why yellowface is racist, I find it particularly telling that you did not take the time to read and comment about my conversation on yellowface as published elsewhere on the site and as helpfully linked to you. I was, in fact, waiting for you to read those pieces and to respond. You, instead, seem to have completely dropped this topic for nearly two weeks, before suddenly reappearing with your chastisement that I failed to have a conversation with your absentee representative two weeks ago.

    As you rightfully note, I will not be at Monday’s G&S performance. I am not a Seattle resident, which is why I chose to give my blog platform primarily to Sean Miura, a West Coast Japanese American who was deeply offended by Mikado, in lieu of my own voice. You are, in fact, commenting on my only personal commentary on Mikado, a post which functioned mostly to publicize a press statement by the Seattle Rep, distancing themselves from the racism of the G&S’ Mikado. But even if I did live in Seattle, there is no way I would give money to yellowface, and nor should I be expected to in order to “earn” the right to comment.

    ***

    As I told you previously, the captions were corrected. But I fail to see the necessity of replacing the pictures. These pictures function to illustrate what the Mikado looks like when it is staged, and either way, you have yet to address my earlier point to you that Seattle G&S’ staging isn’t “less yellowface” than these productions, it’s just more crude and lower quality. Basically, if you want to argue that I’m not devoting sufficient time to this discussion, perhaps you could start by actually responding to the comments I wrote to you immediately above your latest comment.

    You know, the one where I actually tried to have a conversation with you about yellowface, which you seem to think wasn’t worth your time to engage in on the merits.

  • radiovoice

    Thanks for getting back to this issue. I agree that other subjects – to my mind, practically ANY other subjects – should take precedence over “The Mikado Controversy”. And, in fairness to you, much of my frustration has not been with you personally but, rather, the “cut and run” way in which the issue has been addressed in the press and, most recently, on-line.

    Some comments from my end – not facts, mind you, but my opinions and points of view:

    • I don’t believe that the Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan Society intended to offend anyone with this production – why would they? And, despite the many attempts some have made to portray “The Mikado” as such, their production was not the yellowfaced equivalent of a minstrel show. I understand that you disagree with this point of view, of course, but being of Asian heritage doesn’t necessarily make your opinion fact. “The Mikado” has been around entertaining people forever. It’s a send-up of British bureaucracy. Read it, listen to the score, maybe even see the DVD, and then tell me specifically where the racism is. Sure, you could cast it with Asians if Asians wearing kimonos makes you more comfortable than non-Asians wearing them, but that wouldn’t change the content one iota.

    • Having been around for sixty years, I believe the Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan Society deserved far more benefit of the doubt than they received in this situation. They opened a show, they received an unexpected and, as many still believe, unwarranted attack from a columnist in Seattle’s most widely read newspaper, and then they were literally deluged with hate mail and nasty phone messages, their Facebook and Yelp pages were firebombed, and blogs exploded with accusatory rage against them – the majority from those who previously never knew they existed and, I suspect, had never seen or knew anything about “The Mikado” before someone told them to be outraged. The SG&SS is not the Klu Klux Klan filling the stage of the Bagley Wright with a Bones and Tambo minstrel show, you know, they’re a long-established amateur theater group celebrating a major anniversary with a production of a much-loved operetta. They deserved courtesy and civility and, for the most part, they didn’t get it.

    • Following Ms. Chan’s direct attack on this production of “The Mikado”, both she and the Seattle Times’ theater critic expressed dismay at the level to which the discourse had stooped. Does no one at the Times have access to the internet? Blogs? Facebook? Could they not have expected those who love a good attack at an unsuspecting target to light the torches, pick up the pitchforks, and go on the attack? Please, they knew what would happen here and, given what I’ve read since, they have rather enjoyed the firestorm they caused. Had Seattle’s Asian community really wanted a reasonable discussion, they would have asked the SG&SS and the Rep to host a sensitivity forum *last* year, when “The Mikado” was announced. Throwing a rock through their window the weekend they opened was calculated nastiness that I believe promoted further racial *division*, not further racial *understanding*. Aside from the Rep’s forum, which I suspect will be sparsely attended, I doubt any minds have really been changed on the issue and the discussion, at least from what I’ve seen, has resulted in a whole lot of eye rolling at what many see as political correctness gone mad. If you had hoped for greater understanding, I’m sorry, but this was not the way to get it.

