It’s Time to Reinvent “The Mikado” Without the Racism

Promotional image of "The Mikado" from an earlier performance by NYGASP.
Promotional image of “The Mikado” from an earlier performance by NYGASP.

Having learned nothing apparently from last year’s “Mikado” fiasco in Seattle,  the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players (NYGASP)a more than 30-year-old professional repertory company devoted to staging performances of Gilbert & Sullivan works — announced this year that “The Mikado” would be included in their 2015-2016 season. Written in 1885, “The Mikado”‘s opening run was one of the longest of its time, and is considered one of the most popular works in the Gilbert & Sullivan repertoire. “The Mikado” is also highly offensive: intended to satirize British politics, the play is set in an Orientalist fantasy of Japan, and is typically staged by White actors in costumes and makeup designed to make them appear Asian; or, more colloquially, in “yellowface“.

The NYGASP’s show is no exception: judging by images from its 2010 and 2013 performances (see featured image above), NYGASP’s performance is replete with non-Asian actors donning black wigs, kimonos, and face paint.  This year, NYGASP’s version of “The Mikado”  is scheduled to appear at the Skirball Center for the Performing Arts at NYU December 26-January 2.

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Opera Providence mocks, threatens peaceful protest against RI yellowface production of #Mikado

Providence, Rhode Island residents protest Opera Providence's recent yellowface staging of "The Mikado". (Photo credit: James McShane)
Providence, Rhode Island residents protest Opera Providence’s recent yellowface staging of “The Mikado”. (Photo credit: Peter Glantz)

Last month, a yellowface production of Gilbert & Sullivan’s operetta “The Mikado” — put on by local Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society — sparked national controversy and a number of outraged articlesMultiple Asian American writers and advocates spoke out against the use of yellowface in “The Mikado” (including Sean Miura, who published a compelling guest post on this site) and several Asian American organizations issued statements in protest of the Seattle-based production, including the OCA and JACL.

This national conversation on yellowface may have its focal point in Seattle, but the issue extends far beyond that city. For, as defenders of Seattle’s yellowface production of this operetta have pointed out, “The Mikado” is one of the most popular and widely performed productions out of the Gilbert & Sullivan repertoire.

Today, hundreds of productions of “The Mikado” are performed annually in the United States; many recreate the same yellowface that characterized the operetta’s original 1885 run at the Savoy Theatre in London. But the show’s enduring popularity as contemporary  and unchallenged yellowface does not negate its racism.

Thankfully, the debate first sparked by Seattle’s yellowface production Mikado have inspired others to speak out against yellowface racism elsewhere in the country. Last month, Opera Providence (located in Providence, Rhode Island) opened a three-night production of “The Mikado” that ran from August 8 – 10, and which also featured actors in yellowface.

Several Rhode Island residents courageously organized a street protest and a petition against Opera Providence’s yellowface staging, even though they faced threats and retribution from Opera Providence for exercising their First Amendment rights including an alleged death threat against protesters uttered by an actor during the on-stage production. I had a chance to interview two of the protest organizers, James McShane (@james_mcshane) and Sakiko Mori (@mrsoioi), about what inspired them to take a stand; the full interview appears after the jump.

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ACT NOW! Go (in-person or online) to Seattle Rep’s diversity townhall on 8/18, 6:30pm | #Mikado #SeattleAFAR

A photograph of Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society's production of "The Mikado".
A photograph of Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society’s production of “The Mikado”.

Yellowface and brownface seems to be all the rage these days.

The Asian American blogosphere has been leading a vocal online conversation over the inappropriateness of yellowface in stage productions of “The Mikado”, prompted by this July 14th op-ed by Sharon Pian Chan; you can check out the wonderful guest-post by Sean Miura that was published on this site last month in protest of Seattle’s latest yellowface “Mikado” production. Meanwhile, HBO is touting its newest cross-over show “Jonah From Tonga”, which premiered last week, and which features Australian comedian Chris Lilley in anti-Pacific Islander brownface;  you should read my post on the offensiveness of Lilley’s show and his routine use of yellowface and brownface and then sign this Change.org petition. In both cases, we’ve seen abjectly racist use of racial drag defended as artistic license, when the rhetoric in defense of yellowface can be understood at all (which isn’t always the case).

Apparently, a conversation on race in the arts is overdue, at least for those who forget the first rule of yellowface and brownface. I still assert that yellowface and brownface is one of those “obviously racist” aggressions that really doesn’t warrant additional exposition; but, hey, everyone can benefit from a little dialogue, right?

Continue reading “ACT NOW! Go (in-person or online) to Seattle Rep’s diversity townhall on 8/18, 6:30pm | #Mikado #SeattleAFAR”

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.

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Undoing “Mikado”: Japan is not an imaginary place, and I am not a metaphor

seattle-g-s-mikado

The Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan Society’s production of comic-opera “The Mikado” has caused controversy due to the nature of the show and the production’s use of White actors to play Japanese characters.  LA-based community organizer Sean Miura (@seanmiura) reflects on his experience with the “The Mikado” and the society’s response to the backlash.

I hold a special place in my heart for the people of Seattle.

Seattle is the city where my great grandmother settled after leaving Japan, going on to raise four daughters as a single mom.  Seattle is where my great uncle crossed the Bainbridge Island pier to board boats to buses to trains to concentration camps in the wake of Pearl Harbor hysteria.  Seattle is where my mother moved after law school, became chapter president of the local JACL, fought for redress and reparations, and fought to right the conviction of a man who resisted being imprisoned in a World War II concentration camp.  Seattle is where my mom met my dad.  Seattle is where I was born.

Seattle is not where I grew up, but Seattle was the closest I had to an Asian American community with the International District, Uwajimaya food court lunches, and the salmon my uncle Tike would catch fresh in the mornings.  My mom drove me, 10 years old at the time, from our home in Vancouver to see David Henry Hwang’s “Golden Child” at the Seattle Reparatory Theater, the first time I saw Asian Americans telling our own stories live.

I saw The Mikado a couple years later.

Continue reading “Undoing “Mikado”: Japan is not an imaginary place, and I am not a metaphor”