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Detail of a page from the flyer for New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players’ 2015–16 season advertising ‘The Mikado’ (photo by Benjamin Sutton for Hyperallergic)

“White people have always slipped in and out of the experiences of people of color and been praised extravagantly for it,” Jenny Zhang, the poet and Rookie magazine contributor, wrote in an article for BuzzFeed about the erasure of Asian American narratives in Western culture. She was responding to the revelation that a white poet had assumed the name of a Chinese schoolmate and put it on a submission to the Best American Poetry series. “Yi-Fen Chou” sounded exotic enough to open the publication’s doors; the poem was hardly believable attached to its author’s real name, Michael Derrick Hudson. But as Zhang stressed in her piece — the examples she gives of white supremacy holding her back must be read to be believed — publicly shaming Hudson and others like him may not be enough.

Last month the New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players (NYGASP) announced plans to stage a production of The Mikado, a comic opera set in the fictional land of Titipu that was first performed in 1885. It is a satire of British politics and features characters with childish names like Pooh-Bah and Yum-Yum acting foolishly. These may seem like standard antagonists for a late 19th-century British opera. In the years leading up to The Mikado’s premiere the British Empire, which had abolished slavery some 40 years earlier, had extenuated through taxation, agricultural restrictions, and relief cutbacks a famine that killed over 5 million Indians under their colonial governance.

A flyer for an 1885 production of ‘The Mikado’ in Edinburgh (image via Wikimedia Commons) (click to enlarge)

Does any of the foregoing context remind you of Japan, or of Japanese culture? Certainly, the word “mikado” was once used to describe the emperor, but it is now considered obsolete and was going out of style even when Arthur Sullivan and William Gilbert were writing the libretto. The connection ends there. How, then, can this opera be said to take place in Japan, of which the fictional Titipu is said to be a part? It was a matter of fancy kimonos, samurai swords, and — to somehow drive home the point that The Mikado was really about British politics — white actors wearing yellowface.

Ming Peiffer, the co-director of the independent Spookfish Theatre Company and its current playwright-in-residence, was one of the first to protest NYGASP’s decision to stage The Mikado with white actors in yellowface. “When we reflect stuff — on TV, in our movies, on our stages — it matters,” Peiffer told me over coffee. “It has an extreme influence on how we behave as a society.” The question was not simply about whether or not a play trading on antiquated stereotypes should be produced, but how it was produced, and for whom. Asian Americans have long looked out at the media landscape and seen almost nobody who looks like them looking back, but the continued use of yellowface (and “yellowname,” as Zhang described the Michael Derrick Hudson affair) has a more nefarious consequence. “Take away the racist element for a moment,” Peiffer said. “From just a job-giving standpoint, [yellowface] robs Asian people of roles they could be getting.” As another example she mentioned the recent Cameron Crowe film, Aloha, which featured the unmistakably Caucasian Emma Stone as the half-Chinese character Allison Ng.

“If you’re going to be appropriating a culture in order to get laughs and benefit off it, then you should at least use the people you’re exploiting,” Peiffer said. When a role is offered to an Asian actor it tends, with few exceptions, to play into some kind of stereotype, and producers and directors have refused to even make a minimal effort to cast Asian actors when a white one will do. The Mikado has an especially terrible track record in this regard, although some past productions have included Asian performers.

“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,” the NYGASP’s Board of Directors explained. “ Lyrics are occasional (sic) altered to update topical references and meet contemporary sensibilities; makeup and costumes are intended to be consistent with modern expectations.”

The day before I spoke with Peiffer, NYGASP canceled its yellowface production of The Mikado, in no small part due to the activism of Peiffer and other members of the Asian American theater community. The company wrote on Facebook that it “never intended to give offense and the company regrets the missed opportunity to adapt its production of Gilbert & Sullivan’s 130-year-old satire of Victorian society to respond to contemporary criticism of some elements of traditional performance practice.” But Peiffer said that canceling the play was never what she’d wanted. She laid out several alternative options, such as casting the play with Asian actors or restaging the play in a non-Asian country (which has been done before with great success). Canceling the production doesn’t solve the issue of representation: there are still just as few Asians on the stage, and just as few of their stories are being told.

Peiffer mentioned the ABC show Fresh Off the Boat, which has been hailed as a small victory for the Asian American community in that it shows a functional, heteronormative family of people who look like them in a mainstream sitcom. But the response to the show has been divided between those who feel it hits too close to home and those who feel it doesn’t hit nearly close enough. Eddie Huang, on whose book the show was based, is in the latter camp. He rebuked the show — which still features his name in its credits — for whitewashing his family’s narrative. Gone were scenes of domestic abuse; Huang’s identification with hip-hop was played for laughs instead of reflecting a very real identity crisis.