    • Context matters, whether you want to believe it does or not. I attended “The Mikado” twice and the general feeling I got from the overheard conversations of audience members was that absolutely no one felt that the show was ever intended to be an accurate representation of Japan, either in its original production 130 years ago or now, and that the belief that it ever was is ridiculous. For the most part, theatergoers “got the joke” – and it isn’t a racist joke, no matter how much you’d or others would like to think it is. If “The Mikado” is truly a racist abomination from another time, why is it done so often – and so often in “traditional” style? Why hasn’t it disappeared like the minstrel shows some have assumed it to be?

    • The Mikado photo which you and other bloggers used and which still appears on your page is neither taken from the Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan Society’s production, nor does it accurately represent it. Keeping it on your site, changed caption or not, is the equivalent of my writing a blog criticizing you for some action of yours and illustrating it with a generic photo of an Asian woman captioned “Asian blogger”.

    • If any instance in which a non-Asian person is portraying an Asian is offensive, why did Sharon Pian Chan publicly support the youth production of “The Mikado” which opened shortly after the Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan Society’s staging just down the street? It featured a cast of non-Asian kids in blue wigs in an Anime-style setting. It was different in style, yes, but we’re not discussing artistic choices here, we’re talking absolutes – at least that’s what I read here. Non-Asians playing Asians is yellowface and yellowface on stage is racist – until an Asian person decides that it isn’t on a case by case basis, that is. If one is not already inclined to see racism in the piece or the presentation, these varying definitions of what yellowface is doesn’t help us better understand your point of view.

    • This production did not contain any ching-chong Charlie Chan “number one son” dialects, buck-toothed dentures, pop-bottle eyeglasses, or any of the other “Jap” and “Nip” sorts of crude crapola that’s been implied it did here and elsewhere. Most of the cast wore standard stage make up, aside from Katisha (in modified Kabuki style face paint) and a couple of men in long thin beards. OK, I’ll agree that the Fu Manchu beards probably weren’t necessary, but aside from that, sorry, no slanty eyes or any other attempt for the cast to try and fool anyone into thinking they were Japanese.

    • I’ll agree that Dave Ross isn’t the best spokesperson for the group – his dumb act on the radio came across as, well, dumb. I would much rather have heard he and Ms. Chan go head to head with a real moderator. But I suspect KIRO radio didn’t want to spend a whole lot of time covering a story that really wasn’t much of a story in the first place. It’s a news station and there was real news to cover.

    • No one has to buy a ticket to something they don’t want to see. But judging a show based on some publicity shots and a whole lot of presumption is really no less prejudicial than judging you and your various qualities based solely on your photograph.

    • I did read your links, Jenn – all of them – and I found some of them interesting. But I personally object to the overall sense I get that you and others think I’m a racist for liking “The Mikado”. I don’t think that I am and nothing that I’ve read so far has convinced me otherwise. I will say, however, that when I attended the show, I inadvertently caught myself seeing people of Asian descent in the audience and wondering if they thought I was a racist for being there and enjoying myself. Ridiculous, I know – but I don’t think I was the only person who noticed themselves doing it. What does it say about a “controversy” when efforts to create greater understanding between people instead results in greater uncertainty and division?

    • Note to Snoopy: I’m not a troll because I disagree with you on these issues, any more than you’re a troll for disagreeing with me. I personally don’t believe that “The Mikado” presents a racist or bigoted point of view, any more than I believe that the Wodehouse “Jeeves and Wooster” stories should be attacked for presenting Brits as dimwitted idiots or the “The Godfather” packed away for presenting Italians as automatically synonymous with organized crime. It’s a silly cartoonish farce that never pretends to be anything more than entertainment, despite what others may have tried to make it seem to be, and the fact that its set in a topsy turvy Japan that never was just increases the absurdity level. My opinion, of course – your mileage may vary.

    • I apologize for belittling you by underestimating the time it takes to write your blog. It was presumptuous and unfair. I may be frustrated by this issue, Jenn, but ultimately you’re not the total cause of it. You deserved better and I’m sorry.

    • You stated “you have yet to address my earlier point to you that Seattle G&S’ staging isn’t “less yellowface” than these productions, it’s just more crude and lower quality”. That, Jenn, is your opinion. You see (or, at least think you’ve seen) “The Mikado” and you see crude and demeaning yellowfaced racism; I see “The Mikado” on that Seattle stage and I see a silly and entertaining send-up of bureaucracy that contains some of the loveliest music Gilbert and Sullivan ever wrote – and which garnered well-deserved standing ovations for both of the performances I attended. On this, I suspect we’ll never see eye to eye and that’s a shame.

