by Kelly Kayan Mak
I didn’t want to write this piece. I didn’t want to take on racism. It is such a polarized topic so many people, myself included, are afraid to talk about. But when I read Sharon Pian Chan’s editorial in The Seattle Times, and the intolerant, racist comments attacking her article afterwards, including Dave Ross’s disturbing defense of his yellowface production at Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan Society (SGSS) on KIRO Radio, I couldn’t NOT write something. Two main and separate issues came to me initially:
1.) THE MIKADO—the piece on its own—is the content written by Gilbert and Sullivan racist and harmful?
2.) The yellowface casting of THE MIKADO—having White or Caucasian actors portray Japanese characters in the play, and doing the production ‘as-is’ without any major changes from the 1885 version, no adjustments in the artistic vision of the piece to today’s society—is that racist and harmful?
The answer to both is yes.
Is political satire by means of—or at the expense of—poking fun at other races or other specific groups of people a tradition we should perpetuate? What about programs like The Colbert Report or South Park? They poke fun at all kinds of races and yet many of us, myself included, enjoy watching these shows. So what makes THE MIKADO any different?
Maybe it’s about the execution of the piece? Shakespeare is misogynistic in many of his plays, yet hugely popular and successful if done with an artistic vision that is respectful and relevant to our society today. So then is it in the execution and delivery of the piece that makes the production offensive or appropriate, and relevant to present day that’s the key here?
According to Ms. Chan’s article in The Seattle Times, and Dave Ross’s ‘defense’ on KIRO Radio, all 40 actors in the cast are Caucasian. The press photos of the production confirm the Japanese characters in the show are played by Caucasian actors, mocking and poking fun at Japanese people. In these photos, actors are squinting their eyes to look Asian, wearing Japanese costumes, wigs, make-up, geisha-esque women holding fans, tiny drawn lips, covering their mouths while they giggled—completely repulsive.
I. Gilbert and Sullivan’s Intent and Content
On the argument that G&S intended it to be a satire: I’m all for political satires, love them. But any time you’re trying to make your point by means of degrading and hurting an entire group of people in poking fun at their culture and how they look and dress, that is a harmful tradition. We must all try to do good, and in the process not do harm. In the Hippocratic Oath, “Do no harm” is the first and primary oath that supercedes the secondary oath of “Do good.” If you’ve got something to say, use political satire by all means, do good. But do so in other ways that don’t harm other cultures.
Using political satire as an excuse, saying that G&S had not meant THE MIKADO to be racist and harm the Japanese people, that it is meant to be enjoyed and laugh about, and therefore people should be careful to make accusations that the play is racist and have no reason to be offended? This is insufficient support for argument in this day and age, and completely unacceptable. Not to say G&S were racist themselves at all, but to the people who are so confident to say that G&S had only meant this work to be a political satire and not to be racist I honestly ask: How do you know? Did you speak to them in person? Can you speak to the dead? Because the material and content itself, which is the only proof we have now, says differently.
Actually I can imagine exactly what they’d say if we were to ask Gilbert and Sullivan that question. And I can prove it. But more about that later…
I can hear it now, ‘Read the all the literature that’s been written by countless acclaimed theatre critics on how THE MIKADO is meant for satire and not meant to be racist and therefore shouldn’t be construed as such.’ I’m not a theatre critic, nor am I approaching this piece as one. This is not a review of a certain production of THE MIKADO. This is rather an essay on THE MIKADO and the issues surrounding it, in response to a particular production being done. I’m approaching this as a performing artist who happens to love writing and watching theatre, and who happens to have the unique perspective of an immigrant Asian American woman, who also happens to not know THE MIKADO, or the works of Gilbert and Sullivan, on any in-depth level.
While some might think that last one is a weakness, I see it as a strength. Not having great knowledge of G&S means I neither love nor hate their repertoire. I’m not “a huge fan” nor do I hate their work. I am impartial to them. Not knowing a whole lot about THE MIKADO allows me to not be biased by the opinions of critics of the past, or recall seeing this or that production so and so did that one year because as a matter of fact, I’ve never seen any G&S before. Because of this I’m able view and critique THE MIKADO for myself with a beginner’s mind.
I can forgive Gilbert and Sullivan as they were writers in the year 1885 bound by the Imperialistic views of Victorian England. White people lived with other White people for the most part. They didn’t have co-workers, neighbors, close friends who were Asian in their immediate vicinity like we do now in our interracial society. Asia or ‘The Orient’ was a foreign concept—an exotic, alien, and fantasy world.