A page from the flyer for New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players’ 2015–16 season advertising ‘The Mikado’ (photo by Benjamin Sutton for Hyperallergic) (click to enlarge)

Peiffer wonders what could have happened if Huang’s rebuke had happened in the pre-production stage, instead of after the pilot had already aired. Her experience with The Mikado reminded her of the need to speak up early, “before it gets to the point where producers can say ‘well, we’ve already put too much money in this.’” And she has a point. Though its production of The Mikado has been canceled, NYGASP reached out to her and the others who’d protested to discuss what they could have done better. As in the case of Michael Derrick Hudson and Best American Poetry, the point of the outcry was not only to hold privileged people to account, but also to turn this misfire into an instructive and even empowering opportunity for change.

As a playwright herself, Peiffer is sensitive to the ways white privilege may co-opt her work. White privilege means that showing a happy, normal family of color is somehow revolutionary, though far more powerful would be allowing Huang to show his father beating his mother or how he and his brother were almost separated from the rest of their family. White privilege is telling the stories of people of color and crowding out their actual, lived narratives. Even when those stories come from a place of prejudice, as with Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado, they can be told in ways that highlight the legacy of white supremacy and give voices to people of color.

Zack Sigel

Zack Sigel is a screenwriter and occasional music journalist living in Brooklyn. His work explores esoteric themes like metal music and medieval history with an eye toward class consciousness and social justice. Follow him on Twitter: @zacksigel

46 replies on “Opera in Yellowface Hastily Canceled After Public Outrage”

    1. So only black actors can play Othello? Only black baritones can sing the operatic version? Only Middle Easterners can play Cleopatra? I have a webcomic that has people of colour: should I stop using those characters? Tell me, where does it stop? Where is the line beyond which one may not move? Do you see what kind of precedent you’re setting here by insisting on things being so unilateral?

      1. No, anyone else can play Othello. They just can’t do it in black face.

        ” I have a webcomic that has people of colour: should I stop using those characters? ”

        That depends. ARE THEY IN FUCKING BLACK FACE???

        1. BUT OTHELLO IS A MOOR FROM AFRICA. His race is an important part of the plot. How the hell else do you perform the role if not in make up? Or do you not even know the work, save in the broadest of strokes?

          And maybe my writing the voices of my non-white characters WOULD be considered FUCKING BLACK FACE by some. Ever think of THAT, EINSTEIN?

          Honestly, some people… Maybe if you bothered to actually respond to my post instead of dropping f-bombs like you actually thought they could do damage… So tell me, *sir*, where does one draw the line?

          1. ” How the hell else do you perform the role if not in make up?”

            Not my problem.
            Maybe.. I dunno.. actually take the radical step of hiring a non-white actor for a non-white role?

            “And maybe my writing the voices of my non-white characters WOULD be
            considered FUCKING BLACK FACE by some. Ever think of THAT, EINSTEIN?”

            Except, of course, that is clearly not actually black face.

            ” So tell me, *sir*, where does one draw the line?”

            At white people pretending to be other races through makeup. I mean, you DO realize there are actually actors of the races and ethnic groups represented by characters like Othello.

          2. Of course it’s “not (your) problem”, because you dont have an answer because clearly YOU DIDNT THINK YOUR ARGUMENT THROUGH, DID YOU. No, you just made a sweeping statement and DIDNT ENGAGE YOUR BRAIN BEFORE PUTTING YOUR LITTLE TYPING FINGERS IN MOTION.

            And yes, I do realize there are actors out there who can play the role without make up. BUT THAT’S PRETTY IRRELEVANT, ISNT IT. Or shall we stop casting all productions of every play EVER FUCKING WRITTEN UNTIL WE CAN MAKE SURE IT PASSES YOUR MUSTER? No more “Anthony and Cleopatra” until we can find a Middle Easterner to play Cleo? No more Turandot until we know for certain that it’s a Chinese woman singing the role? Lakme restricted to high caste Indians? TELL ME, WHERE DOES IT STOP, BUD?

            But no, folks like you just jerk your knees into your chin as hard as possible without bothering to think for one moment.

          3. Gee, you’re right. I foolishly thought that not being incredibly racist was more important than making the jobs of white directors and actors slightly harder.