    Thanks again for returning to this issue and allowing me a forum to respond. I hope the discussion continues, both here and at the Rep on August 18th.

  • Context matters, whether you want to believe it does or not.

    I don’t want to get into the middle of this but I agree with this, but it works both ways. I find it hard to believe that the “satirization” of 19th Century British high society is truly understood by modern-day audiences – what nuances of the period are actually being mocked in the piece? My guess is that context is lost on audiences also.

    From that perspective, if you are asking audiences to both have some historical perspective that actually makes sense of the satire – how many Americans are acquainted with British high society of the time? – and then look past the costuming, then I would probably believe that the racialization of the characters over time since the play was first performed is likely to assume a greater significance than may have been originally intended.

    So, yes, in context, American audiences are watching racialized and caricatured characters of Asians – a community that is under-represented in the media – in a play about a culture (British) from over 100 years ago about which they probably know nothing – which makes it difficult to believe that the lines between simple racial caricaturing and satire might not be easily blurred.

    To be fair, you can actually view a taste of the Seattle G&S Society performances on YouTube and at least there doesn’t seem to be any fake accents or eye make-up……

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DVWyg40Aobo

    But, you can also view a British production of the show in full which does not resort to cheap racial caricature of an already highly stereotyped and caricatured group to get its point across….

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kfhbwsJe_tE

    The latter shows that you can perform the piece without racializing the cast.

  • I don’t believe that the Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan Society intended to offend anyone with this production – why would they? And, despite the many attempts some have made to portray “The Mikado” as such, their production was not the yellowfaced equivalent of a minstrel show. … I personally don’t believe that “The Mikado” presents a racist or bigoted point of view, any more than I believe that the Wodehouse “Jeeves and Wooster” stories should be attacked for presenting Brits as dimwitted idiots or the “The Godfather” packed away for presenting Italians as automatically synonymous with organized crime. It’s a silly cartoonish farce that never pretends to be anything more than entertainment, despite what others may have tried to make it seem to be, and the fact that its set in a topsy turvy Japan that never was just increases the absurdity level. – Radiovoice

    Radiovoice, intention is irrelevant.

    It’s simply not interesting whether SGSS intended offense with their production; further, the point is not whether The Mikado rises to the offense of a minstrel show for you. We forget that minstrel shows were popular entertainment in American life for decades, where millions of Americans were exposed to the most vile lampooning of African Americans, for fun. What’s relevant is that for many American audiences, minstrelsy was not hate. Minstrelsy was, at best, something between an idealized portrayal of Southern Black personalities and obvious comedy with no ill intent. This is the problem – minstrel show humor requires general belief in the worst African American stereotypes, from high criminal propensity to low intelligence to irrepressible rhythm, and were defended as culturally permissible well into the Twentieth Century by people who viewed the minstrel show’s farcical nature as evidence that those productions displayed more than ‘crude and demeaning’ anti-Black racism.

    Radiovoice, the parallel one can draw between those minstrel show defenses and your commentary on The Mikado is striking. Perhaps you occupy a social and political space wherein you can ignore the damaging effects anti-Asian prejudice imposes on Asian Americans; I know nothing of your background and would not presume. But I hope you understand that the disgusting stereotypes about persons with Japanese ancestry that yellowface portrayals flaunt negatively effect all Asian Americans, during job interviews and promotion discussions, in police encounters and election day voting. I don’t suggest that art itself should be censored based on the possible political harm it could wreak on target groups; I’m no Suey Park. But it’s clear from the available news reports and online commentary that SGSS barely registered the possibility that their Mikado production could possibly engender reasonable Asian American backlash, even though yellowface theater — any use of yellowface, really — requires anti-Asian stereotypes to register with audiences.

    Just because you find The Mikado silly and entertaining does not mean that yellowface performances haven’t imposed real harm to Asian Americans, historically and currently. You say that SGSS isn’t the Klan, that they deserved a civility and ‘benefit of the doubt’ that they did not find. I say that when an established theater company performs yellowface productions instead of leaving such material in history’s dustbin they incinerate whatever goodwill they think they’ve earned. Basic respect for other citizens should have told them that this production would be more controversial than community empowering. What’s really absurd here isn’t The Mikado, it’s the rhetorical lengths some people will go to recast hate as “entertainment”. D.W. Griffith would be proud.

