Putting On Yellowface For The Holidays With Gilbert & Sullivan & NYU

September 15th, 2015 § 13 comments

Please consider the following two statements.

  1. In a description of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado: “The location is a fictitious Japanese town.”
  2. “There are no ethnically specific roles in Gilbert and Sullivan.”

The conflict between these two statements seems fairly obvious since even in a fictitious Japanese village, the residents are presumably Japanese, and that is indeed ethnically specific, even if they are endowed with nonsensical names that may have once sounded vaguely foreign to the British upper crust.

The NYGASP Production of The Mikado

The NYGASP Production of The Mikado

Now one could try to explain away this dissonance by saying that the statements are drawn from conflicting sources, however they are both taken from the website of the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players. The company, which has been producing the works of G&S in Manhattan for 40 years, will be mounting their production of The Mikado at NYU’s Skirball Center from December 26 of this year through January 2, 2016, six performances in total.

It is hardly news that The Mikado is a source of offense and insult to the Asian-American community, both for its at best naïve and at worst ignorant cultural appropriation of 19th century Japanese signifiers, as well as for the seeming intransigence of 20th and 21st century producers when it comes to attempting to contextualize or mitigate how the material is seen today. Particularly awful is the ongoing practice of utilizing yellowface (Caucasian actors made up to appear “Asian”) in order to produce the show, instead of engaging with Asian actors to both reinterpret and perform the piece. Photos of past productions by the NY Gilbert & Sullivan Players suggest their practice is the former.

“History!,” some cry, “Accuracy to the period!” That’s the same foolish argument recently spouted by director Trevor Nunn to explain why his new production of Shakespeare history plays featured an entirely white cast of 22. “But The Mikado is really not about Japan! It’s a spoof of British society,” is another defense. But it has been some 30 years since director Jonathan Miller stripped The Mikado of its faux Japanese veneer and made it quite obviously about the English, banishing the “orientalist” trappings from 100 years earlier. Besides, reviews of prior NY Gilbert & Sullivan Players productions note that the script is regularly updated with topical references germane to the present day, so claims to historical accuracy have already been tossed away.

Looking at the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players (NYGASP) cast on their website, it appears that the company is almost exclusively white. While our increasingly multicultural society makes it difficult and reductive to assume race and ethnicity based on names and photos, I noted a single person who I would presume to be Latino among the 70 photos and bios, and seemingly no actors of Asian heritage. While I should allow for the possibility that there may be new company members to come, it seems clear that the preponderance of The Mikado company will be white.

Was it only a year ago that editorial pages and arts pages erupted over a production of The Mikado in Seattle precisely because of an all-white cast? Is it possible that in the insular world of Gilbert and Sullivan aficionados, word didn’t reach the founder and artistic director of NYGASP, Albert Bergeret? I doubt it. In Seattle, the uproar was sufficient to warrant a gathering of the arts community to air grievances and discuss the lack of racial and ethnic awareness shown by the Seattle troupe. That it followed on another West Coast controversy, a La Jolla Playhouse production of The Nightingale, a musical adaptation of a China-set Hans Christian Andersen tale that utilized “rainbow casting,” rather than ethnically specific casting, only added fuel to the justifiable controversy.

This year, The Wooster Group sparked protest on both coasts with its production of Cry Trojans, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida that had members of an all-white company in redface portraying Native Americans and appropriating Native American culture, as viewed through the wildly inaccurate prism of American western movies. Yet in a victory for ethnically accurate casting earlier this year, a major Texas theatre company recast its leading actor in The King and I when it was made abundantly clear by the Asian American theatre community that a white actor as the King of Siam simply wasn’t acceptable.

The NYGASP production of The Mikado (photo by William Reynolds)

The NYGASP production of The Mikado (photo by William Reynolds)

That NYGASP will be performing on the NYU campus makes the impending production all the more surprising. It is highly doubtful that the university’s arts programs would undertake an all-white Mikado any more than they would do an all-white production of Porgy and Bess (although copyright probably prevents them from attempting the latter). College campuses are where racial consideration is at the forefront of thinking and action. Is it possible that The Mikado is in the Christmas to New Year’s slot precisely because school will not be in session and the university will be largely vacant, mitigating the potential for protest?  Without school in session, NYGASP can’t even take advantage of the university community, if both parties agreed, to contextualize this production as part of a broader cultural conversation, not to explain it away, but to interrogate the many issues it raises.

