What Are Those Geishas Doing In Penzance?

December 23rd, 2015 § 1 comment

Still from NYGASP video spot on YouTube

Still from NYGASP video spot on YouTube

Oh, New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players, what are we going to do with you?

It was surprising to many that you thought you could do a “classic” yellowface Mikado in New York in 2015. But you also responded pretty quickly once there was an outcry against the practice, with the first blog posts of dismay (from Leah Nanako Winkler, Erin Quill, Ming Peiffer and me) posted on Tuesday and Wednesday and the production canceled by midnight on Friday morning. You’ve promised to bring your Mikado into alignment with current sensibilities at some point in the future, and I’m one of the many people who had cordial conversations with your executive director David Wannen in the wake of the September controversy.

So one can’t help be brought up short by your current commercial for The Pirates of Penzance, the production which replaced The Mikado at NYU’s Skirball Center. Shot in the Old Town Bar just north of Union Square, it features pub denizens having a Gilbert & Sullivan sing-off with some piratical looking men, as well as some geriatric British naval officers. All in good fun, it seems.

So why is there an admittedly brief shot in the ad of three yellowface geishas in a bar booth being leered at (by telescope, no less) by the British officers? Why is there still yellowface as part of advertising a production that was scheduled to eradicate yellowface?

Now I’m fully prepared to acknowledge this is probably an old TV spot, and all that has been changed is the superimposed show title, venue and number to call for tickets at the end. In fact, having watched New York television for much of my life, I’d say this spot could be quite old, and may well have emanated from days when Pirates, The Mikado and H.M.S. Pinafore were the bedrock of your repertory.

But in light of all that has happened over the past four months, seeing those faux-Asian women giggling behind their fans seems wholly out of place, if not a slap at those who advocated for a more enlightened take from you going forward. I acknowledge the effort and cost of recutting, or even reshooting, a commercial, but it might have been wise for you to not keep propagating the very imagery that led you to decide to cancel your production.

There’s no way to know whether you’re buying broadcast or cable time for the spot, but you just posted it to YouTube at the beginning of this month. This morning, the spot was featured in an e-mail blast you sent. So this possibly vestigial ad is still very much part of your marketing.

As I noted in a conference call with David Wannen, it is not lost on us that Albert Bergeret, the company’s artistic director, has not – so far as I know, and I’d be happy to be corrected – publicly expressed his support for the decision to remove The Mikado from your repertoire pending a reconception. Even this brief glimpse of yellowface suggests that the message of respecting ethnicities other than white hasn’t really sunk in. In fact, this could be seen by some as you winking at the controversy and telling your regular audiences that your “traditions” will be upheld, even if your sole intent was to economize and recycle an existing ad.

C’mon NYGASP, you said you were going to do better. You’ve taken some important steps, but it seems you’ve still got a ways to go.

Thanks to Barb Leung for sharing the e-mail and video from NYGASP.

 Howard Sherman is interim director of the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts and director of the Arts Integrity Initiative at The New School College of Performing Arts.

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