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July 18, 2014 8:50 AM   Subscribe

Angry Asian Man sets the scene: "The Bagley Wright Theatre in Seattle is currently staging Gilbert & Sullivan's 'classic' comic opera The Mikado, which has historically required actors to perform roles in yellowface, and a bunch of shitty made up stereotypes for comic effect. This version is no different, with all forty Japanese characters played by white actors.". The Seattle Times weighs in with a negative op-ed. The Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan society had a response to the Times Op Ed: "I get it because as a black woman I am often confronted by issues of racism and sexism, be it blatant, subtle, institutionalized, or perceived. I too have reacted in a knee-jerk fashion. I believe when confronted with these issues I have always dug a little deeper, checked other sources, and did some research on my own before taking action. Given what I, and the Society have been through in the last few days, I hope to God that my actions were indeed merited. The idea that I may have caused the kind of damage that we are experiencing to some other organization, individual or institution because I took a head long rush to judgment based on a headline, or an opinion piece, and regarded those things as fact sickens me to my soul."
posted by josher71 (189 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite

 
Except that white face powder is not used to mimic the skin tone of anyone, because white face powder is not a skin tone known to man.

On the bright side, this calls my attention to the fact that there are some Gilbert and Sullivan players in Seattle, which I will definitely patronize, so yay!
posted by corb at 8:59 AM on July 18 [1 favorite]


The response is utterly obnoxious.

> how dare you use the "power of the press" to express your opinions!
> because that's bad for some reason
> you didn't do your due diligence
> even though everything you say is either verifiably true or your own opinion
> this isn't racist, because I say it isn't racist
> your opinion is like throwing dogshit

On a lighter note, I grew up with G&S thanks to my mom, who sang for a few companies.

I also have weirdly vivid memories of Married With Children... having an episode where they go see The Mikado. "We're going to eat, yum yum, yum yum..."
posted by Sticherbeast at 9:05 AM on July 18 [5 favorites]


That response to the Times Op Ed is 1800 words, which is at least 1000 words too long. However, this is the crux of it:
Is The Mikado an antiquated period piece best left to history’s dung heap? Is The Mikado on its face racist? Is it a stereotype laden, caricature driven, finger pointing farcical look at a racial group? Yes it is. It is a stereotype laden, caricature driven, finger pointing farcical satire of white people, and in particular the British Peerage of the 19th century. It is a poke at that august sector of Society, 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.

Did we produce it exactly as it was written 130 years ago? No, because like Gilbert & Sullivan we update our productions to reflect and satirize the societal, economic and political realities of the here and now, but we do it in keeping with the beauty of the original production. Everything about the production is hyper-realistic; the props are larger than life and even the staging is a minimalist confection of perceived Japanese symbols. And yes, the makeup is in the same over the top exaggerated hyper-real Kabuki-esque style that is not, nor intended to be a depiction of Japanese people, nor is it a yellowface caricature of Japanese people.

Gilbert & Sullivan, the social and political satirist of their time, mocked that particular phenomenon by creating the entirely fictional and exaggerated town of Titipu. The town is populated by white people who speak and sing in plummy British accents, use typical British colloquialisms, hold particularly British office and titles, and who are dressed in exaggerated, over the top kimonos, obis, head gear and wigs, and make-up due to their imperialistic view of Japanese life. The character’s names are an exaggeration of British baby talk of the 19th Century, and not as Ms. Chan assert “gibberish Asian names.”
I tend to agree with her, honestly.
posted by koeselitz at 9:06 AM on July 18 [18 favorites]


White face powder is definitely used to mimic the makeup of stereotypical Japanese geisha, who are a common visual shorthand for "Japanese woman / person."
posted by nicebookrack at 9:07 AM on July 18 [5 favorites]


Although I thought Ms. Elend's response on behalf of the Society was pretty good, the "nobody has complained" is not quite good enough, because obviously, someone has complained. Not a viewer of the show, maybe, but someone who is concerned about the racism of the piece, and so the answer can't be quite as easy as, "You're missing the point of the satire."

In something like "The Mikado," where entire swathes of text are updated at every performance, there is plenty of room to acknowledge, "here is an opera by white men satirizing white men but through an Asian screen, and here is what we, the producers and performers, mean to say when we put it on."
posted by mittens at 9:12 AM on July 18 [1 favorite]


If only I were as eloquent as Pamela. I like it that she took the time to answer in such depth.
posted by boilermonster at 9:12 AM on July 18 [4 favorites]


Speaking as someone who's performed in, costumed, researched, and produced The Mikado twice, I agree that it's problematic for modern audiences.

The main problem is that libretto is a parody of Victorian Orientalism and not a work of Orientalism itself. But modern audiences don't - and can't really be expected to - have the context for that, not having lived during its heyday.

But it has some of the best music in the G&S canon, and some really funny and clever stuff buried among the problematic parts, so audiences still want to see it and companies still want to do it. In G&S circles, The Mikado and Yeomen of the Guard are the two shows you always get a LOVE IT or HATE IT reaction about. So, companies generally either get creative and change or remove the objectionable elements, or try with high production values and attention to Victorian detail to firmly establish it as a historical work.

Neither of the productions I've been involved with has been a traditional "Savoy Style" production with all-yellowface and kimonos, ad the most recent one had extensive rewriting. Both were big hits even among people who said they didn't normally like it (the biggest complaint the first production got was that our Nanki-Poo was way too old to be believable, which was unfortunately true).
posted by The Underpants Monster at 9:14 AM on July 18 [9 favorites]


I think that the response was pretty good. Sure, she didn't have a professional editor to help her, so it was a bit long and there were a couple of typos, but it was more measured than I would have been. Good on her for explaining it instead of merely dismissing the accusation as Not Getting It.
posted by wenestvedt at 9:15 AM on July 18 [4 favorites]


If only the Seattle Times op-ed writer Sharon Pian Chan had bothered to do even enough research to realize that The Mikado is an operetta, not an opera...

I can get the outrage, maybe. The Mikado is a pretty laden piece all around, but it's a pretty brilliant piece of musical theater from long ago. The Japanese setting was chosen specifically to be someplace distant from Britain in order to skewer British government and society. The original production, directed by Gilbert, consulted with Japanese ex-pats living in the UK to give some authenticity to the production.

This whole thing, at its core, smacks of the religious conservatives picketing the film Dogma when it was released. "I haven't seen this, but I know it will offend me, so I'm going to make sure everyone knows I might be offended if I saw it."
posted by hippybear at 9:15 AM on July 18 [5 favorites]


OK, finished reading Elend's letter and realized she said a lot of the same things I did. Should have read more than the first half before I commented.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 9:17 AM on July 18


Except that white face powder is not used to mimic the skin tone of anyone, because white face powder is not a skin tone known to man.

Blackened cork isn't a skin tone either, but that doesn't mean blackface minstrels weren't mimicking black people.
posted by maxsparber at 9:18 AM on July 18 [8 favorites]


Underpants Monster, have you seen productions that successfully addressed the racist aspects, in your opinion? Not "made everyone happy" but that appeared to be honestly taking it on or lampshading it? What did they do?
posted by emjaybee at 9:19 AM on July 18 [1 favorite]


mittens: "Although I thought Ms. Elend's response on behalf of the Society was pretty good, the 'nobody has complained' is not quite good enough, because obviously, someone has complained. Not a viewer of the show, maybe, but someone who is concerned about the racism of the piece, and so the answer can't be quite as easy as, 'You're missing the point of the satire.'"

Yeah, that's a very good way of putting it. It seems like the issue here is that the production is a little ham-fisted as far as its conception. I haven't seen it – that isn't possible for me – but the fact is that Pamela Kelley Elend's comments 'it's a satire about how ridiculous white society is!' and also 'there have never been any complaints!' are clearly at cross-purposes. If the concept of your production is that the Mikado deserves recontextualization, then you need to sort that out, and you need to telegraph that in every press appearance and interview. It's important. And it's essential, particularly since people have actually tried to confront the history of the Mikado in inventive ways in recent years.
posted by koeselitz at 9:19 AM on July 18 [1 favorite]


To be fair, white face powder was also used extensively in the 1700s in France and England amongst the aristocracy. White being the color of the skin of someone who never had to go out and do labor, thus upper crust.
posted by hippybear at 9:20 AM on July 18 [4 favorites]


Dave Ross debates Sharon Pian Chan

As we saw in the somewhat recent Colbert controversy, it seems like a lot of people feel like it's perfectly fine to 'satirize' something by making fun of Asian people. When Asian people object, you shouldn't be so surprised.
posted by Comrade_robot at 9:23 AM on July 18 [11 favorites]


This kind of thing is still a really tough balance. Conventions change, and even something that was satire in the past may not come across thus today, especially when you have an audience that may not be aware of the subtleties at play. (I'd also wager that there were probably a few audience members at its premiere that didn't get that it was supposed to be satire and took it as a quaint operetta about Japan.)

I worked for years with a theater company that did older American works as its focus, and we often came across some uneasy references in scripts - we came up with a lot of ways to address them, running the gamut from outright changing words to cutting bits out to playing up how fake and over-the-top a reference was. When they did The Octoroon they had a sign in the lobby bracing people for some of the language. When they did Metamora they played up the staginess by designing a whole set that made it look as if you had gone back in time and were at the 1829 world premiere.

But this is something that a lot of companies wrestle with - the fact that references that were perfectly okay to make 100 years ago are not quite cricket now. It's always a challenge, and there's probably always someone who thinks it could have been done differently.

All any company can do is try, though.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:24 AM on July 18 [1 favorite]


I was in a production of the Mikado a few years ago, an all white cast in a southeastern US college town. I went in very excited, and by the end, very regretful. I know the history of the Mikado, and I now obviously know the work very well. I understand it was written as satire and what it is satirizing.

I just don't think it translates well modernly, in our world where "ironic racism" is fashionable and generally indistinguishable from real racism, and where it frequently feels like making fun of Asians is quite simply still acceptable among a lot of non-Asians. I don't plan to see any more productions, and I would encourage companies looking to make fun of English aristocracy to choose Pinafore, instead.
posted by hydropsyche at 9:26 AM on July 18 [21 favorites]


Oh god that radio debate. Listening to that guy trying to get Sharon Pian Chan to admit that the actors weren't literally wearing yellow paint on their face was painful. As if that was the sole meaning and sum connotation of the term yellowface.
posted by Sternmeyer at 9:39 AM on July 18 [4 favorites]


That response from the business manager is one of the most muddled thing I have ever read. Listen, there is a case to be made that the Mikado was intended as a satire of British society set in an manufactured Japan that was itself a satire of British obsession with Japan.

That's a hell of a thing to try to stage nowadays, especially when people respond to yellowface as badly as they do blackface -- as something that is inherently racist, not something that is sometimes racist but sometimes not, depending on context. Are they right? I think they are. I think despite G&S intentions, the play both parodies and reflects the racist imperialism of the era.

