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“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.
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.
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.