Do I think Gilbert and Sullivan’s intent was to create a racist piece? No, I believe their intent was they saw a need to critique their own government, which was growing more tyrannous and ridiculous at the time, and used the Japanese people—this foreign and exotic group to them—as an alienation device to avoid prosecution. They didn’t set out to do a racist piece, no. It was meant to be political satire, yes. But that doesn’t mean the work isn’t racist.
When the operetta opened 129 years ago—people were a lot more ignorant then. At least I’d like to think and hope we’ve made some progress in correcting racial injustices in that amount of time? So if we have made social changes to correct ourselves in the real world, why would it make sense to mount a production of THE MIKADO exactly the way G&S did it back in 1885? How is this socially and artistically responsible—to have our theatre world be stagnant and complacent to social change?
Using Japanese and Asian stereotypes to make a point about British tyrants—beheadings with over-sized samurai swords, having White actors mockingly take quick short steps shuffling their feet, demure Japanese schools girls giggling behind fans—is racist. Just like how the comment ‘Don’t let the door hit your vagina on the way out’—while intended for calling out someone’s cowardice—is sexist and body shaming to women. Or the comment ‘That’s gay’—while intended to describe something unpleasant—is insensitive and degrading to homosexuals.
THE MIKADO does the same thing in that by making its satirical point about the British Imperialistic Victorian society, it does so by means of degrading another group—Asians and Japanese people—making them look and do ridiculous things like relentless accents of fan-snapping, with vulgar (but according to Dave Ross, supposedly “silly”) names like “Titipu” and “Yum Yum”. (Readers, say “Titipu” out loud and hear how it sounds. Do it. Yeah, hear that?) Well, it’s not funny. The play done ‘as-is’ like in SGSS’s production in this day and age is racist as it portrays Asians and Japanese people in an out-dated and unflattering manner, and further perpetuates xenophobic attitudes of foreign cultures in our society.
And now, going back to asking the dead G&S that question: You can only know you’re doing something if you name it. If you asked Gilbert and Sullivan in 1885 had they meant THE MIKADO to be racist, they’d look at you confused. Because the word and the idea of it simply did not exist until 1932.
Word origin and history (Dictionary.com):
racist 1932 as a noun, 1938 as an adjective, from race (n.2); racism is first attested 1936 (from Fr. racisme, 1935), originally in the context of Nazi theories. But they replaced earlier words, racialism (1907) and racialist (1917), both often used at first in a British or South African context.
Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper
THE MIKADO is and was racist. They just didn’t know what ‘racism’ was at the time. People who were being racist didn’t know they were doing it then, but what’s our excuse now?
With regards to casting [sound of opening a can of worms] since I’ve had questions from theatre colleagues on this point: ‘What about having Asian American actors play the roles? Would that be more sensible? Would THE MIKADO still be 1.) offensive and 2.) racist?’
1.) Offensive? Yes, if it’s done with the same artistic vision as G&S did in 1885. Your cast is Asian, but you’re still producing satire at the expense of degrading Asians. The end result is the same: You’re still perpetuating racial stereotypes with the intent that it produces humor, while making fun of a specific group of people.
2.) Racist? Maybe not, depends on how it’s executed by the director and his or her artistic vision. Because you’ll be having Asians making fun of themselves. Maybe if a director comes along who adapts, HUGELY renovates and re-imagines the vision of the piece so that the end result is different and makes it relevant and sensible to today, then THE MIKADO can be both inoffensive and non-racist. I can’t imagine it, but I’m not a director. Is it possible? Sure. I just think it would take a ridiculously out-of-the-box brilliant director to do so. And I would be open and willing to see his or her non-racist take on the piece.
To the people who say, ‘What about in the musical SHOWBOAT, where slaves are shown working on the Mississippi, or in MISS SAIGON where Asian women are portrayed as prostitutes dancing in front of American G.I.’s? Those are controversial, should we ban those too?’ First of all, I’m not suggesting we flat out ban anything. Unlike THE MIKADO, SHOWBOAT and MISS SAIGON depict historical events that actually happened to minority groups and should be remembered. If indeed white people were to be cast to play these minority roles based on ability, that might very well offend, but SHOWBOAT and MISS SAIGON are not racist or sexist works. Showing sexism doesn’t make the work sexist. Showing racism doesn’t make the work racist. In fact, these two musicals help improve racial understanding.