“We can’t find qualified performers in the Asian-American community,” is another one of the frequent defenses of yellowface Mikados. After 25 years of countless productions of Miss Saigon, a revised Flower Drum Song with an entirely Asian-American cast, and two current Broadway productions (The King and I and the impending Allegiance) with largely Asian casts, it’s not possible to claim that the talent isn’t out there. Excuses about training or worse, diction (which is noted on the NYGASP site), are utterly implausible.

Admittedly, even with racially authentic casting, The Mikado is a problematic work, since it is rooted in ignorant stereotypes of Japan and not in any real truth. Does that make it unproducible, like, say The Octoroon (as explored by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s revisionist An Octoroon), or any number of early musical comedies which traded in now-offensive racial humor? No, as Jonathan Miller proved 30 years ago. And while it seems contradictory, even if the text and characterizations of The Mikado are retrograde, if it is to be done, at least it should be interpreted by Asian actors, who are afforded too little opportunity in theatre, musical theatre, operetta and opera as it is. There are any number of Asian performers who will discuss their reservations about Miss Saigon as well, but at least it affords them work, and the chance to bring some sense of nuance and authenticity to the piece. The same should be true of The Mikado.

The upset surrounding The Mikado at the Skirball Center has just begun to bubble up, originating so far as I saw with Facebook posts from Leah Nanako Winkler, Ming Peiffer, and Mike Lew; Winkler has already posted a blog in which she speaks candidly with NYGASP’s Bergeret and Erin Quill has a strong take as well. Hopefully a great deal more will be said, with the goal that instead of keeping The Mikado trapped in amber as G&S loyalists seem to prefer, it will be brought properly into the 21st century if it is to be performed at all. In a city as large as New York, maybe there are those who see six performances of The Mikado as being insignificant and not worthy of attention. But in a city as modern and multicultural as New York, can and should a yellowface, Causcasian Mikado be countenanced? Now is the time for the last (ny)gasp of clueless Mikados.

Update, September 16, 2 pm: NYGASP has replaced the home page of their website with a statement titled, “The Mikado in the 21st Century.” It reads in part:

Gilbert studied Japanese culture and even brought in Japanese acquaintances to advise the theater company on costumes, props and movements. In its formative years, NYGASP similarly engaged a Japanese advisor, the late Kayko Nakamura, to ensure that our costumes and sets remain true to the spirit of the culture that inspired them. We are dedicating this year’s production of The Mikado to her memory.

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.

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. Lyrics are occasional altered to update topical references and meet contemporary sensibilities; makeup and costumes are intended to be consistent with modern expectations.

Update, September 16, 4 pm: Since I made the original post yesterday, several other pertinent blog posts have appeared, and I wanted to share them as well. There are many aspects to this conversation.

From Ming Peiffer, “#SayNoToMikado: Here’s A Pretty Mess.”

From Melissa Hillman, “I Get To Be Racist Because Art: The Mikado.”

From Chris Peterson, “The Mikado Performed In Yellowface and Why It’s Not OK.”

From Barb Leung, “Breaking Down The Issues with ‘The Mikado’

Update, September 17, 7 am: NYGASP has posted the following message on their Facebook page:

NYGASP Facebook post

Update, September 18, 8 am: Overnight, NYGASP announced that they are canceling their production of The Mikado at the Skirball Center, replacing it with The Pirates of Penzance. A statement on their website reads as follows:

New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players announces that the production of The Mikado, planned for December 26, 2015-January 2, 2016, is cancelled. We are pleased to announce that The Pirates of Penzance will run in it’s place for 6 performances over the same dates.

NYGASP never intended to give offense and the company regrets the missed opportunity to responsively adapt this December. Our patrons can be sure we will contact them as soon as we are able, and answer any questions they may have.

We will now look to the future, focusing on how we can affect a production that is imaginative, smart, loyal to Gilbert and Sullivan’s beautiful words, music, and story, and that eliminates elements of performance practice that are offensive.

Thanks to all for the constructive criticism. We sincerely hope that the living legacy of Gilbert & Sullivan remains a source of joy for many generations to come.

David Wannen Executive Director New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players

Update, September 18, 3 pm: The NYGASP production of The Mikado was scheduled to be given a single performance on the campus of Washington and Lee University this coming Monday evening, September 21. As of this afternoon, the production has been replaced with the NYGASP production of The Pirates of Penzance.

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Howard Sherman is the interim director of the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts.


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