Yellowface Backlash Changes Touring Plans, Switches W&L Opera Opener
By Chuck Dodge “Since its first performance on March 14, 1885, The Mikado has consistently been the most popular, most performed and best known of Gilbert and Sullivan’s thirteen surviving musical collaborations. Indeed, it is arguably one of the most frequently played musical theater pieces in modern history.”
- Statement of the New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players Board of Directors, Adopted June 25, 2015
The Lenfest Center and Washington and Lee Concert Guild had planned to host a New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players performance of the 130-year-old opera The Mikado on Monday, September 21st. Selling out over the summer, the highly anticipated production was expected to open Lenfest’s series of five professional performances over the course of the current academic year. Its cost? Between $20,000 and $22,000, simply to pay the performing group, according to Lenfest Director Rob Mish.
The Friday before the night of performance, however, heads turned when the University announced without explanation that it had cancelled the production and would instead show NYGASP’s well-known rendition of another classic, The Pirates of Penzance.
The altered situation left many students bewildered, and a host of questions arose about the motives and handling of the sudden decision. With clarity suspended and Mikado promotions resting lame duck on Leyburn televisions, we approached Mish to ask what had happened.
Despite conjecture, the switch did not reflect a University decision so much as cultural backlash in New York City against The Mikado’s planned performance there. Earlier on Friday the 18th, NYGASP announced that they would cancel the production’s touring stint following complaints from the Asian American community about stereotyping apparent in the show’s makeup and costume design: a concept commonly referred to as “yellowface.”
While there are variations of the technique in play and film, yellowface intentionally oversimplifies the appearance of Asian characters by emphasizing stereotypical features such as slanted eyes, sharp brows and pursed lips. More often than not, these roles are filled by white men and women, registering a mix of comedy and genuine attempts at creative casting. The Mikado’s version of yellowface is extreme, however, powdering actors’ faces with color to an extent that is blatantly playful. But perhaps the fact that it is so excessive is what makes it a target among other cases that seem to not draw as much attention from censors and defenders.
With a decisive measure, NYGASP pulled the plug and presented the W&L orchestrators with three alternatives: (1) perform the play with no makeup, (2) perform the play with more traditional Japanese white makeup or (3) cut the show altogether and perform The Pirates of Penzance, the tour’s actual replacement, in its stead.
The choice was fairly easy, said Mish, a lifelong enthusiast of the alternative play. “We didn’t want to bring in a half-baked show,” he said, explaining that the other forms of the play wouldn’t satisfy the traditional characteristics of the controversial classic. Mikado tickets were converted directly to Pirates tickets. The stage was set to accommodate the new play. Unhappy converted-ticket owners were refunded in full, capping a hurried but necessary rewrite of the season opener.
Little can be said about W&L’s involvement in the performance change other than that the university managed to pivot quickly in a situation that left them with a simple choice of quality, tradition, and respect for the play’s original features. The choice does not bring W&L directly into our ongoing national discussion on the merits of censorship, and the conflict between racial respect and the culture or history of the arts.
However, New York Gilbert and Sullivan’s reaction to criticism represents another major mark in an ongoing conversation. Reactions to this play alone go both ways.
In 2003, The New York Times published an article titled “Japanese Hail ‘The Mikado,’ Long-Banned Imperial Spoof,” written by James Brooke. The article details the Japanese reaction to the play’s first showing in Japan, where the play is set, as it filled a 1,000-seat national memorial theater night after night. Minoru Sonoda, head priest of the Chichibu Shrine and a proud Japanese citizen, watched his daughter perform in the play as a character crudely yet humorously named “Yum-Yum.” To the surprise of many, Sonoda was delighted with the performance. “The mikado of the opera is different in nature from the tenno,’’ he said, referring to the modern term for emperor. ‘’In the case of the traditional tenno, he did not appear before the people, he hid behind a curtain. In the opera, the mikado is very kind and familiar to the people. He is very humorous, so we can laugh.’’
Put simply, the important distinction for Sonoda is that The Mikado doesn’t try to mimic past Japanese society. Instead it parodies it, employing stereotypes in a humorous context that is markedly different than the real thing. The article also accounts the interesting words of Miyazawa Shinichi, and English literature professor present at the showing: “Now we can make fun of ourselves. The Japanese people have grown up.”