Doing it nowadays means confronting the past, not merely recreating it. And claiming that, no, we're not doing yellowface, we're doing kabuki-face, badly misunderstands what yellowface is. It's not about the color of the greasepaint. It is about members of a majority impersonating members of a minority community -- and there does not need to be greasepaint, nor even a mocking intention, for this to be a problem, because it is part of a long heritage of racist representations, and cannot be special snowflaked out because Gilbert and Sullivan were a wee bit more meta than their contemporaries. It also is part and parcel with the fact that Asian Americans find almost no opportunity in contemporary theater, which is an ongoing complaint, and that "We cannot cast people who do not come through our door" is nonsense whatever theater company it comes from. It's the same plodding excuse for doing nothing that every dominant organization makes when it is pointed out that they somehow have managed to exclude women, or Latinos, or blacks, or whoever.

It's bullshit, as is the "complainer should have educated herself" garbage that the response opened up with. Never, ever assume that a minority who is complaining about how your institution represents them is ignorant. They wonder why they can't get Asian actors? Perhaps it is behavior like that. I know I wouldn't go someplace where my concerns and objections about were immediately dismissed by people who don't share my experience but seek to represent them.
posted by maxsparber at 9:42 AM on July 18 [28 favorites]


There's even plenty of room to use "ironic racism" to good ends. However, that requires wit, sensitivity, and finesse. What I got from that response was the idea that the company did not want to listen to the complaint before them, that they felt such a complaint was an undue indignity, and that their production could not possibly be offensive, because they had meant it to have some sort of satirical edge. Therefore, inoffensive, QED. Nobody wants to think about the idea that conscious intent is not enough. Besides, nothing about the production sounds very persuasive: it sounds like bog-standard contemporary staging, with some bog-standard self-conscious winkiness.

At the very rock bottom least, when responding to such an Op-Ed, you should show more awareness of the fact that it is not always going to be in your control how people perceive your show.

(Also, "larger than life" props can never be "hyper-realistic". Did she mean "hyperreal"? That's not right either, but it's closer.)
posted by Sticherbeast at 9:43 AM on July 18 [3 favorites]


hydropsyche: "I just don't think it translates well modernly, in our world where 'ironic racism' is fashionable and generally indistinguishable from real racism, and where it frequently feels like making fun of Asians is quite simply still acceptable among a lot of non-Asians. I don't plan to see any more productions, and I would encourage companies looking to make fun of English aristocracy to choose Pinafore, instead."

I kind of agree. I have to say, though, that now that I've discovered it I really want to see The Mikado Project, which is apparently sort of a meta-production about Asian actors trying to put on The Mikado.
posted by koeselitz at 9:44 AM on July 18 [3 favorites]


Dave Ross is definitely not helping when he defends the production by saying things like: "People are wearing pink makeup. I don't know where the yellow comes from" and "We have a history in this country that makes it inappropriate for us to do blackface[.] But there is not [a] perception that the Japanese minority group in this country is somehow a failed minority group."

I don't know what the hell he thought he was saying in that last one, but I do know that someone who lives so close to where the first Japanese-Americans to be sent to camps during WWII lived might want to consider whether there's any regional history worth taking into account when making pronouncements about what minority groups have gone through.
posted by hades at 9:45 AM on July 18 [12 favorites]


Oh shit I have tickets.
posted by Dreidl at 9:48 AM on July 18 [1 favorite]


TBH, the images in the first link look more like a high school production, not a professional play for which people are supposed to pay money. Half of the costumes in the upper picture are budget faux Chinese Imperial from the Halloween store, and the attempts at furisode in the bottom pic are pathetic.

There was also recently a samurai-ish production of Titus Andronicus that fell very short of Kurosawa, and there were complaints about that one, too, but even that one paid more attention to the costumes.
posted by sukeban at 9:49 AM on July 18 [1 favorite]


corb: "Except that white face powder is not used to mimic the skin tone of anyone, because white face powder is not a skin tone known to man. "

So what? It's a racist caricature. Librettist Gilbert based his depiction of Japan not on knowledge but on popular contemporary stereotypes of the late 1800's.
posted by zarq at 9:50 AM on July 18 [2 favorites]


Comrade_robot: As we saw in the somewhat recent Colbert controversy, it seems like a lot of people feel like it's perfectly fine to 'satirize' something by making fun of Asian people. When Asian people object, you shouldn't be so surprised.

Nor should it be suprising that when you assume your argument is true, you think you're right. Obviously, many people would argue that neither case was satirizing by "making fun of Asian people".
posted by spaltavian at 9:51 AM on July 18 [6 favorites]


Oh shit I have tickets.

Go! Enjoy the production! It's got some of G&S's best songs in it, and it's a truly entertaining show.
posted by hippybear at 9:52 AM on July 18 [4 favorites]


Hearing they meant to modernize the play I clicked hoping to see the actors in neon colored wigs of shapes so outlandish they need to be held up with wire.

I was disappointed.
posted by LogicalDash at 9:52 AM on July 18 [2 favorites]


I didn’t think much of the rebuttal. There was way too much emphasis on her hurt feelings, like being called racist is just as bad as actual racism. And the healthy dollop of condescension didn’t help. But I guess not everyone can be as articulate as Hettienne Park.
posted by imnotasquirrel at 9:53 AM on July 18 [5 favorites]


Underpants Monster, have you seen productions that successfully addressed the racist aspects, in your opinion? Not "made everyone happy" but that appeared to be honestly taking it on or lampshading it?

That’s a really tough thing to do without getting all explainy on the audience. I haven’t seen what I referred to as “Savoy Style” productions that did that, no.

Athough I don’t think this is what you’re asking, I’ve seen “concept” productions that didn’t excise all of the problematic stuff, but changed the setting enough to change the conversation about it.

I think the first production I was involved with might have come close, and even then it required adding a prologue. The prologue took place immediately pre-WWII in Singapore at the Raffles Hotel, where the cast, English and American expatriates, were celebrating. The Japanese Army, played by shadow puppets behind a scrim, invaded during the overture, and the cast ran off screaming. There were a few vignettes showing some of the principals escaping as the overture played, and then a narration encapsulating how the war went in Singapore, and that Westerners in the area were brought to the hotel after the war after being released from internment camps, but before being sent home.

Many lines and songs took on new meaning. The introduction of the women’s chorus, “Comes a train of little ladies,” has a wistful, almost mourning melody and words that seem out of place in a traditional production, but it was quite poignant being sung by a ragged line of bruised and bowed women, hobbling onstage and seeing freedom for the first time in years:
Comes a train of little ladies
From scholastic trammels free,
Each a little bit afraid is,
Wondering what the world can be!

Is it but a world of trouble —
Sadness set to song?
Is its beauty but a bubble
Bound to break ere long?

Are its palaces and pleasures
Fantasies that fade?
And the glory of its treasures
Shadow of a shade?
Also, the appearance of General MacArthur as the Mikado laying down the (silly) law for a conquered land was, I thought, quite effective both despite and because of its hilarity.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 9:55 AM on July 18 [9 favorites]


I love the Mikado so I would hate to see it stop being performed. Couldn't they just make it not Japanese? Steampunk Victorian Mikado would be cool.
posted by interplanetjanet at 9:55 AM on July 18


zarq: “Librettist Gilbert based his depiction of Japan not on knowledge but on popular contemporary stereotypes of the late 1800's.”

This is... not strictly true. Gilbert actually seems to have known more than the average British person of the time about Japanese culture. He appears to have done some research. But The Mikado was not based on that research, because the whole point of The Mikado was to make fun of the popular contemporary stereotypes of the late 1800's.

In other words, The Mikado was intended to make fun of British racists by lampooning their racism and making it appear ridiculous and inane. I think it succeeds, but without the benefit of context today it's hard for people to see its intentions. This is the ironic-racism problem all over again; people who invoke ironic racism are generally not racists – far from it, they're usually making fun of racists – but it still doesn't go over so well a lot of the time, because it's easy to miss irony.
posted by koeselitz at 9:56 AM on July 18 [9 favorites]


White face powder is definitely used to mimic the makeup of stereotypical Japanese geisha

White makeup is traditional for geisha, not stereotypical. I don't disagree that it is a shorthand and can often code for racism, though.

I guess what bugs me about The Mikado and similar works is that contextualizing them isn't difficult. Extensive program notes. An introduction before the curtain. Q&A session after the show. Not contextualizing problematic language/references is laziness on the part of the director.

Librettist Gilbert based his depiction of Japan not on knowledge but on popular contemporary stereotypes of the late 1800's.

Worth remembering that he was skewering those stereotypes, though.

I dunno, I saw an incredible production of Rashomon that featured one Asian actor (though not Japanese, I think), one African-Canadian actor, and one Caucasian actor. With a set rich in actual Japanese symbolism and location, ditto costumes. I thought the casting was some metacommentary on the themes of the play, but beans and plates.

Are there really no Asian (specifically Japanese) musical theatre actors in Seattle?
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 9:57 AM on July 18 [2 favorites]


I grew up on G&S, love it, was going to bring my critical edition libretto, and am aware as an adult of how problematic G&S productions can be. But am not going to support anything known to be stupidly racist in a city with an enormous Japanese population and history.
posted by Dreidl at 9:57 AM on July 18 [1 favorite]


Steampunk Victorian Mikado would be cool.

I feel like many things could be improved by making them steampunk Victorian.
posted by imnotasquirrel at 9:58 AM on July 18


I kind of agree. I have to say, though, that now that I've discovered it I really want to see The Mikado Project, which is apparently sort of a meta-production about Asian actors trying to put on The Mikado.

That sounds fascinating! One of the proposals for the most recent production I was involved with was to collaborate with a traditional Japanese drumming and dance group on rebuilding the show from the bones up. Unfortunately, although they were excited about it, they turned out not to be available.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 9:58 AM on July 18 [1 favorite]


Obviously, many people would argue that neither case was satirizing by "making fun of Asian people".

Yeah, but most of those people aren't Asian.
posted by Comrade_robot at 9:59 AM on July 18 [7 favorites]


This is very complicated but at the heart of it all I think the controversy is really about the Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan society not accepting that there's a gap between their intent and public reception. On the other hand, I do agree that older works should be presented as they were and are. (E.g., I like Lovecraft's stories while being all-too aware of the undeniable racism.)

There's a middle-ground, and we can't jettison everything that's been tainted by racism because that would mean annihilating culture as we know it.

What bothers me is the tone-deaf response that dismissive of the concerns in their entirety. This sort of production really does need to have explicit discussion of the racial context. It's like how a classroom discussion of something with racist elements needs to be started with an acknowledgement of that cultural legacy.
posted by truex at 9:59 AM on July 18 [12 favorites]


For contrast, Opera Australia did a Mikado where the actors are consciously made to look as White Victorians instead of direct yellowface stereotypes, and the decor is full Japonisme Boudoir instead of faux-Japanese. See I've Got a Little List and the Three Little Maids from School. I *love* how they've replaced a taiko musubi on the obi with leather backpacks.
posted by sukeban at 9:59 AM on July 18 [18 favorites]


or lampshading it

Isn't the whole original concept of the production "lampshading" the absurd orientalist stereotypes?
posted by yoink at 10:01 AM on July 18 [1 favorite]


Yeah, but most of those people aren't Asian.