  • Hi Radiovoice,

    Thank you for responding back to my comments, and to do so by engaging the discussion at-hand. I apologize for taking some time to respond: it has been a busy week, and a much-needed weekend to unplug and disconnect.

    Thank you also for helpfully breaking your comment up into bulletpoints. I will attempt to address each of your bulletpoints, and apologize in advance for the length of this comment.

    …in fairness to you, much of my frustration has not been with you personally but, rather, the “cut and run” way in which the issue has been addressed in the press and, most recently, on-line.

    This comment confuses me. I’m aware of protests that have happened in-person, and statements issued online. Writers like Sharon Pian Chan have written multiple times on the subject. With the decision to stream the August 18th townhall, I think many online are hoping to attend. Further, it is not the role of the press to take the lead in advocating; it is the role of the press to report and comment. That being said, I think there has been quite a bit of sustained interest in this topic within Asian American circles rather than a rapid disinterest. So, I guess I wonder what you think characterizes this “cut and run” tactic and could your provide an example?

    I don’t believe that the Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan Society intended to offend anyone with this production – why would they? And, despite the many attempts some have made to portray “The Mikado” as such, their production was not the yellowfaced equivalent of a minstrel show.

    I agree; I don’t think anyone in the Society set out to offend anyone. I also do not think the absence of malicious intent mitigates the racism of the outcome. As Snoopy points out, minstrel shows of the early twentieth century were not intended to be malicious or racist; they were intended to provide comedy. Yellowface in such minstrel shows were similarly intended to draw upon racial stereotypes to create racialized buffoons for the purposes of entertaining (White) audiences. But, intention must be irrelevant: 1) it is independently unverifiable, and 2) it demands that people of colour excuse racist offenses based on the stated predisposition of the offender, which centers the offender over the victim.

    I understand that you disagree with this point of view, of course, but being of Asian heritage doesn’t necessarily make your opinion fact.

    Of course it doesn’t. But, my “heritage” as an Asian American does lend weight to how this production may be viewed by Asian Americans. And, hearing and considering the Asian American community’s opinion on yellowface would have been a first step in signaling an interest in not replicating racial insensitivity in this year’s production. I would suggest that taking a minute to hear from Seattle’s Asian American community – which has a rich and dynamic theatre community — last year would have pre-empted a lot of this current kerfluffle. Whether Seattle G&S had asked last year or this past July, they would’ve learned that yellowface is never appropriate.

    “The Mikado” has been around entertaining people forever. It’s a send-up of British bureaucracy. Read it, listen to the score, maybe even see the DVD, and then tell me specifically where the racism is. Sure, you could cast it with Asians if Asians wearing kimonos makes you more comfortable than non-Asians wearing them, but that wouldn’t change the content one iota.

    As has been pointed out, Asian Americans are not wholly against the play “The Mikado”; we are against yellowface stagings of the play, which is the low-hanging fruit of how this play is typically staged. As has been pointed out in my previous comment, Asian American writers have drawn attention to non-yellowface stagings of the play as examples of how racially-conscious troupes are able to circumvent the innate regressiveness of the play’s setting in an Orientalized Japan.

    “Mikado” has a long history, but as with much of art and theatre written and set in cultural and historical contexts with different sensibilities, theatre companies who endeavour to revive historic material have a responsibility to consider how contemporary politics may necessitate alteration of the source material. We are in the 21st century; it is not appropriate for us to continue taking cues from the racial sensibilities of the pre-Civil Rights era Western world and to do so under the guise of artistic “tradition”. At the very least, a responsible theatre company should consider the ramifications of their production in a modern, multicultural context where actors and directors can no longer assume that their audience will be universally White, as Gilbert & Sullivan did. Yellowface was typical during Gilbert & Sullivan’s era largely because Asian Americans were not invited to attend such productions and further did not have sufficient political power at the time to generate outcry; that is not the time we live in now. The responsible contemporary theatre company must consider how their production of “Mikado” featuring non-Asian actors in yellowface might be received by – say – an Asian American audience member.