To those who still say, ‘There’s not enough Asian American actors in the Seattle community’ and ‘If the Asian acting community came out for auditions more often…’ Wow, I’ll let my Asian acting colleagues, and casting directors as well, comment on this one. In 2007, I was in a production of THE KING AND I at Village Theatre here in Seattle where the entire cast of 20 to 30 actors (except for a handful: Anna, her son, the captain, the ambassador) were local Asian actors, singers, and dancers; and many more were at callbacks. As far as Asian actors not representing themselves at auditions, I know for me, I go on auditions quite frequently, but I do pick and choose…
And as far as choosing goes, as an Asian American actress, I would never audition for, never agree to, and NEVER be paid enough money to take part in a project such as SGSS’s current production of THE MIKADO. As Dave Ross depicts in his KIRO interview, just doing it ‘as-is’ for the sake of preserving a classic, with a blatant disregard for audience engagement and community outreach pre-production, and, just because to him it’s fun to dress up as someone you’re not, because names like “Titipu” are just “silly” and harmless, because “I figured if Macklemore can do rap music, I can play a Japanese”? If Mr. Ross’s opinions reflect in any way the artistic vision of the producers, directors, designers, and actors of this show, then to them I say these are very wrong reasons to get behind a project. These are wasteful, childish, and reckless reasons for mounting a theatrical production, so casting me in it is out of the question.
Editor of MyNorthwest.com Alyssa Kleven writes, “Dave plays Ko-Ko, the Grand High Executioner of Titipu. It’s ‘a position that doesn’t exist in a town that doesn’t exist.’”
We are satirizing British people mercilessly, especially British bureaucrats in this piece. Tyrants take it on the chin in this piece. -Dave Ross
True, the position of the Grand High Executioner Ko-Ko is a character that doesn’t exist. But tyrannous dictatorships exist in many parts of the world—the situation in Crimea for example, North Korea, and Syria to name a few. The tragedy here is that in these places people fighting against their dictators don’t have the privilege of free speech as we do, if they speak against their leaders, they do get executed. Yet, SGSS had the opportunity, the resources, a wonderfully talented cast and orchestra, and the use of a beautiful venue at Seattle Repertory Theatre to give voice to these groups of people, and they wasted it. I would’ve loved to see them take on Kim Jung Un with an Asian cast, or with a Middle-Eastern cast making Bashar al-Assad “take it on the chin.”
III. My Experience in the Audience of THE MIKADO
In the spirit of keeping an open mind, I decided to go see the production for myself and write my own piece. Because that’s the only way I’ll be able to see this show’s true “face”. The show is even more racist and sexist than I had imagined. When the maidens came out giggling behind their fans and did their Japanese school girl chorus number, followed by the famous Three Little Maids trio, I burst into tears with my heart pounding and aching, my whole body trembling. I scrambled for a Kleenex in my bag, a colleague next to me offered one. We didn’t applaud after that.
It was painful to watch a bunch of white women and girls portray the exact demure, submissive, voiceless Asian woman stereotype on stage that I, as an Asian woman, have to fight every single day of my life. I thought, ‘These actresses have no idea what I go through every time I try to assert myself in a work meeting or in conversation, how hard I have to fight that oppressing portrayal that’s been placed upon me. They have no idea.’ The way it was portrayed, it was as if they were throwing it in my face—giggling and laughing behind their fans, taking tiny quick steps shuffling their feet, probably having no clue that women’s ankles were actually tied together to keep them from running or walking fast or far. It was a blatant disregard and I started crying and shaking horribly… The actresses on stage continued to enjoy themselves, all the while I was in pain with tears streaming down my face wishing the number would stop.
When the song ended, the audience around me cheered and applauded. I looked up with tears in my eyes, my heart aching, to see the actresses on stage posing like geisha dolls proudly smiling, accepting their applause. Then I turned to the 800-seat house of the Bagley Wright to see a sea of smiles and amusement. Looking into their faces, the monster inside me thrashed about screaming, ‘You are ignorant! All of you laughing are ignorant! IGNORANT!’ wanting to shake the dusty cobwebs off the minds of every one of them. ‘How could you be enjoying this? Can’t you see how much I’m suffering? Can’t you see you’re taking enjoyment in the thing that hurts my very bones? Am I not part of your community? DO YOU NOT CARE?’