IIRC, Angry Asian Man came to Colbert's defense, and so did a lot of other Asians. I wonder how much of that had to do with Suey Park being on the other side, though.
posted by imnotasquirrel at 10:01 AM on July 18 [1 favorite]


What bothers me is the tone-deaf response that dismissive of the concerns in their entirety. This sort of production really does need to have explicit discussion of the racial context.

A-tarantara-MEN. You need to have this discussion in depth while you're choosing the show, have it again at the first production meeting and first rehearsal, decide how you're going to handle it, and be thoroughly prepared to diplomatically discuss any criticism.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 10:03 AM on July 18 [1 favorite]


koeselitz: “Librettist Gilbert based his depiction of Japan not on knowledge but on popular contemporary stereotypes of the late 1800's.”

This is... not strictly true. Gilbert actually seems to have known more than the average British person of the time about Japanese culture. He appears to have done some research. But The Mikado was not based on that research, because the whole point of The Mikado was to make fun of the popular contemporary stereotypes of the late 1800's.

So, by your own admission Gilbert based his depiction of Japan not on his knowledge of actual Japan, but on popular contemporary stereotypes of the late 1800's which he made fun of.

That is... strictly true, then.
posted by IAmBroom at 10:05 AM on July 18




Well, yeah, IAmBroom. Sorry, zarq. I just wanted to get across that it wasn't based on a complete ignorance of Japanese society, and that in fact the intention of the original Mikado was not to express racism but lampoon racism.
posted by koeselitz at 10:07 AM on July 18 [2 favorites]


LOL, one of my favorite Mikado productions was in Yiddish at a Jewish retirement home. Many of the performers were Holocaust survivors. Dunno if it was meta, or they just enjoyed an unusually absurd spiel.
posted by Dreidl at 10:09 AM on July 18 [6 favorites]


There's a middle-ground and that we simply can't jettison everything that's been tainted by racism because that would mean annihilating culture as we know it.

I agree with this, but it is also important to realize that Lovecraft is a fixed thing -- his stories have already been written, and should be presented as written -- while theater is a living thing. There are already great representations of The Mikado that have been recorded, and when it is done now, we need to ask what it means nowadays, what we have to say about it that is different than the previous productions, that contributes a new undertanding. Theater isn't a waxworks show acted out with live actors intended to perfectly recreate a production from a hundred years ago. It is an opportunity to constantly revisit the past through the lens of the present.

It's the question that we are faced with whenever we look at old plays, and the truth is some do not benefit from contemporary productions -- we don't often see productions of The Jew of Malta -- while some have a great flexibility of interpretive choice built into them, or that the play is still so significant to contemporary audiences that we do it despite the racism, but understanding that it must be addressed (Merchant of Venice is one or the other, and I alternate between which I think it is.)

If this production is actually addressing the racism embedded in the original piece, or the possibility of racism, they are doing just the absolute worst job of it, and saying things like "Well, the author would have known we thought about that is she had only asked" means they did not find it necessary to communicate that. Additionally, their ongoing confusion about yellowface and comments like "nobody has complained" hints that they really didn't thinki about it as hard as they should have, and I am sorry if they are getting angry phone calls, but this should be treated as instructive, rather than unfair.
posted by maxsparber at 10:09 AM on July 18 [6 favorites]


Makes me want to see it again.

I have always viewed The Mikado as a product of it's times and, as such, as a period piece.

Oh look, I can see again right now.

posted by Gwynarra at 10:10 AM on July 18 [1 favorite]


Jeff Yang's piece at CNN has a good discussion of what it means to be a Gilbert and Sullivan fan and an Asian.
posted by dannyboybell at 10:10 AM on July 18 [4 favorites]


I like Lovecraft's stories while being all-too aware of the undeniable racism

Right. And at least with Lovecraft, for all but a very few stories, the racism is not even remotely as central as it is to The Mikado. It's easier to "eat around" the racism, and a new "production" of Yog-Sothothery is under no obligation whatsoever to include a single bit of it. Of course, reprint the original stories as-is, but if you're making an adaptation, or if you're writing a new piece within that Mythos, then we're free to be as non-racist as we'd like.

It doesn't matter that Lovecraft was himself quite racist, whereas G&S had satirical intent. That's not the point.

...

I wonder it would be like to tweak The Mikado so that it took place in a Grand Duchy of Fenwick sort of place, with all-new visual tropes. Or in an "Amercia" sort of parody. Or even a place like Jan Morris' Hav.
posted by Sticherbeast at 10:11 AM on July 18 [2 favorites]


Or in an "Amercia" sort of parody.

About that. Still with unconfortable racial stereotypes.
posted by sukeban at 10:15 AM on July 18


I wonder how 22nd century audiences will remake Tropic Thunder.
posted by Apocryphon at 10:20 AM on July 18 [1 favorite]


koeselitz: "Well, yeah, IAmBroom. Sorry, zarq. I just wanted to get across that it wasn't based on a complete ignorance of Japanese society, and that in fact the intention of the original Mikado was not to express racism but lampoon racism."

No, it's perfectly okay. I'm glad you clarified. I understood and knew the point you were making. Should have been clearer in my original comment. :)
posted by zarq at 10:21 AM on July 18


I think the compromise should be an all-Asian production of The Mikado satirizing 19th century white people pretending to be Shogunate Era Japanese.

Hm, judging by the Jeff Yang piece, looks like that has already been done before, in mockumentary form.

But when it is performed by an all-white troupe of actors dressed and made up as Asians, it shifts from a brilliant comedy of manners to, as Asian-American actress and blogger Erin Quill says, a "racist piece of crap."

Quill, a musical theater veteran and original cast member of the bawdy Off-Broadway hit "Avenue Q," is actually quoting herself. That's the first line spoken by Cheryl, the character she plays in the indie film "The Mikado Project," a mockumentary that follows an Asian-American theater troupe forced to put on a production of "The Mikado" in order to stave off bankruptcy.

"In the movie, the artistic director makes a desperate attempt to convince us that it won't look like yellowface, because underneath the costumes and makeup, it's Asians playing Asians -- or at least the Asians white people think we are," says Quill, who also co-wrote the screenplay. "Obviously, the company is not down for it."

By demonstrating that Asians can't present a "traditional" version of the show without looking and feeling ridiculous, the film aptly exposes the uncomfortable racial reality behind operetta's fanciful farce. But it then goes on to show how little it takes to make a version of "The Mikado" that isn't offensive: A commitment to multiethnic casting and an end to the use of makeup to ape "exotic" Asian features.

This is getting all too meta.
posted by Apocryphon at 10:23 AM on July 18


This is the best version of The Mikado I've ever seen. Set in a cricket club and rewritten to match, it was truly funny and the satire was 100% up to date in proper G&S style. It stands a skilful reinvention very well.
posted by ewok and chips at 10:24 AM on July 18 [2 favorites]


I love the Mikado so I would hate to see it stop being performed. Couldn't they just make it not Japanese? Steampunk Victorian Mikado would be cool.

That's a question that I've never heard a good answer for. If the play is meant to satirize white people's views of Asian people in the 1800's, how does the play suffer by changing the parts that no longer read as satire of white people to modern audiences? I'm not talking about rewriting the whole thing, just names and costumes, basically.
posted by 23skidoo at 10:24 AM on July 18


No surprise the immediate retreat to the redoubt of white privilege.
The Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society's response is obnoxious, especially the fallacious comparison to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
We live here, now, in the 21st century. We know better, or should - and at once.
There is no defense for this production except an institution which cannot disintegrate too quickly.
posted by Pudhoho at 10:30 AM on July 18 [1 favorite]


Pudhoho, you don't feel that satirizing (properly contextualized, mind you) white peoples' stereotyping of PoC is a necessary thing?
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 10:34 AM on July 18


That's a question that I've never heard a good answer for. If the play is meant to satirize white people's views of Asian people in the 1800's, how does the play suffer by changing the parts that no longer read as satire of white people to modern audiences? I'm not talking about rewriting the whole thing, just names and costumes, basically.

You'd have to do more than change the names and costumes; the director did a lot of cutting and rewriting in the production I recently helped costume, and a lot of references to Japan still remained. The opening chorus does go, "If you want to know who we are, we are gentlemen of Japan," after all. But it would be a really interesting exercise, and it's one I may try myself when I have the time.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 10:38 AM on July 18 [1 favorite]


If the play is meant to satirize white people's views of Asian people in the 1800's, how does the play suffer by changing the parts that no longer read as satire of white people to modern audiences?

Relatedly, outside of a critical/historical context, I only ever really hear about G&S's satirical intent when people are explaining why The Mikado shouldn't be seen as offensive. I would wager that people primarily stage The Mikado because it is in all other respects a high water mark of light opera. The Mikado does not exactly rank highly as a means to fight racism. Even modern stagings with new, putatively antiracist elements are never one one-hundredth as effective as they might wish to be, on that score.

That's why I was suggesting Grand Duchy of Fenwick or Amercia style productions. What happens when you just abandon the idea of even trying to satirically present racist stereotypes? Changing the setting to a generically "white" La La Land - or to a setting comprising stereotypes of majority culture - would confront the audience with what the show is like when it is drained of even satirically-intended Orientalism.
posted by Sticherbeast at 10:41 AM on July 18 [2 favorites]


I don't know that I really believe it is meant to satirize 19th century views of Asia. I think it is meant to be set in a fantastical kingdom, with ridiculous hierarchies and overly harsh arbitrary laws which everyone spends all of their time trying to avoid. In doing so it satirizes 19th century Britain using orientalism.

So I don't see why it can't be set in any equally fantastic over the top hierarchical setting. Steampunk, the Hapsburg Empire, Byzantium, the Wizard of Oz. They'd all work.

I've seen that production with Eric Idle and I don't think those costumes work because a beach resort (even an Edwardian English beach resort) isn't hierarchical enough.
posted by interplanetjanet at 10:44 AM on July 18 [1 favorite]


I'm sort of confused. Isn't this supposed to be mocking white people? As an Asian, the pictures I'm seeing there aren't offensive, because it's not about Asians, it's about white people making a fad of mimicking what they see (in their strange view) as other cultures. It'd be different if someone attempted to remake The Good Earth and still tried to cast a white man as the main character, a Chinese farmer.

And a historical question: was whitening your face seen as a female thing back then? Or maybe that's what the British apparently remembered? Because it was definitely something that the moneyed class of both genders did in Japan.
posted by halifix at 10:49 AM on July 18 [5 favorites]


I love The Mikado. With the possible exception of HMS Pinafore, it is Gilbert & Sullivan's best work. I also love Topsy-Turvy, Mike Leigh's film about the original production. I would someday even like to see a complete version of the production in which Groucho Marx performed as Ko-Ko.

That being said, it is still kind of racist. You could argue that it is really a musical about early Victorian encounters with Japanese people, or that the make-up worn by the original actors was based on kabuki make-up, but there are still heavily orientalized components to the play. Even taking its original context into account, a straight version comes across as extremely tone-deaf today (although not nearly as much as the 1939 D'Oyly Carte film version, which somehow manages to be extra racist).