    Having been around for sixty years, I believe the Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan Society deserved far more benefit of the doubt than they received in this situation. They opened a show, they received an unexpected and, as many still believe, unwarranted attack from a columnist in Seattle’s most widely read newspaper, and then they were literally deluged with hate mail and nasty phone messages, their Facebook and Yelp pages were firebombed, and blogs exploded with accusatory rage against them – the majority from those who previously never knew they existed and, I suspect, had never seen or knew anything about “The Mikado” before someone told them to be outraged.

    While I’m sure this was alarming to Seattle G&S – and particularly their one paid employee who probably had to do the bulk of fielding these calls – this is also what should have been expected when the company decided to revive their yellowface staging. Are you really suggesting that the inconvenience you describe above is of greater consequence than the racial offense that comes from being the subject of racial caricature from a community theatre company that clearly does not include Asian American Seattle residents in their consideration of their “community”? I understand that these comments can be overwhelming; it is also overwhelming for Asian Americans to be forced to endure yellowface racism, and then further to be told that our expression of discontent is suspect or invalid.

    The SG&SS is not the Klu Klux Klan filling the stage of the Bagley Wright with a Bones and Tambo minstrel show, you know, they’re a long-established amateur theater group celebrating a major anniversary with a production of a much-loved operetta. They deserved courtesy and civility and, for the most part, they didn’t get it.

    I’m surprised again, because all of the links I cited to you were for the most part civil, if forthright and disdainful. I can personally endorse the piece I published by Sean Miura, which I felt struck the right tone of focusing on the racial pain of a Japanese American in the face of Seattle G&S’ yellowface staging of “Mikado”. I am not on the ground in Seattle; I am not reading every comment. But, reputable Asian American writers like Jeff Yang, Phil Yu, Chan (and myself) have been quite respectful.

    That being said, do you not consider it a little inappropriate to tell a community who feels they have been victimized by racism that they are “too angry” in their reaction to that racism? Again, doesn’t that make the conversation less about whether or not the show can be perceived as racist, and more about whether or not Asian Americans were sufficiently “well-behaved” in our communication of how that racism was damaging? What, in your mind, is the appropriate level of anger that a minority should express when the victim of racism?

    Do you not think that the Asian American community also deserves “courtesy and civility” which, for the most part, we didn’t get from Seattle G&S?

    Following Ms. Chan’s direct attack on this production of “The Mikado”, both she and the Seattle Times’ theater critic expressed dismay at the level to which the discourse had stooped.

    Just to be clear – as a columnist, Chan has the right to write about whatever she and her editor thinks is appropriate. I find it a little odd to take umbrage to Chan’s column, and to label it as a “direct attack”. Her position is to write about issues affecting the local Seattle community; that absolutely should include a local production she thinks is racist.

    Does no one at the Times have access to the internet? Blogs? Facebook? Could they not have expected those who love a good attack at an unsuspecting target to light the torches, pick up the pitchforks, and go on the attack? Please, they knew what would happen here and, given what I’ve read since, they have rather enjoyed the firestorm they caused.

    Again, with all due respect, are you not trying to tell Asian Americans how they should react to racism?

    Had Seattle’s Asian community really wanted a reasonable discussion, they would have asked the SG&SS and the Rep to host a sensitivity forum *last* year, when “The Mikado” was announced.

    Again, you seem to think that it is the responsibility of Asian Americans to stop racism from ever happening, not the responsibility of the Seattle G&S from stopping to consider how their production might be offensive. As I’ve said, “Mikado” has been staged without yellowface in the past, and it’s not unreasonable to presume that Seattle G&S understanding the first rule of yellowface being to don’t do yellowface, might’ve elected to take a different direction this year. The announcement that the company would be staging “Mikado” this year is certainly not, in my mind as a race activist, sufficient evidence alone to warrant intervention.

    There is really only one group that could know what this year’s production was going to look like: the Seattle G&S Society itself. Asian Americans were not in the room during pre-production meetings, or during rehearsals. How, exactly, do you think the Asian American community was supposed to intervene last year? You seem to hold Seattle’s Asian American community to the standard of having a clairvoyant oracle on retainer, to predict that the company would be engaging in yellowface six years after they last put the play on.

    Ultimately, there must be a degree of personal responsibility assumed here. It’s the responsibility of all members of society, not just people of colour, to be aware of racial issues that might arise in their day-to-day activities and interactions, and to hold themselves to a standard of better behavior.

