“Yellowface” controversy over the “The Mikado” — Gilbert & Sullivan opera incites protest

By Zachariah Bryan
Northwest Asian Weekly

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Protestors at the Seattle Repertory Theatre. Front kneeling: Christina Seong. Middle row: Lizzie Lin, Iris Carrera, Diane Laguerta, Sonia Huang, Gei Chan, Iris Parker Pavitt, Laurie Shiratori. Back row: Bif Brigman, Rachel Johnston, Michael Johnston, and Brian Bartlett. (Photo by Roger Tang)

On Sunday, July 20, while standing outside the Seattle Repertory Theatre to protest the Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan Society’s latest production of the comedic opera, “The Mikado,” Civil Rights Lawyer Laurie Shiratori was called “silly” by a passerby.

Shiratori was wearing a sign that said: “Not Asian or Asian American? Instead of assuming or justifying that humor at the expense of people like me is not harming, ask me how it feels. Let’s talk.” She wasn’t chanting or yelling. At this point, she wasn’t even trying to initiate a conversation.

“They almost think it’s alright to do a caricature of Japanese or Asian culture because they think it’s funny,” she said. “Asian culture is quiet. Because we’re submissive, it’s OK to do what you want?”

Written in 1895, “The Mikado” is the most performed of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operas. This is the tenth time it is being performed in Seattle and this performance also celebrates the 60th year that the Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan Society has been in existence.

Controversy has been brewing about “The Mikado” over the past week because of a Seattle Times column penned by Sharon Pian Chan (see page 11). In the column, Chan argued that “The Mikado” was yellowface “in your face.” While the nearly all-white cast did not use actual yellow facepaint, they did dress up as Japanese caricatures and had fake Japanese names such as Nanki-Poo, Yum-Yum, Pooh-Bah and Pish-Tush.

“It’s just this idea of using our race and ethnicity as a prop, and that’s not OK,” Christina Seong said.

After seeing Chan’s article, Seong took to making a Facebook page, titled “Join in Solidarity Against The Mikado.” The page has grown to 323 members as of press time and resulted in the modestly sized protests seen outside the Repertory Theatre.

The criticism came out of left field for members of the Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan Society, a small production company that produces just one show a year and has one part-time employee. Even though the society has produced “The Mikado” 10 times now, the most recent  in 2008, this is the first time that Director Mike Storie has ever heard of any complaints. “The reviews were always glowing,” he said, a bit baffled.

Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan Society Boardmember Rachel Garson said she did not think the costumes or the set pieces were offensive to Japanese culture, although she and Storie did admit that the exaggerated eye makeup could be construed as racist.

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Gei Chan speaks with a theater-goer outside the Seattle Repertory Theatre. (Photo by George Liu/NWAW)

“I think there was an homage paid to Japan in all of the artistic sides of it: the scenery, the lighting, the costumes. Everything was done authentically and I feel with great respect for the beauty of Japan,” Garson said.

Storie defended Gilbert’s original script, saying that it wasn’t intended to be racist. The setting of Japan, which in “The Mikado” is more fictional than historical, was used because any criticism or satire of the British government would be immediately censored. The characters speak in British accents and they all represent the buffoonery of British royalty, he said.

“It’s a great piece of theater, it has wonderful music and it does skewer pompous, bloated government,” Storie said.

Likewise, Storie said their production of “The Mikado” wasn’t meant to be racist. The production is mostly white because no one from the Asian or Pacific Islander community heeded the audition call.

“Each year we cast from the pool of people who show up,” he said. “We would never say, ‘No, you can’t be in this show because you’re Asian or black or any combination. Each year it changes because to be in our show you have to be willing to give up your free time for three months and get paid nothing.”

He admitted that they maybe could have put more effort into outreach with the Asian and Pacific Islander community, though he was not sure what that would look like at the time of being interviewed. He also reasoned that British opera might not draw a large interest from the API community.

Bif Brigman, former director of programs and operations for the Washington State Japanese Cultural and Community Center, said that there was little to no attempt to address the racist nature of “The Mikado,” or to be sensitive toward Japanese culture and history.

“It’s kind of a bastardization of someone’s culture,” he said. “… I just cringe when I see white people take other peoples’ clothing. The people who are doing it are the people who don’t know better.”

Seong said she wanted to see more sensitivity toward Japanese culture by toning down the caricatures, modernizing the names and casting a more diverse set of actors. If the production failed any of that, she said she wanted a community conversation to open up about it.

“We can modernize things and keep the history,” Seong said.

Storie said that they were looking to start a dialogue with the API community soon. However, because they are also busy producing and closing the show, he was not sure what that would look like.

“We’re working with the Seattle Rep and Theatre Puget Sound to setup a discussion probably early next month to come up with more ways to be more sensitive,” Storie said.

When protestors were asked if they had seen this particular performance of “The Mikado,” many said they had not. Some said they did not feel safe attending the performance due to the hostility they experienced outside.

“I do not feel safe at all being inside an enclosed space with many of the like-minded people who chose to disregard me and my perspective as a person of color,” Seong said. She related a story of how she broke down crying last Friday because of all the people who told her she was wrong, said she was being too sensitive or simply ignored her.

For Brigman, the fact that people from the API community did not feel safe going inside the theater was a sign.

“If people don’t feel safe, the racial lines for me are really clear,” he said. “It’s not a show that’s culturally diverse in its audience. It’s not a show that’s culturally diverse in its production. To me that says there’s something going on here.” There will be two more demonstrations on the 25th and 26th, the final week of the performance. (end)

Zachariah Bryan can be reached at info@nwasianweekly.com.

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