By Zachariah Bryan
Northwest Asian Weekly
The Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan Society closed their production of “The Mikado,” but the conversation on its implied racism has just begun.
In response to an overwhelming swell of criticism, the small company says they plan to be a part of a conversation with the Asian and Pacific Islander community. This will happen at a forum titled “Artistic Freedom vs. Artistic Responsibility,” which will take place on Aug. 18, from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. at the Seattle Repertory Theatre PONCHO Forum. The forum is hosted by the Seattle Repertory Theatre and the Seattle Office of Arts and Culture, with support from the Seattle Office for Civil Rights and 4Culture.
“Art plays a vital role in our society and can be a catalyst for dialogue and change,” Braden Abraham, acting artistic director, wrote in the invitation. “As the demographics of our country become more diverse, how do artists and arts groups approach new and historical work in a way that is meaningful and relevant for our audiences? In response to the spirited conversation happening in Seattle and the wider arts community, this moderated forum will address issues of art, race, and cultural representation.”
The controversy started when Seattle Times editorial writer Sharon Pian Chan penned a column titled “The yellowface of ‘The Mikado’ in your face.” Chan pointed to the nearly all-white cast dressing up in 18th century Japanese garb, using fictionalized Japanese culture as a springboard for gags and absurd names, such as Nanki-Poo and Yum-Yum.
Since Chan’s initial column, seemingly all of cyberspace has chimed in on the issue. In addition to local media, the controversy has attracted headlines in The Atlantic, CNN, and MSNBC. There are also countless Facebook posts, tweets, reader comments, personal blogs, and Tumblrs blogs adding to the conversation.
In the popular Asian American blog, “Angry Asian Man,” writer Phil Yu points to a press photo of “The Mikado” showing five white people dressed in Japanese caricature. He writes, “Take a good, long look at the photo. Does any of that feel right to you?” The answer, for him, is a resounding “No.”
Needless to say, the phones were busy at the Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan Society. The small production company, which produces just one show a year and has just one paid part-time employee, set off to do damage control.
The first attempt, whether planned by the Society or not, came when KIRO radio host Dave Ross tried to defend the alleged racist elements on his show. Ross, who performed in the opera for the sixth time this year as the comical Lord High Executioner Ko-Ko, hosted Chan on his show to discuss the issue. In the conversation, he deflected allegations that dressing up in Japanese garb was racist, or that “The Mikado” was a form of a yellowface.
“I need to know what the ground rules are,” he said. “If it’s true that Japanese Americans feel it’s racist for white people to dress up in a kimono, or dress up in some kind of martial arts uniform … I’ll stop doing it. But this is the first time I’ve heard of someone [being] offended because I dressed up in a costume of another country for a show.”
Chan, for the most part, did not seem impressed with Ross’ arguments. She spent the better half of the segment explaining to Ross why she thought the production was inherently yellowface.
“I think that if people haven’t brought it up to you before, then that’s totally fair,” she said. “Now that it has been brought up to you, you know, now you know. But just because you don’t know doesn’t mean it isn’t there.”
Producer Mike Storie has his own take on the issue. In interviews with various news sources, including the Northwest Asian Weekly, he explained that the original opera intended to use the Japanese setting merely as a way to avoid censors, while poking fun at British royalty. The writer, W.S. Gilbert, had only limited interaction with Japanese culture.
However, the Seattle chapter of the Japanese Citizens League, which formally opposed the use of yellowface and stereotypes in “The Mikado,” contended that the portrayal was still offensive to Asian Americans.
“There is nothing timely or clever about the use of these outdated stereotypes and ‘The Mikado’ should stop playing immediately,” they wrote in a statement.
Storie admitted that this may have been a long time coming and he just didn’t see it.
“Perhaps the storm has been brewing for decades and this summer, our production became the lightning rod,” he wrote in a Seattle Times column. “The society received no mention that some people were deeply bothered by it when it produced ‘The Mikado’ in 2008, nor when this year’s production was announced a year ago.”
Outside the Internet, the last big physical demonstration occurred July 20, at the third to last showing. “Join in Solidarity Against The Mikado” member Gei Chan saidprotestor turnout was good.. Along with younger protestors, several notable people from the Asian and Pacific Islander community made an appearance, including Bettie Luke, Roger Shimomura, State Rep. Tomiko Santos, Mary Ann Goto, Matt Chan, June Sekiguchi, Tilman Smith, Bif Brigman, and Sue Kay.
“The theatre goers’ responses have been mixed,” Chan wrote on the Solidarity Against The Mikado Facebook page. “Some hostile, some think we’re silly, others were willing to accept our flyers, some ignored us. Yet there were a few who understood why we were there.” (end)
Though the Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan Society has closed their performance of “The Mikado,” scrutiny is likely to continue as other companies produce their own versions.
Last week, the Seattle Public Theater in conjunction with Seattle Opera produced a youth program of “The Mikado” performed in manga style (see page 9). On Feb. 6 and Feb. 8 of 2015, the Tacoma Opera will be performing “The Mikado” at the Rialto Theater.
Zachariah Bryan can be reached at email@example.com.