At this point (other than a possible future viewing of the Groucho version) the only production I will watch is the Eric Idle production.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 10:52 AM on July 18 [2 favorites]


>Pudhoho, you don't feel that satirizing (properly contextualized, mind you) white peoples' stereotyping of PoC is a necessary thing?

Let's set the scene of that production:

An all white audience sits waiting while white actors filter out on stage ready to put on an excellent satire of other white people in the name of egalitarianism.

A lone Japanese immigrant enters. He sees a mish-mash of people wearing costumes that could not possibly be accurate, historical representations of the Edo Period strutting around on stage, mawkishly. He sees an all white audience guffawing at the spectacle on the stage. He stumbles a little, because the play has started and the lights have fallen.

He cries out, all of sudden, a piercing shriek. He is immediately mobbed, pushed aside, torn asunder, rended into nothing. After all, he knows not of the important historical context from which this play originates. A satire, a mocking one, of British gentry in the 18th century! How could he not have known? What a fool! The geishas shriek with laughter, the chopsticks in their hair bobbing, the actor wearing pretty much the getup of a Qing Dynasty court eunuch bellows with laughter.


The camera pans out. It does one of those weird, 3-D post processing turns and it faces you, watching this, and considers the details etched on your face. What emotion is conveyed by a pale, furrowed brow? Quivering blue eyes? By pale, blonde hairs that rise and fall with every breath? Oh, serendipitous grace! How I long to only reach out to you, the most precious vessel of all, the only audience that matters, you white person, you.

End
posted by saucy_knave at 10:52 AM on July 18 [6 favorites]


The Mikado does not exactly rank highly as a means to fight racism.

Ruddigore didn't stop anyone from reading Gothic novels, Patience didn't stop anyone from reading poetry or worshipping celebrities, and lawsuits have been lost and won in both courts of law and public opinion ever since the first run of Trial by Jury.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 10:53 AM on July 18 [2 favorites]


I don't think those costumes work because a beach resort (even an Edwardian English beach resort) isn't hierarchical enough


It is when you include servants.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 10:53 AM on July 18 [1 favorite]


saucy_knave, that's not what I meant about contextualizing, and you probably know it.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 10:55 AM on July 18


You have a point about the servants. Perhaps it should be set at Club Med.
posted by interplanetjanet at 10:56 AM on July 18


I'm gonna kiss the third rail and say it:

The Mikado is not racist.

It's a play written to mock Victorian British mores, where the setting uses Japanese costumes, Japanese stage decor, and nothing else Japanese. Except for the Mikado himself, all the character names are British nursery talk, and all the stage directions are references to Victorian British society.

Even the choice of using Japanese Esthetics is mocked in an earlier play, Patience:

Still, there is a cobwebby gray velvet,
with a tender bloom like cold gravy, which, made Florentine
fourteenth century, trimmed with Venetian leather and Spanish
altar lace, and surmounted with something Japanese it matters
not what would at least be Early English !


And yellow facepaint? Huh? Where?
posted by ocschwar at 11:03 AM on July 18 [4 favorites]


And yellow facepaint? Huh? Where?

This has been discussed at length upthread. It was more a figure of speech than a direct indictment.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 11:04 AM on July 18 [1 favorite]


The yellow facepaint is the strawiest of mens.
posted by elizardbits at 11:05 AM on July 18 [5 favorites]


I mean, the argument that there was no actual yellow colored paint on faces is the shitty strawman argument, not the concept of yellowface itself.
posted by elizardbits at 11:06 AM on July 18 [1 favorite]


Yellowface does not mean putting yellow paint on your face. Go read up on what it means it you literally do not understand the term. If you don't know that much, you can't expect people to take anything you have to say seriously.
posted by 23skidoo at 11:06 AM on July 18 [2 favorites]


feckless fecal fear mongering, my point is mostly that whatever context you push in there, you're still going to end up with a play featuring white actors written for a predominantly white audience about the behaviors created and perpetuated by the institutional elite. I'm not sure how this isn't just navel gazing. There has to be less unwieldy ways of going about satirizing racism like maybe forgetting The Mikado as anything but a script that can be read for study, context, and craft and working to create other, entirely new productions featuring minority actors of all kinds of gender/race/etc. It's the same principle difference between thinking you're egalitarian and actually being part of the change that you want to see, right?
posted by saucy_knave at 11:09 AM on July 18




where the setting uses Japanese costumes, Japanese stage decor, and nothing else Japanese

In other words, a caricature of Japan is used to convey the idea of otherness in a play that doesn't otherwise discuss or understand Japan.

That's not really a defense, so much as the crux of the problem.
posted by evidenceofabsence at 11:18 AM on July 18 [1 favorite]


I don't think it's the same principle at all, actually.

And throwing out art because it's problematic in the modern context means throwing out an astonishing amount of human history. Merchant of Venice was mentioned above, for example. For most of human history a lot--most, probably--of art has been racist/sexist/homophobic/etc. "Those who forget history" etc.

Like I said, properly contextualize the play--program notes, introduction, Q&A, whatever--by discussing it in terms of when and why it was written. Teach the audience, preferably before the curtain goes up, the context in which the play was written; hopefully the white members of the audience will then view the play in that context, and understand that the mockery is not of Japanese people at all, but of the racist caricatures that the privileged used to take for granted (and some still do), and explicitly showing why they are so very, very stupid.

It would be even more educational to mount the production, with that context, as a double bill with, say, an actual Kabuki piece performed by actual Kabuki actors (or Noh) from Japan. Or one of Mishima's movies, perhaps. Show up the stupid racist caricatures for what they are by contrasting them with actual Japanese art.

I dunno, like I said: failure to properly contextualize a play is laziness on the director's part (or possibly racist, consciously or not. Or ignorant of context and history). As someone else said above, the conversation about contextualization is one you need to have at the very first production meeting, and continually throughout the pre-production, rehearsal, and performance of the piece.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 11:22 AM on July 18 [2 favorites]


(I should note that obviously Japan has all sorts of live art performances to draw on, from ultra-traditional to postmodern. But Mikado as usually staged seems to borrow Kabuki tropes, which is why I leaned more towards traditional forms.)
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 11:26 AM on July 18


For what it's worth, contemporary viewers aren't the only ones to find the play problematic or offensive. From the NYT article linked by Bwithh:
But Japanese visitors who attended the opening run in London's Savoy Theater in 1885 sent letters home giving the production thumbs down.

In the fall of 1887, when a traveling theater group docked in Yokohama, the British ambassador promptly intercepted them. He insisted that they perform only before foreigners and that they rename the play ''Three Little Maids From School.'' The word ''mikado'' is an old Japanese term for the emperor. It means ''honorable gate,'' and was used as a way to refer indirectly, and thus respectfully, to the emperor.
posted by evidenceofabsence at 11:31 AM on July 18 [2 favorites]


And a historical question: was whitening your face seen as a female thing back then? Or maybe that's what the British apparently remembered? Because it was definitely something that the moneyed class of both genders did in Japan.

It was an aristocratic thing rather than a moneyed thing, but up to the Meiji era (*) ladies also shaved their eyebrows (okimayu) and painted them in the middle of the forehead, and married women tinted their teeth black (o-haguro). Even today, some geisha who want to celebrate their graduation from maiko (erikae) in a *traditional* way tint their teeth black. As for the hairstyles, there were many types of nihongami like Shimada (pic one, pic two) but they tend to look strange to Western people. Curiously, the Gibson Girl updo coincided with the nearly identical sokuhatsu style in the 1900s.

It's always fun to compare pictures of geisha (see three little maiko from school) with Hollywood portrayals of geisha. IIRC they toned it down deliberately for Memories of a Geisha because the real thing would disturb American audiences.


(*) Empress Shouken (the wife of Emperor Meiji) adopted Western dress and makeup to appear more civilised to the eyes of Western diplomats. She also wrote a rescript to the women of Japan saying that Western dress looked more like the ancient traditional costume of Yamato/ the Yayoi culture and so was more Japanese than the Chinese-derived kimono.
posted by sukeban at 11:32 AM on July 18 [9 favorites]


And a historical question: was whitening your face seen as a female thing back then? Or maybe that's what the British apparently remembered? Because it was definitely something that the moneyed class of both genders did in Japan.

Mike Leigh's portrayal of the original staging of Mikado in Topsy Turvy has both men & women in similar stage makeup
posted by Bwithh at 11:36 AM on July 18


So basically put on the play as if it were a 300-level college course discussion on racial politics in theater and expect an audience of hundreds to study the billfold enough to understand the nuances of the themes or to know enough about 18th century British culture, Gilbert & Sullivan, satirical construction, and the history of Kabuki theater as it relates to and represents elements of Japanese aristocratic culture in exaggeration?

I didn't say to throw the play away. I said that the above expectation is impossible so showings of it are problematic. The idea here being that the play should remain in a setting where you know it can be given the proper context (ie anything but a script that can be read for study, context, and craft), not out and about in the world operating under the supreme good faith that everybody has a working knowledge of all of the complexities listed above.
posted by saucy_knave at 11:36 AM on July 18 [5 favorites]


I have been to performances (admittedly not Mikado) where that exact approach has been taken; for example the National Ballet does this at the beginning-of-season performances for top tier donors (not general public). The AD or choreographer will give a 20-30 minute lecture beforehand contextualizing the pieces to be seen.

So, yeah, I totally think it is possible to do that.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 11:40 AM on July 18 [2 favorites]


If every there was an audience with a deep craving for attending events that make them feel like they can be a spartypants, it is the theatergoing audience. I've literally built my career in theater on this fact.
posted by maxsparber at 11:44 AM on July 18 [3 favorites]


Cool, didn't know that. Is this kind of behavior popular with theater production companies?
posted by saucy_knave at 11:47 AM on July 18


not out and about in the world operating under the supreme good faith that everybody has a working knowledge of all of the complexities listed above.

I missed this bit. Since I never said anything even remotely approaching that, I'm not sure why you're saying it. I've said repeatedly this show is problematic and needs to be properly contextualized.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 11:47 AM on July 18


You're more likely to find it in smaller companies, in my experience.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 11:48 AM on July 18


Like, in Toronto, I've seen this approach taken at Factory Theatre and Passe Muraille--both of which are small, but relatively professional, theatres. I'd be surprised to see it happen at e.g. Princess of Wales, which is a huge corporate theatre doing things like Mamma Mia etc.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 11:53 AM on July 18


So major productions that might be problematic are still just going to be problematic. How hard would it be to make context provision a common practice in the industry? Is there a movement towards this? Or is this one of those 'well, cuz capitalism' sorts of things.
posted by saucy_knave at 11:55 AM on July 18


I could swear that the booklet they give you at shows contained contextualization when I went to see the Seattle production more than a decade ago.
posted by tychotesla at 11:59 AM on July 18



For what it's worth, contemporary viewers aren't the only ones to find the play problematic or offensive. From the NYT article linked by Bwithh:



Wikipedia (with citations) says that 2 Japanese princes who saw the production - one in 1886 , the other in 1907 - were OK with it. (It might be that they felt more comfortable as contemporary Japanese viewers because they were in the Imperial family rather than outside of it....)
posted by Bwithh at 12:00 PM on July 18


Obvious analogy but would a similar conceit using a different ethnic backdrop as a vehicle for lampooning the British aristocracy be considered acceptable? I somehow doubt it.
posted by ChuckRamone at 12:11 PM on July 18


Obvious analogy but would a similar conceit using a different ethnic backdrop as a vehicle for lampooning the British aristocracy be considered acceptable? I somehow doubt it.

