‘Asian Blackface’ in The Mikado Stirs Controversy in Seattle

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A Seattle theater troupe is defending Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado over charges that the operetta perpetuates racial caricatures and that its own production fails to include any Asian-American performers.

The production, by the Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan Society – an amateur troupe marking its 60th anniversary – has come under fire because white actors play all 40 of its Japanese characters and use garish makeup and costumes to appear Asian.

"It’s yellowface, in your face," wrote Seattle Times columnist Sharon Pian Chan in a July 13 article about the production.The Mikado is the same shtick, different race. A black wig and white face powder stand in for shoeshine. Bowing and shuffling replaces tap dancing. Fans flutter where banjos would be strummed.”

The 1885 operetta was intended as a satire of English politics and institutions, but set in a distant, exotically visualized Japan. It revolves around simplistic characters like the wandering minstrel Nanki Pooh and the beautiful young maiden Yum Yum, and is told in a frothy brand of Japanese-inflected sing-song English. It is the most performed of Gilbert and Sullivan's 14 comic musicals. (Below: an excerpt of a 2011 production from Opera Australia.)

Responding to Chan's critique, Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan Society manager Pamela Kelley Elend published an 1,800-word column strongly defending the opera. She argues that The Mikado should be seen as a send-up of Victorian England’s perception of Japan. “It is a poke at that august sector of Society,” she wrote, “who had little to no understanding of Japanese society and culture, but held a superior belief that they did understand Japanese society and culture, and could not be bothered to learn otherwise.”

Elend added that her company's audition process was geared solely towards identifying musical talent and not a particular race. “I am saddened that this cast can be dismissed as irrelevant because they are white,” wrote Elend. “Every person on that stage won the right to be there.”

Chan’s column drew support from other Asian-American pundits and from the Japanese American Citizens League, a civil rights organization, which released a statement saying that it “objects to the use of yellowface and stereotypes in the comic opera The Mikado and condemns the decision to stage a play with such offensive rhetoric to all Asian Americans.”

The League added that "the racist portrayal of Japanese people in this play is extremely disrespectful and misleading to those who are not familiar with Japanese culture."

The debate echoes similar questions about Richard Wagner’s operas, particularly allegedly anti-Semitic caricatures like Alberich in the Ring Cycle or Beckmesser in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. But The Mikado, as an operetta, has received less mainstream attention. Still, NBCNews.com reports that several performances in the past decade have drawn criticism and protests, including in New York, Los Angeles, Boston and Denver.

Josephine Lee, author of The Japan Of Pure Invention: The Racial History Of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado, believes that people wrongly excuse The Mikado by saying it's about England and has nothing to do with Japan. In an e-mail to WQXR, she wrote that it's incumbent on directors to give it new meaning, "rather than just assuming that audiences want the same old thing."

Lee cites a Mu Performing Arts/Skylark Opera production in Minneapolis. "References to Japan were eliminated, and at the same time many of the leads were played by Asian American actors," she said. "This put a new twist on the opera, since now Asian American actors were playing 'white' British characters; it acknowledged the racial history of the original version, but made the audience rethink rather than just reproduce the opera."

Another example of a Mikado reboot was Jonathan Miller’s 1986 production for the English National Opera, which came to City Opera in 2001, and removed every trace of Japanalia.

In her column, Chan proposed that the Seattle G&S Society partner with an Asian-American theater group in order to give the operetta a more modern spin. But, noting Seattle’s large Asian population, she added, "This is the wrong show—wrong for Seattle, wrong for this country and wrong for this century."

Weigh in: Should The Mikado continue to be performed? Leave your comments below.