    I understand that the company feels blind-sided but, to be honest, I’m not particularly sympathetic. Issues of yellowface are well-discussed among Asian Americans, and even this year has seen two or three high profile examples of yellowface and backlash. To paraphrase your own earlier comment, does no one at the company know how to use the internet? Blogs? Facebook? To suggest that the company didn’t know this reaction would happen really just illustrates how little outreach they conducted with their Asian American community members before the show’s opening.

    Throwing a rock through their window the weekend they opened was calculated nastiness that I believe promoted further racial *division*, not further racial *understanding*.

    I don’t think anyone in the Asian American community condones vandalism and violence, perpetrated by an individual bad actor. This is, however, a separate issue from the right of community members to express themselves on Yelp or Facebook.

    Aside from the Rep’s forum, which I suspect will be sparsely attended

    As of July 30th, the forum is two-thirds full. I suspect it will be standing room only in the Rep next Monday.

    , I doubt any minds have really been changed on the issue and the discussion, at least from what I’ve seen, has resulted in a whole lot of eye rolling at what many see as political correctness gone mad. If you had hoped for greater understanding, I’m sorry, but this was not the way to get it.

    If you think this is “political correctness gone mad”, I strongly suggest you are not actually reading the arguments with an open mind. I suggest you may not be reading the historic context of yellowface, and how it connects with other acts of oppression against the Asian American community. Again, I invite you to have this conversation with me if you want.

    Context matters, whether you want to believe it does or not. I attended “The Mikado” twice and the general feeling I got from the overheard conversations of audience members was that absolutely no one felt that the show was ever intended to be an accurate representation of Japan, either in its original production 130 years ago or now, and that the belief that it ever was is ridiculous.

    Two things: first, racial caricature has rarely been an accurate reflection of the target of the caricature; by definition, these sorts of depictions are grounded in stereotype, and therefore are intended to be inflated and unrealistic. They play up stereotype for a joke; but that doesn’t mean that the core of the depiction isn’t still racial stereotype. Most Black men and women do not actually have tar-coloured skin or firetruck red lips; most audience members understood that the men and women in Blackface were not supposed to be “accurate” representations of Black men and women. That does not mitigate the offensiveness. Most Asian men and women do not wear Fu Manchu moustaches, have yellow skin or bucked teeth, or sing in ching-chong pidgin. That does not mitigate the offensiveness of Johnny Chinaman yellowface.

    Second, you do realize that you are polling an audience that has  self-selected themselves into group inclined to find no issue with  yellowface renditions of “Mikado”? This is hardly scientific by any stretch of the imagination.

    For the most part, theatergoers “got the joke” – and it isn’t a racist joke, no matter how much you’d or others would like to think it is. If “The Mikado” is truly a racist abomination from another time, why is it done so often – and so often in “traditional” style? Why hasn’t it disappeared like the minstrel shows some have assumed it to be?

    Again, I don’t necessarily begrudge you not knowing Asian American history, but minstrel shows fell out of favour with shifting racial attitudes, particularly after the 1960’s following sustained activism <b>of this exact sort</b> by African American communities. The Asian American community is far younger than the African American community (our population was essentially halted in growth rate by exclusionary immigration policies, and only after the 1965 Immigation Act did our population start to grow; only in the last two decades have we reached any significant number to even be recognized as a distinct minority population capable of the kind of advocacy that draws national attention.

    So, why is the “Mikado” still so often revived? Because Asian Americans are only now gaining enough political clout to be able to stand in the trenches and protest it.

    The Mikado photo which you and other bloggers used and which still appears on your page is neither taken from the Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan Society’s production, nor does it accurately represent it. Keeping it on your site, changed caption or not, is the equivalent of my writing a blog criticizing you for some action of yours and illustrating it with a generic photo of an Asian woman captioned “Asian blogger”.

    I disagree. I think the pictures illustrate the yellowface that is common with many “Mikado” productions, and are consistent with how the pictures are paired with content on the site, which in the instances that they are used focus less on Seattle G&S specifically, and more on yellowface staging, itself. I also don’t really agree with making such major changes to content after a post is published; I think correcting the caption to clarify where the picture comes from is appropriate, particularly since both pictures were only intended to illustrate what yellowface on stage in “Mikado” can look like.