The applause seemed to have gone on for an eternity. And in that eternal moment, I turned my attention inward to a defiant quiet solitude. The loud noises and applause around me diminished, and I heard the voice in my heart, taking after my grandmother: ‘Surrender, Kayan, let it go. There’s no use. They don’t know what you’ve gone though. Don’t be so unhappy—for your own sake.’ That’s what they used to call me by, my Chinese name Kayan. It means grace. When that happened, my trembling body calmed, my face turned neutral, and I drew in my first breath out of eternity. Coming back into the world, the applause around me crescendo back to full, and I came into acceptance.
Heartbroken sitting in this theatre I’ve come to know and love, I’ve never felt so small and treated so unjustly my entire life. This was not the America we signed up for when my family immigrated to the United States. And the American theatre family I’ve come to be a part of cannot be slipping down this path of complacency.
IV. So… Why Should I Care? And If I Do Care, What To Do About It?
The American Theatre is not a front for, or a garden to nurture complacency, ignorance, or playing dress-up Japanese samurai for one’s own “fun” and amusement. Action needs to be taken. These injustices are like weeds in a garden that, if left un-dealt and ignored, will spread and overgrow. They must be pulled out immediately. The yellowface production of THE MIKADO is racist. It is an ignorant and harmful tradition that perpetuates Japanese and Asian xenophobic stereotypes.
Traditions are man-made, and therefore can be un-made and corrected. Constructive traditions that advance our society we must keep, but destructive and harmful traditions must be stopped.
How can it be stopped? Racism is taught and learned. Oscar Hammerstein wrote in SOUTH PACIFIC, “You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear…” in the song titled You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught. Here’s a fitting verse:
You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
So what to do about it? Stop teaching it. Stop producing THE MIKADO ‘as-is’. To the people who say, ‘But it’s a well-loved musical with such beautiful songs,’: The score is beautiful. Especially the two quartets in Act Two, they were beautifully orchestrated and sung. But find other non-racist ways to produce it, be creative. To the ones who dismissively say, ‘Gawd it’s just theatre, don’t make it a political issue’: You’re wrong. Theatre and art teaches us things. And we’ve been learning from art, books, music, and stories since the earliest humans had been able to draw on cave walls, sing, write, or tell stories around a campfire. We learn from these stories whether to CARE one way or another, so no it’s not “just theatre”.
To the parents who are bringing their children to see SGSS’s production, I hope you’re trying to teach them a history lesson in our shameful theatrical racist past, and not how it is perfectly fine to sit in those theatre seats and laugh at these strange feet-shuffling White actors playing Asian caricatures that the SGSS portrays. Because to do that would be a disgrace. Because to do that, you are teaching them it is okay to mock and degrade this group of people—or any other group for that matter: be it defined by race, gender, or sexual orientation—for the sake of humor, or making a satirical point. You’d be teaching them that racist behavior is socially acceptable in our society today.
Look around you. These people are your neighbors, colleagues, and your friends in your community—think of how this production will teach and affect our children’s perception of and interactions with Asian kids at school, and as they grow into their adult life, how they will treat people who look different and who come from foreign cultures. Do we want to be kinder to each other and advance humankind? Or do we want to self-destruct and spread more hate and mistrust? We have a choice. Up to us. HumanKIND.
Allowing this production to go on will be perpetuating racism and inequality onto our next generation—something we as a country since our founding have worked so hard to attempt to overcome. This production of THE MIKADO sets us back on all that hard work we have achieved.
SGSS’s ‘as-is’ yellowface xenophobic production of THE MIKADO is racist. It is a disgrace to the Seattle theatre community, to the prominent Asian American community here in this city, and to anyone who has ever said or done anything to fight for equality and end racism. Racism and ignorance need not and must not belong anymore—not at any place, in any medium, and certainly not in my own theatre community.
Copyright 2014, by Kelly Kayan Mak, KellyKayanMak.com. All rights reserved.
Sharon Pian Chan’s article in The Seattle Times: http://seattletimes.com/html/opinion/2024050056_mikadosharonpianchancolumn14xml.html
Dave Ross’s interview on KIRO Radio posted by MyNorthwest.com: http://mynorthwest.com/832/2566070/Dave-Ross-defends-allegedly-racist-play-The-Mikado