Utopia Limited. Set in Polynesia.
posted by ocschwar at 12:12 PM on July 18


So major productions that might be problematic are still just going to be problematic. How hard would it be to make context provision a common practice in the industry? Is there a movement towards this?

I'm not really sure that many major shows (at least in North America, where by 'major' I mean Broadway-equivalent) contain problematic content anymore. I remember a big furfurrah when Showboat was mounted as (if memory serves*) the inaugural production in the mainspace at NYPAC (now Toronto Centre for the Arts) back in the early nineties. Lots of parents were unhappy that kids from the high school down the street (which I attended) were going to go see it on class trips. But in that case it was contextualized in class for us.

I'm not in the theatre world (but my best friend is), and I'm not aware of any current major productions that are problematic in the same way Mikado is--I would imagine that's actually 'cuz capitalism'--big companies don't want to be seen to be doing offensive shows. Smaller companies have the luxury of (usually) a more smartypants audience who are tending to see more cerebral or conceptual shows, and more receptive to something that can be/should be perceived as offensive being put in the correct context as an integral part of the performance. So I think capitalism is actually working for you in this situation, because offensive shows don't make money--inoffensive shows make gobs of it (relatively speaking), because everyone's seen Cats or Wicked or whatever. (And yet, somehow, the same doesn't hold true for movies; those that hold up ridiculous racial or sexist stereotypes and tropes make gobs of money.)

This isn't including e.g. Stratford productions of Merchant, which is problematic for obvious reasons, but I guess Shakespeare gets a pass because he can't even remotely be counted as being in the modern(ish) era, so of course his plays were products of their time?


*Sunset Boulevard may have been the inaugural production, and Showboat after. Either way we went to see Showboat.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 12:17 PM on July 18


I wonder it would be like to tweak The Mikado so that it took place in a Grand Duchy of Fenwick sort of place

My (rejected) proposal for the recent production set it in a European country in the 18th century, where a thoroughly mad monarch developed sunstroke on a trip to the Far East and woke up thinking he was the Emperor of Japan. He had a model village like le Petit Trianon at Versailles (where Marie Antoinette and her ladies would pretend to be shepherdesses) built, and all his courtiers carried on their intrigue behind his back while simultaneously fearing and humoring him. Some added lines would openly state the original subtext: We don’t know very much about the real Japan, but we’re in kind of a situation here so we’re going with it. Dress would have be 18th-century European, with Asian-inspired touches hastily added on.

Playing on the antique use of “school for young ladies” as slang for “house of ill repute,” the three little maids and ladies’ chorus would have been courtesans. I thought it worked well with Yum-Yum’s ambition, and created a further source of tension in the triangle between her, Ko-Ko, and Nanki-Poo. Plus, so much of the innocence of “Comes a train of little ladies” seems feigned, especially when contrasted with the rambunctiousness that follows in “Three Little Maids from School” and “So please You Sir, We Much Regret, and when done with a cast of varying ages, that I thought it would be fun to do it with a huge wink-wink.

The committee thought it was too highbrow, and that it would be too hard for the audience to follow. They wanted to move in the direction of stripping away rather than adding, and I have to admit that the final product of the director and concept they went with was good.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 12:20 PM on July 18 [3 favorites]


Damn, I would have loved to have seen your production though.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 12:22 PM on July 18 [2 favorites]


Also- I've said it before, but I have a secret desire to perform Katisha in drag.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 12:24 PM on July 18 [2 favorites]


(Also Underpants, if you haven't seen it, Ruling Classes starring Peter O'Toole touches a bit on similar themes; some of how it treats mental illness is problematic but is was a product of its time.)
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 12:28 PM on July 18 [1 favorite]


It's pretty funny though that the response basically amounts to you don't know what the hell you're talking about, ignoramus, so just be quiet and bask in the knowledge I am about to shine on you. That'll teach you to complain.
posted by ChuckRamone at 12:29 PM on July 18


Wait, I'm not getting the part where Chan doesn't get what the play is about. She clearly says, "Written in the late 19th century, librettist W.S. Gilbert wanted to poke fun at Victorian society in England by setting it in a place nobody knew anything about."
posted by ChuckRamone at 12:36 PM on July 18


Wait, I'm not getting the part where Chan doesn't get what the play is about. She clearly says, "Written in the late 19th century, librettist W.S. Gilbert wanted to poke fun at Victorian society in England by setting it in a place nobody knew anything about."

That's a very good point, but besides the fact that the one sentence is so poorly constructed that it sounds as if W.S. Gilbert himself was written in the late 19th century, it does kind of get buried amongst all the other things she says along different lines. So while you're correct, it is easy to miss.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 12:44 PM on July 18 [2 favorites]


Okay, you can poo poo and peeve about the dangling modifier but it's obvious she understands. People love G&S so much they want any complainers to just disappear. You can hear it in the contempt and arrogance of their responses to Chan's article.
posted by ChuckRamone at 12:49 PM on July 18 [8 favorites]


I love Topsy Turvy too. I wish he'd filmed the whole thing with that cast while he had them and the costumes and the sets available.
posted by Grangousier at 1:03 PM on July 18 [2 favorites]


Okay, you can poo poo and peeve about the dangling modifier but it's obvious she understands. People love G&S so much they want any complainers to just disappear. You can hear it in the contempt and arrogance of their responses to Chan's article.

I wasn't trying to invalidate her complaint; I was saying that one sentence was easy to lose.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 1:11 PM on July 18


And yes, once you sit down and parse it you know what she's saying, but it doesn't instantly register at first glance (the way I read, anyway; can't speak for everybody) the way it would have if she'd mentioned the play in the sentence.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 1:14 PM on July 18


So, wait—are the characters supposed to be Japanese, or are they supposed to be Britons who are (clumsily, racistly) impersonating or imitating Japanese people? Because it sounds like the latter—and that's not yellowface, at least not in the usual sense of the term.

Yellowface would be white actors portraying Japanese characters. But (if I'm understanding this correctly) this is white actors portraying British characters who (clumsily, racistly) imitate Japanese people. The characters are doing yellowface ("cultural appropriation" might be a more accurate term), but the actors are not. Of course the actors are white, because so are the characters. I mean, if you have a play that needs to depict an Al Jolson type performing in blackface, you wouldn't cast a black actor for that role.

And, yeah, I think the distinction matters. Straight-up yellowface is white creators commenting on Japanese people; the situation in The Mikado is white creators commenting on other white people who clumsily ape Asian people. The modern analogue might be a movie that parodies white New Agers who immerse themselves in a superficial caricature of Indian/Asian culture.

This isn't to say that there aren't other problems with the play—I haven't seen it, so I don't know. But most people understand yellowface to be, by definition, something that happens in casting—both because of the analogy with "blackface", and because most of the public usage of the term has concerned white actors portraying Asian characters. Since there is no casting issue here, we're not talking about yellowface.

I totally agree with feckless fecal fear mongering. If you're going to stage something like this in 2014, you definitely need to give the audience the context. And I don't think that's an impossible thing to do, even for a more general audience.
posted by escape from the potato planet at 1:18 PM on July 18 [1 favorite]


(*) Empress Shouken (the wife of Emperor Meiji) adopted Western dress and makeup to appear more civilised to the eyes of Western diplomats. She also wrote a rescript to the women of Japan saying that Western dress looked more like the ancient traditional costume of Yamato/ the Yayoi culture and so was more Japanese than the Chinese-derived kimono

Very interesting, I didn't know that. Was Empress Shouken's contention here accurate?
posted by spaltavian at 1:28 PM on July 18


They are supposed to be Japanese. Not realistic Japanese, but Japanese none the less. Gilbert & Sullivan operettas are all set in an unrealistic fantasy version of whatever the setting is. HMS Pinafore is not a realistic presentation of the Victorian British Navy. And pirates didn't really dance around Penzance. But since the Mikado is set in Japan you get the problem of racism that you don't in the other settings.
posted by interplanetjanet at 1:31 PM on July 18 [2 favorites]


So, wait—are the characters supposed to be Japanese, or are they supposed to be Britons who are (clumsily, racistly) impersonating or imitating Japanese people? Because it sounds like the latter—and that's not yellowface, at least not in the usual sense of the term.


I think you're complicating the issue. Blackface or yellowface or redface, etc. are just when someone of one race portrays a person of another race. It doesn't matter what the intent is or how it's done. The problem with it is mostly one of reducing a race to its difference from others, emphasizing physical features or behaviors that set it apart. The makeup doesn't have to literally be yellow and the actor doesn't have to be depicting them in a horrendously offensive way. It's also a problem of representation - who's playing whom? - which was addressed.

Chan's complaint is not rooted in ignorance of the play's meaning, as her detractors would like it to be. Her beef is basically "does the end justify the means?" Do we need a send-up of Victorians via Japanese caricatures? Not really badly. As anachronistic as the play's satire is now, the main reason for its continued staging is the entertainment value it offers. It's beloved for its rich costumes, clever language and thrilling music.
posted by ChuckRamone at 1:33 PM on July 18 [5 favorites]


Very interesting, I didn't know that. Was Empress Shouken's contention here accurate?

Sort of. Yayoi women dressed with fitted trousers or skirt and a kind of tunic instead of the wraparound Chinese style clothes that came later.
posted by sukeban at 1:39 PM on July 18 [1 favorite]


It doesn't matter what the intent is or how it's done.

Of course it does. Or would you argue that Al Jolson and his ilk should never be portrayed in the dramatic arts, regardless of how the character is handled and presented? If so, do you also believe that characters who are racist in other ways—e.g., Nazis—should never be portrayed in the dramatic arts? If not, what makes the difference for you?

At any rate, if interplanetjanet is correct—and the characters are, in fact, supposed to be Japanese—then my entire point is irrelevant to this conversation and I retract it, and this play is racist crap that should go away. That reading of the characters seems to contradict what a lot of people with firsthand knowledge of the play have said, though.
posted by escape from the potato planet at 1:44 PM on July 18


(Little derail here. Lovecraft changed his views on race about halfway through his life and spoke out against racism from there on. He was a complicated and deeply messed up bird.)

The problem with this whole tempest is the ham-handedness. A bunch of white people telling an intelligent, asian journalist with a genuine bone to pick that "we've never had any complaints" and "It's a parody of racism" is so unbelievably condescending that it's shocking. I like Dave Ross, but I think he's approaching this the exact wrong way.

I mean, if the production staff had just said "Well, the overwhelming historical evidence is that this was a parody of Victorian racism, but let's talk about how we can make that more obvious", than this whole discussion would have taken a very different tone.

The "as black person" argument is also a non-starter. Imagine how she'd feel if a Latino was trying to tell her that the Amos N Andy show was actually a complicated indictment of racism? Not good, I suspect.

