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.

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

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”