    However, in recognition of your concern, this post contains a header image of yellowface directly from Seattle G&S’ “Mikado” production. I challenge you to find a significant distinction with how yellowface is used here compared to the images used in other posts; as I’ve said, in my mind, the only difference is that Seattle G&S’ yellowface is cruder and less polished, reflecting their status as an amateur company.

    If any instance in which a non-Asian person is portraying an Asian is offensive, why did Sharon Pian Chan publicly support the youth production of “The Mikado” which opened shortly after the Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan Society’s staging just down the street? It featured a cast of non-Asian kids in blue wigs in an Anime-style setting.

    Are anime characters inherently Asian? (No.)

    We can get into a conversation about why anime characters are sometimes White, but sufficed to say “anime” and “Asian (the race)” are not synonymous terms.

    This production did not contain any ching-chong Charlie Chan “number one son” dialects, buck-toothed dentures, pop-bottle eyeglasses, or any of the other “Jap” and “Nip” sorts of crude crapola that’s been implied it did here and elsewhere. Most of the cast wore standard stage make up, aside from Katisha (in modified Kabuki style face paint) and a couple of men in long thin beards. OK, I’ll agree that the Fu Manchu beards probably weren’t necessary, but aside from that, sorry, no slanty eyes or any other attempt for the cast to try and fool anyone into thinking they were Japanese.

    The image provided in my latest post contains three women wearing black wigs and eyeliner and eyeshadow to create the illusion of a monolid slant. So yes, slanty eyes happened.

    Further, all of the costuming is intended to signify “Japanese people” in a fantastic “Japan”, correct? If that is something both you and I can agree was the function of the art direction, costume, and makeup, and if you and I can both agree that this was done to actors who are otherwise not Japanese, can we not both agree that the effect was to transracialize the actors? How successful the company was in doing so is immaterial – again, that’s mostly a reflection of their status as amateurs. Instead, one must question what the function of these choices were: in this case, it was to create the “Japanese” setting despite the non-Asian races of the actors. That’s yellowface.

    I’ll agree with you that it’s all pretty crappy yellowface, though. In the grand scheme of yellowface, other examples have had much higher production value.

    I’ll agree that Dave Ross isn’t the best spokesperson for the group – his dumb act on the radio came across as, well, dumb. I would much rather have heard he and Ms. Chan go head to head with a real moderator. But I suspect KIRO radio didn’t want to spend a whole lot of time covering a story that really wasn’t much of a story in the first place. It’s a news station and there was real news to cover.

    Yes, Dave Ross should not have done that. It hurt Seattle G&S’ case substantially by exposing the high degree of ignorance within the company when it comes to these issues.

    No one has to buy a ticket to something they don’t want to see. But judging a show based on some publicity shots and a whole lot of presumption is really no less prejudicial than judging you and your various qualities based solely on your photograph.

    I agree, unless we’re talking about whether or not a thing is yellowface, which is by definition an aesthetic and superficial behavior. I don’t judge the company or the actors based on their publicity photos; I am, however, perfectly capable of telling from a photograph alone whether or not a person has put makeup on their faces and clothes on their body to try and pretend to be Japanese.

    I did read your links, Jenn – all of them – and I found some of them interesting. But I personally object to the overall sense I get that you and others think I’m a racist for liking “The Mikado”.

    Hold it right there.

    No one is saying you are racist for liking The Mikado. Period.

    I think there is probably some level of ignorance (as in, literally, ignorance of Asian Americans, our politics, and our history – we aren’t exactly spotlighted in most public education) in attempting to defend yellowface staging, but I don’t know you; I don’t have any basis upon which to judge if you are racist.

    You are, however, defending a racist thing. That doesn’t make you racist. It makes you a defender of a racist thing.

    That’s why I invited you to talk about what you think.

    I don’t think that I am and nothing that I’ve read so far has convinced me otherwise. I will say, however, that when I attended the show, I inadvertently caught myself seeing people of Asian descent in the audience and wondering if they thought I was a racist for being there and enjoying myself. Ridiculous, I know – but I don’t think I was the only person who noticed themselves doing it. What does it say about a “controversy” when efforts to create greater understanding between people instead results in greater uncertainty and division?

    To be honest with you, I would say that if this controversy has gotten you to consider more carefully how yellowface should be perceived by audience members, Asian or otherwise, than the controversy has done its job. If you learned something about the history of yellowface, than that’s all I can ask.