I've heard some pretty good arguments for still staging the show here, but if you are pretending that there's not a valid other side, you're really not thinking.
posted by lumpenprole at 1:49 PM on July 18 [10 favorites]


I like Dave Ross, but I think he's approaching this the exact wrong way.

You are aware that Dave Ross is employed by the same broadcast apparatus that airs Rush Limbaugh and his local brain-brothers.

KIRO is just a beard for this shitbird.

They're all cut from the same cloth.
posted by Pudhoho at 2:04 PM on July 18


> Go! Enjoy the production! It's got some of G&S's best songs in it, and it's a truly entertaining show.

The best of G&S is very good indeed, and The Mikado is their greatest hit. There isn't a bad song in it, and "Brightly dawns our wedding day" (aka the Merry Madrigal) doesn't have to apologize to Bach or Mozart or anybody. It is wonderful. The whole show is entirely good enough to shelter under what Faulkner said about writing--"If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the Ode on a Grecian Urn is worth any number of old ladies. " The Mikado is worth any amount of outrage.

> if interplanetjanet is correct—and the characters are, in fact, supposed to be Japanese

They are supposed to be Japanese fully as much as Naruto Uzumaki is supposed to be Japanese.

> I think you're complicating the issue. Blackface or yellowface or redface, etc. are just when someone of one race
> portrays a person of another race.

How about Nō masks? Because I would love to see this entire debete carried on by people in angry Nō masks.
posted by jfuller at 2:07 PM on July 18 [2 favorites]


They are supposed to be Japanese. Not realistic Japanese, but Japanese none the less.

Just like Borat is supposed to be Kazakh. Not realistic Kazakh, but Kazakh none the less.

I did not see many PoC manning the barricades over that production, IIRC.
posted by bashos_frog at 2:11 PM on July 18 [1 favorite]


They are supposed to be Japanese.

I think it might be more accurate to say that they are supposed to be "Japanese." That is, no one who watches the show is supposed to think "yes, this is what Japanese people in the real world are like" or even "this is an exaggerated version of what Japanese people in the real world are like."
posted by yoink at 2:11 PM on July 18


I did not see many PoC manning the barricades over that production, IIRC.


The Kazakhs were pretty pissed about it.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 2:15 PM on July 18 [5 favorites]


Borat got a bunch of flak from Kazakhs and from Romani activists.
posted by Sticherbeast at 2:17 PM on July 18 [4 favorites]


They are supposed to be Japanese fully as much as Naruto Uzumaki is supposed to be Japanese.

Mukokuseki is a very different kettle of fish. Naruto is blonde (*) and his mum has tomato-red hair, Sakura has naturally pale pink hair and Kakashi has had white hair from birth despite not being albino. Killer Bee has very dark skin and pale straight hair (and he raps while he fights, but then he changes to enka). Anime coloring does not always correlate with real-world racial categories.

(*) Naruto is design-wise blonde because he hosts a fox spirit and foxes are depicted as orangey-yellow in Japan. The orange anorak, besides the call back to foxes, was a nod to Goku from Dragonball.
posted by sukeban at 2:20 PM on July 18 [1 favorite]


Yes, but a great diversity of people understood the idea of satire, and who was being satirized, and defended the film. Whereas here and with the Colbert incident, those same people seem to be determinedly ignorant of that context/intention.
posted by bashos_frog at 2:21 PM on July 18


I do believe if Borat had been Borataka from Japan, the cries of racism would've been deafening. This is not because it would actually be more racist, but only because in the 21st century US, Japan is no longer a good stand-in for "distant culture of which we are ignorant".
posted by bashos_frog at 2:25 PM on July 18


So, wait—are the characters supposed to be Japanese, or are they supposed to be Britons who are (clumsily, racistly) impersonating or imitating Japanese people? Because it sounds like the latter—and that's not yellowface, at least not in the usual sense of the term.

Neither - in the original, it's meant to be a fictional silly fantasy land that riffs on the fashionable Western fascination with Japanese culture at the time. It's explicitly not meant to portray real Japan nor Britons being fake Japanese (like the fake pirates that were at the centre of Pirates of Penzance). It's a satire of British society set in a safe fantasy space, and that's the original audience was meant to understandable enjoy it.
posted by Bwithh at 2:46 PM on July 18 [3 favorites]


Thanks, Bwithh—that's the most sensible explanation I've seen for what's actually going on in this text, and it really helps connect the dots.

That's, yeah...that's veering into some uncomfortable territory there. Even if the fictional culture in the play is explicitly not-Japan, even if the authors' intent wasn't to demean Japanese people—the fictional culture was clearly inspired by Japan, in an era when Western understanding of Japanese culture was poor and riddled with prejudices, and you still have a cast full of white actors portraying people from not-Japan (which is not substantively different from white actors portraying people from actual-Japan).

Now, that doesn't take the whole Victorian Orientalism thing into account. It seems to be agreed that this play was, in some way and to some degree, a reaction to that phenomenon. But disentangling that from the rest of it is tricky to say the least. It may be that modern audiences really can't grok the full historical context of this play, at least not without some pretty heavy preparatory reading.

Maybe the thing that matters is how audiences are approaching the play. Some will have a limited and non-scholarly awareness of the historical context, and might learn more about that context from seeing the show, and might be able to separate the squicky bits from rest well enough to derive some enjoyment from it too. (I'd probably be in this group.) A small handful will have sufficient background and interest to benefit from it primarily as a historical cultural artifact. Many, probably more than I want to know, will just say "haw haw lookit the funny Japanese, sorry I mean not-Japanese people".

In conclusion, shit's complicated, and you reaaally need to think carefully about how you frame and present a text like this. But I can definitely see how Japanese folks wouldn't be thrilled about this show, especially the part where you have a bunch of white people play-acting as ridiculous caricatures of Japanese (sorry, I mean not-Japanese) people.
posted by escape from the potato planet at 3:35 PM on July 18 [4 favorites]


A lot of G&S is a kind of metafiction - its setting is more the prejudices of its audience about the subject of the operetta as presented in the title than the reality of that subject. Gilbert often presented them with instantly assimilable and ostensibly glamourous high concepts, but then used those settings to comment on the world around him. So Pirates is set in stories about pirates (much like the Pirates of the Caribbean series is set in our expectations of what a series of films called Pirates of the Caribbean would be like more than anything that actually happened on the high seas); Ruddigore is set in the clichés of cheap gothic novels filtered through satire of late Victorian bourgeois morality; Pinafore plays with and mocks the mythology of the British Navy. And The Mikado is a satire of middle-class Victorian England filtered through an exoticised Japan. And why shouldn't a late Victorian gentleman exoticise Japan? It's difficult enough to get to now; in the 1880s it might as well have been another planet. The interesting thing is that Gilbert did actually do some research into actual Japanese culture (as he had actual Japanese people available), and got some things quite accurately. But the conflict, the cognitive dissonance on which a lot of the humour was based, came from the fact that he had recognisable Victorian bourgeois types in these exotic Other forms. It's the same joke that Monty Python based Holy Grail and Life of Brian on.

For example, the scene where Pitti Sing, Pooh Bah and Ko-Ko* try to convince The Mikado that they've executed Nanki-Pu is a recognisable parody of middle managers desperately trying to cover their arses after a giant cock-up in the presence of their CEO.

*It's interesting that a lot of the visual stuff is good, but Gilbert completely fails to get how Japanese names work.
posted by Grangousier at 3:48 PM on July 18 [5 favorites]


But can you really say it's set in an "exoticised Japan"?

This was done in an era when national costumes were a thing, when most people dressed in the fashion of their people, day in, day out, rather than buying trousers and t-shirts from K-mart.

Given that the play took nothing but costumes and stage decor from the Japanese, I'm not ready to say this is exoticization.
posted by ocschwar at 3:52 PM on July 18


Perhaps "exoticise" is the wrong word, sorry. I meant that it was completely other to him - it actually was exotic and fascinating - and that a lot of the humour comes from embedding the mundane in the other. It's Douglas Adams' basic joke as well, come to think of it. And early Terry Pratchett.

It's the traditional English gag.
posted by Grangousier at 3:57 PM on July 18 [2 favorites]


And there's no reason why one shouldn't put a third concept in there, as Jonathan Miller did with the ENO (Eric Idle) production, but it can muddy the direction a bit. There have been other versions of The Mikado - The Cool Mikado, The Black Mikado - as it's a pretty good universal story and it has tunes that still work after over a hundred years. It doesn't even matter who the Mikado is in realistic Japanese terms - he's the unassailable over-boss. We all recognise that.
posted by Grangousier at 4:03 PM on July 18


Hmm, there's a comment that got lost about how I saw Pacific Overtures last week, and that - no matter how much I love it, and I love the Original Cast Recording very deeply indeed - after you get away from the the original all-Asian Broadway version, there are too many cultural cringes to just do it straight.
posted by Grangousier at 4:06 PM on July 18


he's the unassailable over-boss. We all recognise that.

I learned that from watching Are You Being Served?
posted by ocschwar at 4:18 PM on July 18


*It's interesting that a lot of the visual stuff is good, but Gilbert completely fails to get how Japanese names work.
posted by Grangousier at 3:48 PM on July 18 [1 favorite −] Favorite added! [!]


They're not intended to be Japanese-style names - they're English nonsense words, possibly derived from existing slang or other references (Peep-Bo= Bo Peep? Yum-yum is obvious) . Pooh-Bah and Pish-Tush were used jointly for a character name in a ballad by Gilbert about a (again, fantasy and probably offensive by today's standards) African king almost 20 years before The Mikado opened.. Pish and tush (or tosh) are real UK English words meaning "nonsense" - "pish-posh"/"pish-tosh" or just tosh on its own. I used both in ordinary conversation when I was a kid in London before I had ever heard of G&S (it helped that I knew another kid with the surname Tosh, but the meaning came from elsewhere).

Nanki-Poo is interesting. adding "-Poo" is an old-fashioned English term of affectionate endearment. Perhaps Nanki is inspired by "Nankey", which is the origin of the term "Yankee", but was originally from a song critical about 17th century British republican/puritan revolutionary/dictator Oliver Cromwell's followers in the song "Nankey Doodle", which later became renamed (and remade as a positive song, I think) as "Yankee Doodle" for the American Revolution. "Nankey" was someone who rejected traditional British institutions and religious beliefs; in the 1600s song they are portrayed as dim-witted.
Nanki-Poo in The Mikado is of course rejecting the established order of things in a comical way....
posted by Bwithh at 4:19 PM on July 18 [4 favorites]


Bottom line, she wants to ban it.

To hell with her.
posted by IndigoJones at 4:25 PM on July 18




They're not intended to be Japanese-style names

Oh, absolutely! I was just struck by the things that he got out of Japanese culture - the costumes, for example, or the fan work - versus the areas where that authenticity didn't matter - it didn't even matter to him whether they sounded right or not. Perhaps it was because he'd had the opportunity to observe Japanese people but he didn't know any of them by name. I don't mean that as a criticism, it's just interesting to see what I perceive as blind spots. Late Victorian culture is as much an exotic other-place to us as Japan was to him. More so, possibly, as Gilbert could theoretically have gone to Japan, whereas we're never going to go to Late-Victorian England.
posted by Grangousier at 4:31 PM on July 18 [2 favorites]


From Sharon Chan's critical op-ed:
"Set in the fictional Japanese town of Titipu — get it?"