            ” BUT THAT’S PRETTY IRRELEVANT, ISNT IT.”

            Actually, given the problems non-white actors have getting cast in major roles, it is pretty relevant.

            ” No more “Anthony and Cleopatra” until we can find a Middle Easterner to play Cleo?”

            You do realize that middle easterners aren’t an endangered species, right? Its not like finding a middle eastern actress is comparable to finding the ark of the covenant.

            ” TELL ME, WHERE DOES IT STOP, BUD?”

            Ok. Tell me why we actually need actors in black, brown, yellow face in the first place. Then explain why that trumps the problem of doing so being incredibly racist.

            “But no, folks like you just jerk your knees into your chin as hard as possible without bothering to think for one moment.”

            Yeah, I guess I just didn’t take enough time to consider how it might slightly inconvenience white people.

          4. Damnd straight I’m right, Sparky. Good of you to admit that. Now let’s see about the rest of your undoubtedly whiny little post.

            “Actually, given the problems non-white actors have getting cast in major roles, it is pretty relevant.”

            Then we need to stop EVERY PRODUCTION. RIGHT NOW.

            “You do realize that middle easterners aren’t an endangered species, right?”

            Doesnt matter. You have a white person playing a darker-skin role (or at least one that should be, if one wants to be culturally accurate). STOP EVERY PRODUCTION. RIGHT NOW.

            “Tell me why we actually need actors in black, brown, yellow face in the first place.”

            BECAUSE THEY’RE ACTORS, YOU DIM LIGHTBULB. THIS IS WHAT ACTORS DO, JUST LIKE IT’S WHAT ARTISTS AND WRITERS AND COMPOSERS DO. Yes, it’s possible to go over the line with caricatures like blackface, but that wasnt your original statement, was it… Nope, yours was “It’s always wrong, every single time.” Tell me: rethinking that position a bit now? Or shall we continue this inane little unilateral line of yours that only certain people can play certain roles because that’s how it is and no one gets an out, ever. We will stifle all creativity because you find it problematic and questionable. Perhaps the government can set up some artistic vetting agencies in which people must apply in order to see if their efforts will be allowed. That seems to be the direction you want to go. Everything will be neatly divided for your artistic comfort, and no one will ever be offended again. Ever.

            Think you might be getting it now? Probably not, but I suppose it cant hurt to ask.

          5. “BECAUSE THEY’RE ACTORS, YOU DIM LIGHTBULB. THIS IS WHAT ACTORS DO”

            Yeah, actually there is a long history of white actors doing that… and it has always been incredibly racist. You seem to just completely gloss over that.

            “Then we need to stop EVERY PRODUCTION. RIGHT NOW.” “Perhaps the government can set up some artistic vetting agencies in
            which people must apply in order to see if their efforts will be
            allowed. That seems to be the direction you want to go. Everything will
            be neatly divided for your artistic comfort, and no one will ever be
            offended again. Ever.”

            Going to ludicrous extremes for your straw man arguments doesn’t really help you.

            Also, you want to talk about ME having a kneejerk reaction? Look at how worked up you have gotten in such short order over someone daring to say that white people shouldn’t wear black or yellow face because of its racist history.

            “We will stifle all creativity because you find it problematic and questionable.”

            I was unaware having white people put on makeup to play other races was the totality of creativity.

            “Yes, it’s possible to go over the line with caricatures like blackface,
            but that wasnt your original statement, was it… Nope, yours was “It’s
            always wrong, every single time.” Tell me: rethinking that position a
            bit now?”

            Nope. You haven’t provided any good reason why I should other than that it might slightly inconvenience white people once in a great while.

          6. “Going to ludicrous extremes for your straw man arguments doesn’t really help you.”

            This coming from the person who said NO ONE SHOULD EVER PLAY ROLES LIKE THIS EVER? Gimme a FUCKING break. You cant even back pedal properly, can you.

            “Look at how worked up you have gotten in such short order over someone daring to say that white people shouldn’t wear black or yellow face because of its racist history.”

            Because I am getting seriously tired of short-term thinkers like you making idiotic statements and then not even having the simple grace to admit when you FUCKED UP in your original pronouncement. You’re no better than the far right conservatives who want to defund the NEA because they dont like its politics.

            “You haven’t provided any good reason why I should”

            Well, I guess I cant help it that a truly deep thinker like yourself should. Hope it all works out for ya, bein’ a crusader for making sure the theatre (not to mention art, literature, music, and every other possible artistic and creative medium) toes the proper line to keep you happy. Wouldnt want to inconvenience you, ya know…

          7. “This coming from the person who said NO ONE SHOULD EVER PLAY ROLES LIKE THIS EVER?”