    Again, no one is saying that you liking “Mikado” means you are racist. That’s a gross oversimplification of the dialogue, although one that too often happens: this isn’t a situation where “good people are not racist” and “bad people are racist” (and vice versa, “not racist people are good people” and “racist people are bad people”). This is an effort to discuss and explore systems of oppression, and to get audience members and company members alike to be more conscious of a multicultural reading of yellowface in “Mikado”.

    We all live in a society steeped in racial stereotypes, and which reinforce systems of control and oppression against those in the margins. If we judged all art only by whether or not it offends a particular group, there is very little in art that anyone could like. The trick here isn’t to say “Mikado” is good because you like it, or bad because a yellowface staging is racist; the trick here is to be able to like the parts of “Mikado” that speak to you (I guess, the satire?) while also objecting to the racist aspects of the staging. The ideal situation would, again, be to support a staging that is not blatant yellowface, which as I’ve pointed out, many Asian American writers have offered up as an alternative.

    I wrote a post called “Cognitive Dissonance”, which was about Grand Theft Auto. This video game is both highly offensive and objectively a really great video game (from a pure gaming perspective). This post touches on the point that liking a thing that has problematic elements doesn’t make you racist or sexist; it holds you as a consumer to a standard of acknowledging the various facets of the thing you like, and how others can find it offensive. If gaming isn’t your thing (which I suspect it’s not), scroll all the way down to the part where I talk about creating more complex and nuanced opinions on the art we consume.

    It’s a silly cartoonish farce that never pretends to be anything more than entertainment, despite what others may have tried to make it seem to be, and the fact that its set in a topsy turvy Japan that never was just increases the absurdity level. My opinion, of course – your mileage may vary.

    If you read my posts, could you perhaps reconcile how this play is at the very least set in a Japan that perpetuates Western notions of Asian Orientalism? Whether or not you agree that the actors were in yellowface, the second issue here is that this play reinforces a tradition of Orientalism of the Far East that is a principle mechanism of dehumanization, colonization and control.

    I apologize for belittling you by underestimating the time it takes to write your blog. It was presumptuous and unfair. I may be frustrated by this issue, Jenn, but ultimately you’re not the total cause of it. You deserved better and I’m sorry.

    Accepted and appreciated.

    I see “The Mikado” on that Seattle stage and I see a silly and entertaining send-up of bureaucracy that contains some of the loveliest music Gilbert and Sullivan ever wrote – and which garnered well-deserved standing ovations for both of the performances I attended. On this, I suspect we’ll never see eye to eye and that’s a shame.

    Perhaps you can at least agree that you are in a position to be able to dismiss racial makeup as “silly” and nonsensical, because it doesn’t target you or how you look? That is the privilege you have as a non-Asian person; you have the space to see this production as silly, rather than deeply personal. For those of us who were born Asian American, this mascara doesn’t wash off. Our race isn’t an absurdity that can be put back into the costume trunk when the curtains close.

    Thanks again for returning to this issue and allowing me a forum to respond. I hope the discussion continues, both here and at the Rep on August 18th.

    You’re welcome. I will not be at the Rep (as stated previously, I am not a Seattle resident, hence I gave my blog to someone who is on the West Coast and who could better use this platform for expression), but I will be streaming it online.

  • And for those of you keeping count, yes I did take one comment that was 1.5 pages long in Microsoft Word, and turn it into 17 pages of response. That’s probably a new record for me.

  • radiovoice

    Jenn —

    Just a quick note to say how much I appreciate and am, frankly, impressed and humbled by the considerable time, energy, and thought you’ve put into this posting. I intend to take some time over the next couple of days to more closely consider what you’ve written and reply accordingly. In the meantime, however, please consider this a temporary placeholder.

    In the sometimes ranting world of blogs, it’s impressive to encounter this level of commitment and style. Thank you for expressing yourself so well and I promise to be back soon.

  • Hi Radiovoice,

    Thanks for returning to the site. I appreciate the kind word and look forward to your response!

  • Radiovoice, I don’t know if you’re still planning on coming back or not, but if you are, I found a post I wrote that is essential reading in regards to Mikado: “What is Orientalism, and how is it also racism?”

  • Pingback: “The Mikado” in Yellowface Is Coming to The Skirball Center of the Performing Arts and We Should Talk About it | LEAH NANAKO WINKLER()

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