Chan wants the reader to think that "Titipu" has a sexual/obscene punning meaning but that would be very odd for a Victorian operetta and unacceptable to its respectable Victorian audiences as well as the government censors at the time.

While the citizens of Chichibu, Japan (see earlier 21st Century Japanese Mikado link) have their own quite compelling theory about the origins of "Titipu", to my ears, it sounds like the Britishism "Tickety-boo" meaning "satisfactory, correct" (probably derived from the Hindi for "It's alright sir") and is still widely understood today in Britain.
posted by Bwithh at 4:39 PM on July 18 [5 favorites]


I started off with the idea of making a list of popular operas that have elements that could reasonably be interpreted as racist: Turandot, Lakmé, Die Zauberflöte, La fanciulla del west... Forget it. There are way too many. Heck, my favorite role is a blackface part! It's not clear how to handle these things, because throwing away great art isn't the answer.
posted by slkinsey at 5:02 PM on July 18 [2 favorites]


They can take Madama Butterfly, I won't fight anybody for it. But Mikado? Cold dead fingers.
posted by jfuller at 5:12 PM on July 18 [4 favorites]


Bottom line, she wants to ban it.

Who? And where do they say this?
posted by maxsparber at 5:30 PM on July 18 [6 favorites]


They can do Madama Butterfly if it segues into a kaidan plot with the ghost of Cio-Cio-san haunting Pinkerton to death in the style of Oiwa. As it should.
posted by sukeban at 1:33 AM on July 19 [4 favorites]


sukeban: To add on with regards to Memoirs of a Geisha, that itself was problematic in how it combined experiences of the Geisha and the Oiran (courtesans) in order to bring the idea of Geisha more in line with the Western conception of them as prostitutes. Mineko Iwasaki, who shared a lot about her life with the author, later wrote Geisha, a Life in order to correct misconceptions that angered her greatly*. Both the Memoirs of a Geisha book and the movie bank on inaccuracies which were perpetrated originally by GIs after WW2, which were themselves racist.

Yellowface is distressingly common and tends to be unmarked - as it was recently on How I Met Your Mother. I don't think that "ironic racism" works in an era where plain old racism is often unmarked and unremarked upon.


*She also covered the period of time when the isolated life of the Geisha was coming to an end, and about how she handled that as someone who had been raised to be a Geisha since she was five, then given it up in her late thirties because of her objections to the system. I really recommend the book, particularly if you're interested in stories of people coming of age and working against the grain in interesting ways during eras of great flux.
posted by Deoridhe at 2:15 AM on July 19 [1 favorite]


Yeah... I've read Iwasaki's book, and I still haven't picked up MOAG. From what I've heard, it's rather horrible.

Liza Dalby drifted to Pontocho in the 70s and wrote about her experiences in Geisha, but she also benefited from being already proficient with the shamisen and arriving in the lean years when geisha were mostly middle-aged women who just liked to see a new young face around, even if she was a foreigner.
posted by sukeban at 4:25 AM on July 19


...Wait, no. I've got Kiharu Nakamura's bio, not Iwasaki's. So hey, that's one book I was missing :D
posted by sukeban at 4:31 AM on July 19


a fossil from an era when ... immigrants did not fuel the economy.

I laughed out loud.
posted by save alive nothing that breatheth at 10:27 AM on July 19 [3 favorites]


So, wait—are the characters supposed to be Japanese, or are they supposed to be Britons who are (clumsily, racistly) impersonating or imitating Japanese people?

IMO, Gilbert lays it out in the opening chorus:
If you want to know who we are,
We are gentlemen of Japan:
On many a vase and jar —
On many a screen and fan,
We figure in lively paint:
Our attitude's queer and quaint —
You're wrong if you think it ain't, Oh!
In other words, they're not meant to be either British or Japanese. They're not meant to be taken as real people at all; they're the fake, stylized painted figures on the ubiquitous pieces of Japonisme décor every Victorian's parlor was crammed with, come to life.

However, other interpretations may vary, and the words go by quickly enough that I'm not sure it's fair to expect a modern audience to think about it that way, or even care.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 10:41 AM on July 19 [6 favorites]


They can do Madama Butterfly if it segues into a kaidan plot with the ghost of Cio-Cio-san haunting Pinkerton to death in the style of Oiwa. As it should.

Where's the Kickstarter?
posted by The Underpants Monster at 10:42 AM on July 19 [3 favorites]


This sort of cross-cultural representations always originate from a much more complex context than these critics understand. It would be nice if those critics were well-informed rather than just well-intentioned.
posted by charlie don't surf at 1:22 PM on July 19 [2 favorites]


Like I said, properly contextualize the play--program notes, introduction, Q&A, whatever--by discussing it in terms of when and why it was written. Teach the audience, preferably before the curtain goes up, the context in which the play was written

I'm not familiar with the Seattle G&S Society, personally, but given my experience of other cities' societies, I think that you do not understand the majority of the audience composition when you say things like this.

A vast majority of the audience is already familiar with the material in front of them. They are G&S enthusiasts, who are already familiar with the context and point. To have to hear someone come out and painstakingly explain the context before each show - a show that you have eagerly waited for, sometimes for years, as they don't generally stage all of the pieces in the same year - would just be tiresome and upsetting. Many G&S societies have separate shows, for children and adults, that have context and Q&A provided, which is great - but don't force those of us who already know to sit through it all.
posted by corb at 6:41 PM on July 19


This sort of cross-cultural representations always originate from a much more complex context than these critics understand. It would be nice if those critics were well-informed rather than just well-intentioned.

Who says she doesn't know that? It gets pretty tiring to constantly hear minorities get told they just aren't educated when they complain about how they are represented.
posted by maxsparber at 9:12 PM on July 19 [3 favorites]


From Chan's op-ed : “The Mikado” opens old wounds and resurrects pejorative stereotypes.

what exactly are these old wounds and pejorative stereotypes?
Teenagers are giddy and gleeful and take crazy risks for love?
Emperors are grandiose and imperious?
Powerful government high officials are officious and authoritarian?
posted by Bwithh at 9:46 PM on July 19


She actually answers your question in the rest of the article. It might be helpful if you read it. Actually, we've discussed some of those problems in this thread as well.
posted by maxsparber at 11:07 PM on July 19 [6 favorites]


Wow. LOOK AT THIS FUCKING PICTURE. If Bagley Wright Theatre thinks there is nothing wrong with that, then Bagley Wright Theatre thinks that their showtunes are more important than basic respect and dignity for Asian people.
posted by ignignokt at 9:05 AM on July 20 [5 favorites]


> Wow. LOOK AT THIS FUCKING PICTURE.

The Katisha (standing, second from right) is way into cartoon yellowface. Why only Katisha, I wonder? The other four are wearing their natural faces (here's a large photo showing two of the kneeling actors.) Which strikes me as the right way to do it today. The last Mikado production I went to, everybody in the cast was in costume but nobody was wearing anything but ordinary stage makeup of the sort used to cover up zits and so on. I didn't miss the makeup at all, though I would have missed the costumes.
posted by jfuller at 2:07 PM on July 20 [1 favorite]


Is this picture awful too? Or this?

The Mikado image doesn't look great, but on the other hand theatrical costumes and makeup often look bad in close-ups. They're meant to be viewed from far away.

Chan talks about "white actors" playing "Japanese roles", but that seems off to me. It's a white-people operetta, written by white people, about white people. It's not a story about Japan and never will be; trying to make it more Asian doesn't make it Asian. (Though I like Jeff Yang's article a lot... it certainly wouldn't hurt to use real Japanese names.)

For the same reason, though, I don't see anything about its pseudo-Japanese setting that's essential to the story. Maybe it should just be reset in "Cipangu", a complete fantasyland.
posted by zompist at 3:48 PM on July 20 [1 favorite]


She actually answers your question in the rest of the article. It might be helpful if you read it. Actually, we've discussed some of those problems in this thread as well.
posted by maxsparber at 11:07 PM on July 19 [6 favorites +] [!]


Actually , I read the article in full 3 times before I made that comment and I've been reading this thread as well. I guess I can't be "helped".
posted by Bwithh at 8:31 PM on July 20 [1 favorite]


A vast majority of the audience is already familiar with the material in front of them. They are G&S enthusiasts, who are already familiar with the context and point. To have to hear someone come out and painstakingly explain the context before each show - a show that you have eagerly waited for, sometimes for years, as they don't generally stage all of the pieces in the same year - would just be tiresome and upsetting.

I think that having an explanatory on-stage (not just a handout document) & discussion session before traditional-style performances of The Mikado (and the many other old, great operas with similar issues) will have to be the standard, at least in the US. Make it strongly recommended and optional - the old hands who know the history and context well can turn up later.

This is an additional burden on the performance no doubt (though it would be enjoyable for newbie audiences), but it's necessary for such performances to appeal to wider, newer audiences while safeguarding against misunderstanding, including the inflammatory kind in Chan's piece. Such on-stage explanations shouldn't be one-sided of course - why the play may be controversial today needs to be discussed just as the how the play made sense in the 19th century; hopefully superficial readings on either side can be avoided. I think reinterpretations of the play (doing the whole thing in an English village setting; doing it a more clearly (by modern standards) fantasy setting; doing it with a multiethnic cast) are good ideas too but I don't see anything wrong with performing it in the original traditional staging so long as the historical cultural context is properly communicated to newbies.
posted by Bwithh at 8:48 PM on July 20


The Mikado image doesn't look great, but on the other hand theatrical costumes and makeup often look bad in close-ups. They're meant to be viewed from far away.

No, seriously, they are BAD costumes. I've seen better homemade cosplay outfits. Those satiny shits that are somewhere between Halloween Mandarin and Halloween Samurai (*) from the dollar store are a disgrace, and the women's hair is only missing a pair of eating chopsticks to be O HAI I AM A PRITTY GAISHA TEE HEE.

(*) Which means that they belong in the bottom of the sea.
posted by sukeban at 3:19 AM on July 21


Is this picture awful too? Or this?

Maiko Henshin is typically done by Japanese themselves (although geisha aficionadas will nitpick about the lack of seasonality of kimono and kanzashi to death, because the people who get henshin usually don't know any better and the people who do the henshin don't care that much) and Peking Opera is made by Chinese for Chinese. They are in no way equivalent.

I remember a funny blog post by a Caucasian woman who had gotten an oiran henshin instead of a maiko henshin and the poor soul still thought she was a pretty geisha, though. But that's tourists for you.

(Geisha are dancers and musical instrument players. Maiko are teenaged apprentices. Oiran were high-class prostitutes. There is a difference)
posted by sukeban at 3:29 AM on July 21 [1 favorite]


Looks like I was unclear. The Mikado picture is pretty unattractive-- mostly it's garish and unflattering. There are several reasons.

* As I noted, theatrical costumes and makeup look bad in close-ups. The pic from The Music Man is almost as garish, and (so far as I can tell) not truly representative of the business attire of 1912.