            Not what I said. I said white people shouldn’t wear black, brown, or yellow face.

            “Because I am getting seriously tired of short-term thinkers like you
            making idiotic statements and then not even having the simple grace to
            admit when you FUCKED UP in your original pronouncement.”

            And that is because I didn’t.. and you haven’t given any good reason for me to change my mind. Sorry.. slight white inconvenience isn’t a good reason for racism.

            ” Hope it all works out for ya, bein’ a crusader for making sure the
            theatre (not to mention art, literature, music, and every other possible
            artistic and creative medium) toes the proper line to keep you happy.”

            Yeah, because you know how often people in other artistic media wear makeup to pretend to be a different race.

            “Wouldnt want to inconvenience you, ya know…”

            Its not inconvenience. Its racism.

    2. Would you also continue to insist on the all, an only, black cast of Porgy and Bess, or would you let some white folks have a go?

      1. Again.. as long as no blackface is involved, go right ahead. What part of this don’t you folks understand???

    1. The whole point is that the actors don’t look Japanese–they are stand-ins for Japanese people yet they are still obviously white. Being yellowface doesn’t necessarily mean explicitly coloring your skin “yellow” or darker. Rather, it refers more broadly to non-Asian people playing Asian characters and appropriating their clothing, hairdos, cultural practices, etc. under the guise of theater.

      1. So what? Too bad, so sad. Go write your own “racially insulting” genius work of art if you’re jealous.

  1. Well, I guess the Met should cancel any future productions of AIDA and MADAME BUTTERFLY and TURANDOT. After all, one can never be too sure.

    1. Or… you know.. just actually hire actors who aren’t white. But I guess that is just too darned difficult to do in a country with people of lots of different races.

      1. I supposed you would require the singer be a seamtress or whore with TB in order to be a convincingly correct Mimi or Violetta

        1. Chosen profession is not the same as race… aaaand there is STILL that problem of non-white actors not having many good, non-minor parts offered to them in film and theater.

          But even disregarding that, as long as they don’t darken their skin for the role, they can go right ahead and play anyone they want.

  2. Clearly little understanding of what “parody” actually means. The whole point, if anybody had bothered to find out, is that the characters are not supposed to be Japanese in the first place. It’s a satire on the British ruling classes of the time, not on Japan.

  3. Let’s get real accuracy into our entertainment. We should show all Chinese characters spitting on the ground everywhere, beating their wives, and showing utter subservience to the state.

  4. The cancellation of this production is a parody of political correctness gone mad. Taking the position that The Mikado should be cast with Asian actors is worthy of a Saturday Night Live skit. It would be hilarious except that people actually listen to such idiocy and try to adapt to it.

    1. Good. I mean, its not like they couldn’t have taken the radical, unheard of step of.. I dunno… casting a black actor.

      1. Latvian tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko plays Otello. There was a story on NPR (All Things Considered) earlier this week discussing the challenges to casting Otello (apparently only a few artists can actually sing this role in any generation). Opera is wonderful, but pretty rarefied. Just attending a live performance at the Met, or Lyric, or La Scala is pretty special.

        1. In that case, the answer is clearly not blackface. The answer is to capitalize on a tradition of focusing on the music and singing rather than the stage show.

      1. Thank you- I enjoyed reading it. The picture of Johan Botha had me wondering how anyone found his makeup to be convincing or artful on any level.

  5. I get that the play is a critique of English society, but just a few decades after this play was first performed, Victorian England set out and colonized all over Africa and Asia, barely recognizing their subjects as human. Where the fuck is that in this “critique of Victorian society”

    https://imgflip.com/i/rjxja

    1. You clearly have no real understanding of G&S, the genre, or the ability to identify a parody when you see one. But then I suspect you haven’t actually seen a G&S production at all. Try looking below the surface occasionally.

      So far as “England set out and colonized all over Africa and Asia, barely recognizing their subjects as human” is concerned, a couple of points:

      It was Britain, not England.
      If Britain “barely recognized their subjects as human”, how come most former colonies chose to join the British Commonwealth, as it used to be known, on gaining independence? Sorry, but your simplifications don’t add up.
      And lastly, the Japanese are not purer than the driven snow either. Who is?

    2. Ignoring everything else in your post . . .

      . . . you’re wondering where the “critique” is, of things that happened decades after the Mikado was written . . . in the Mikado?

      Oy.

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