But clearly, not everyone agrees with these two men. Protestors of the opera this year would surely detest the thought that “growing up” equates to becoming less sensitive to mocking one’s own culture. Otherwise, The Mikado would have been performed at W&L as scheduled this September.
In reality, there are many reasons that people are upset with the stylistic and casting choices that created The Mikado. One argument asserts that yellowface or even “blackface” plays, for that matter, create a void of job opportunities for Asians and African Americans, respectively. (White actors and actresses are often chosen to fill these roles to highlight the irony of the play). Yet casting Japanese actresses in such roles, for example, generates an even deeper controversy that revolves around the potential harms caused by public self-effacement, as many interpret it. At the very least, these controversial traditions are bound to offend those who view this sort of self-effacement as a source of shame. Others, like Sonoda, do not see it that way.
Ultimately, however, all of these opinions are external to the reality of the show’s cancellation. Protesters didn’t censor the play; Gilbert and Sullivan did. Bloggers didn’t cancel the play; Gilbert and Sullivan did. The Board of Directors’ June 25th statement reads:
“One hundred and forty years after the libretto was written, some of Gilbert’s Victorian words and attitudes are certainly outdated, but there is vastly more evidence that Gilbert intended the work to be respectful of the Japanese rather than belittling in any way. Although this is inevitably a subjective appraisal, we feel that NYGASP’s production of The Mikado is a tribute to both the genius of Gilbert and Sullivan and the universal humanity of the characters portrayed in Gilbert’s libretto.”
The Board’s statement continued by describing its intentions for the play, explaining: “In all of our productions, NYGASP strives to give the actors authentic costumes and evocative sets that capture the essence of a foreign or imaginary culture without caricaturing it in any demeaning or stereotypical way.” One cannot help but raise a brow when reading this last sentence. Gilbert and Sullivan’s original response to the issue, stated here, is that the play does not attempt to utilize stereotypes in depicting the given culture. This means that either (1) the play accurately or “authentically” depicts an imaginary culture, or (2) the play accurately or authentically depicts an existing culture. Both possibilities derived from Gilbert and Sullivan’s original statement explicitly refuse to draw upon any sort of racial stereotype.
If this were the case, or if Gilbert and Sullivan truly believed it, what reason would they have to cancel the play altogether less than two months following their confident statement? The final decision appeased many, most notably including the Actor’s Equity Association, who publicly praised NYGASP for “listening to the Asian American community.” Others are outraged by the cancellation, contending that the same rationale would cast only French actors in Les Miserables, for instance.
Confusion about acceptable practice permeates this issue, and catalyzes a heated procession of back and forth dialogue. But ultimately, the power of opinion rests in the hands of groups like NYGASP, who can choose whether and how to execute controversial shows. And thus they not only control the shows that headline a city, but fundamentally influence what is available to a community.
These institutions are the filter of culture, sifting the gravity of art and ethics. Their decisions bear the heaviest of consequences, among them the removal of cherished arts and the possibility of racial degradation. These ramifications possess such power that groups like NYGASP wield an immense and vital social responsibility.
Without our own popular ability to make these critical choices, we can only hope that our cultural filters make the right decisions for the full scope of society. Regardless of each outcome, concern should arise from the tendency for these monumental decisions to remain so volatile to change. Issues like those raised in The Mikado must be treated with tact, but naturally its decision makers are just people also, harboring independent values and beliefs that can affect their decisions.
As a reflection of democracy, it may be comforting that those in charge are sensitive to public opinion, but a wavering two-month ruling is not steadfast - it’s dangerous. We rely on the outbursts of angry bloggers and protesters on both sides of an erratic conflict.
Flash reactions to conversations that occur on laptop screens and poster boards are difficult to judge. Yet there must be a more definite line between decisions that are sensitive to publicized thought, and those that hastily accept it. Some outcomes are wisely fickle. Others prove simply rash. Who holds the authority to draw this line? Evaluating the decision to cancel The Mikado as well as similar choices in the past isn’t as important – or as possible – as resolving how we’re going to get them right in the future. Disputes of this magnitude deserve a structured discussion, and one needs to take place before we lose ourselves in waiting.