* The facial expressions don't help: everyone looks strained and weird. Again, theater isn't TV-- the style of acting isn't meant to be read from a camera ten feet away.

* There's a strand in East Asian art that's highly colored and unnaturalistic. (Obviously there are other strands that are not.)

* I suspect there's some feeling that white people look ridiculous in Asian costumes. If so, I think that's questionable; it's the sort of gauche mockery that, a century ago, Europeans felt about non-Europeans wearing suits and trousers.

* As you point out, the costumes aren't great anyway, but I'm sure you also know that good wafuku is also quite expensive. Maybe they don't have a high costume budget... I'm not sure they look any better as Italians.

Though, looking at the Mikado picture again, I have to say that the women's wigs are indefensible. Trying to "look Asian" and looking worse is probably a telltale of doing yellowface.
posted by zompist at 4:49 AM on July 21


but I'm sure you also know that good wafuku is also quite expensive.

On the contrary, second hand and antique wafuku is comparatively dirt cheap, because the Japanese don't like buying second hand. You can even buy vintage bolts of silk for under 100$ and get your Taisho Roman kimono done for your measurements, if you know how to sew it. Antique furisode vary in price according to quality and condition, but you can get one for 100$ - 200$. The trick is to catch the nice ones before someone else snaps them.

Then again, I own a modern acrylic komon that cost me 6000JPY new from Rakuten.
posted by sukeban at 6:06 AM on July 21


(Although Ichiroya has nicer furisode for under 300$, for example)
posted by sukeban at 6:25 AM on July 21


I don't see anything wrong with performing it in the original traditional staging so long as the historical cultural context is properly communicated to newbies.

I don't think that providing the historical cultural context is going to make people who dislike seeing yellowface and who don't like Asians being presented as strange and bizarre suddenly change their minds. People aren't objecting to things in the play because they don't understand the reasons why the play was originally written in the 1800s, they're objecting to things in the play because the original reasons for writing the play are shitty reasons for continuing to put people in yellowface and presenting Asians as strange and bizarre in 2014.
posted by 23skidoo at 8:58 AM on July 21 [2 favorites]


A friend who's looped into the Seattle theater scene made the observation recently that this production is a revival of the very same production which this very same company staged six years ago; and while the complainants make valid points, one wonders why no one spoke up about them then.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:51 AM on July 21


I can't believe after 161 comments we're still coming around to people who are insisting that critics just don't understand the play. As I said 100-something comments ago, I was in the play in 2003--I still remember the words to pretty much all of it--and I regret that and think it's time to stop performing it. I don't think the cultural experience of this particular operetta is worth hurting people with. And yellowface performance hurts people, even if G&S didn't intend it, even if this company didn't intend it.

Intent is not magic. Authorial intent is not magic. Directorial intent is not magic. Costume designer's intent is not magic. Actor's intent is not magic. Yellowface performance hurts people.
posted by hydropsyche at 12:49 PM on July 21 [3 favorites]


I don't think the cultural experience of this particular operetta is worth hurting people with.

What piece of art is worth hurting people with? Is there one? Are there some that are so great, it's okay if people are hurt by them? What is the measure of that pain? Do we stop performing a piece if only one person is hurt? Is there a threshold there, a certain number, or do we look at groups, we only stop performing it if an entire population is hurt?

The reason I ask is, on reading your comment, I thought, if we had to jettison either The Mikado or The Merchant of Venice, I'd say The Mikado had to go; it's a lesser work. But that judgment implies that, somewhere in my head, I've got some kind of continuum of harm unconsciously worked out, where aesthetics can in some instances overcome the moral need not to cause harm. And it sits there at the back of my mind, unexamined. I am wondering if other people make the same judgment, and have perhaps worked it out more explicitly.
posted by mittens at 2:42 PM on July 21 [5 favorites]


What piece of art is worth hurting people with?

Define "hurt". An awful lot of people got pretty butthurt over Mapplethorpe's photography...

I'm not saying that this isn't entirely different, dealing with issues of (historically-based largely inadvertent) racism as opposed to a direct challenge against the establishment...

But really, is art only supposed to be safe?
posted by hippybear at 3:43 PM on July 22 [1 favorite]


got pretty butthurt over Mapplethorpe's photography

This actually made me snort wine out of my nose.

It hurt.

YOU OWE ME BEAR OF HIPPIES

<3
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 4:00 PM on July 22 [2 favorites]


Yellowface performance hurts people.

Nope, I'm not buying it. It is only relevant here if you are saying "THIS yellowface performance of The Mikado hurts people." So how does THIS show do harm and who is directly harmed? Is it just the mere existence of a performance of this show that causes some abstract harm? Or is it causing specific harm to identifiable people through a specific agency or by specific people who see the show or act in it? I think if you're trying find a solution to the world's racial problems, I don't think you'll find it at the opera.
posted by charlie don't surf at 4:57 PM on July 22


Not hurting people through an operetta isn't going to solve the world's racial problems, but perpetuating stereotypes through an opera helps perpetuate the world's racial problems.
posted by hydropsyche at 4:12 AM on July 23


Nope, I'm not buying it.

I'm not buying that you can't understand that yellowface hurts people.
posted by 23skidoo at 8:33 AM on July 23


But really, is art only supposed to be safe?

Mapplethorpe is a really interesting comparison to make. I think his more challenging work has actually been made more safe, almost neutralized/neutered, by being corralled by a couple of decades of art critics and queer theorists. There is a lot of hand-holding there. Someone mentioned above, having a little lecture/Q&A session before performances of The Mikado, and something very akin to that intervenes before you are allowed to experience Mapplethorpe's photography. Before you can get out the sentence, "Why is this black guy wearing a leopard skin, isn't that kind of rac--" someone is already interrupting you to explain why Mapplethorpe is foregrounding our commingled fear and desire of images of the black male, and that it is okay.

You're not allowed to experience either the hurt of the racism, or the desire of the aesthetics, and you are especially not allowed to experience both at the same time, free of those layers of explanation.

But then, Mapplethorpe isn't for a wide audience. The very dicks that make the pictures so dangerous, also ensure that the audience is self-selected (these days, now that the furor has calmed down).

Is the Mikado for a wide audience? My initial answer is yes, of course, more people are going to see this operetta than would see a Mapplethorpe retrospective...but is that true? The last performance I went to was a packed house, but a small one. I don't know how many people they're expecting to come in Seattle. Will being perceived as a silly little operetta help limit the dangers, ensuring only fans are exposed?

It seems to me there are really two questions here, side by side. One is the basic complaint, "Will you please stop saying shitty things about my people via art?" And the answer to that--the answer to any question about control of art--is always no. We have accepted that art is never completely trustworthy, and when we're the target, we're stung, and we wonder what to do, or we burn books or castrate sculptors or whatever, but we get it. Art is full of dangers, because it might always burst through with that thing we wish would not be said, the thing that we hope will cease to be true if it ceases to be said.

But the second question is, if we've accepted that for the sake of some funny songs we don't mind that an entire population is insulted, then how do we mitigate the harm from that? And so it's really interesting watching that mitigation happen, because it all seems to occur in those two ways, audience limitation and critical explanation. The author is revived from his slumber so that we can insist he didn't mean any harm; parallels are drawn to Agreed-Upon Works that are Okay but a Little Racist. Lectures are offered or held. The audience is held blameless. Hands are held, and misunderstanding Philistines are held at bay.

It is all just fascinating--defending people, defending art.
posted by mittens at 8:43 AM on July 23 [1 favorite]


yellowface performance hurts people

I think it's a shame that this has become an axiomatic belief. It may, in fact, be the case that it has become so widely adopted as a cultural belief that it is simply pointless to fight against it, but it is a belief that rests on really shaky and largely unexamined assumptions. It is as if one were to say that because there is a tradition of racist cartoon caricature of Asians in the west, ALL cartoon representations of Asians are inherently racist. Yellowface (and blackface and redindianface et al) certainly has a long and ugly history of association with racist caricature (Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany's for example), but it's a pretty simple conceptual error to jump from "racist deployment of yellowface is bad" to "yellowface is inherently bad."

Of course, it all goes back to the argument against blackface minstrelsy which was so overwhelmingly racist in its conventions that the very idea of "blacking up" came to be seen as an inherently racist act. That's understandable, of course, given the appalling history of the minstrel shows, but it's also a crude flattening of the actual history of blackface performance. No one who watched The Jazz Singer, for example, could think that Al Jolson's character is intended to be understood as mocking or lampooning the blackface characters he adopts for his stage performances. We are meant to find them deeply moving and fully human. Similarly, when Fred Astaire does his tribute to "Bojangles of Harlem" in Swing Time, it's entirely an homage to a performer he genuinely revered--it's Astaire giving it his all in a truly astonishing display of bravura tap dancing in acknowledgement of one of the small handful of performers who could be regarded as real rivals. There's no intention of mockery or insult of any kind.

Of course, as someone noted above, "intent" doesn't necessarily matter when it comes to a cultural practice that is widely understood to have a certain meaning, and certainly it's impossible to imagine a context in which a white actor could 'innocently' adopt minstrel-style blackface today. But I do think it should be possible for us to understand that there is a difference between that kind of "blackface" (a particular set of caricatural conventions deeply associated with racist attacks on black people) and the mere use of make up to transform an actor who will be read as "white" into someone who will be read as "black" or "Asian" or "Pacific islander" or what have you (or vice versa).

There is a bizarre essentialization of "race" in the categorical rejection of any such transformation. We have no objection to a young person being made to look old, or a male person being made to look female, or a short person being made to look tall, or an ugly person being made to look beautiful etc. etc. etc. (and vice versa, of course, for all of these): but heavens forfend! if a person who codes as "white" be made to look like someone who can code as "black" or "asian"! Racial identity is the One True Identity, it would seem, that must never be troped, or travestied or denied. It's one of those weird points where the "progressive" view and the deepest "conservative" view seem oddly to meet.

Now, of course, part of the reason for this is a "they took our jobs!" economic one (there are few enough roles for Asian actors so it's going to pretty galling if one of the rare casting opportunities comes up and it goes to a white person). But I think that in the end everyone is done a disservice by dressing up an argument about economic opportunities in the noble guise of fighting racism. Yes, Hollywood and TV and theater should have more roles for black and asian actors; there should be more race-blind casting etc. etc. etc. But I think appealing to some specious notion that racial identity is fixed, eternal and innate and that any attempt to play with its cultural markers in creating dramatic roles must necessarily be a violation in order to enforce the hiring of "racially appropriate" actors for given roles is ultimately hurting more than it helps.

I think it will be a very sad day, indeed, if the world of Opera ends up restricting great roles like Otello and Madama Butterfly solely to "race appropriate" singers in the way that theater has virtually abandoned Shakespeare's Othello to black actors. This is not only because any great artist would naturally aspire to perform such roles (just as, say, Sarah Bernhardt aspired to play, and triumphed in, Hamlet despite being "gender inappropriate" for the role), and it seems to me a great shame that we'll probably never get to see, say, Tom Hiddleston's Othello. But I think it's also sad because one of the great things theater says to us is that there's a vast element of "role playing" in all our identities. That a "King" is just a man we've put a crown and a robe on and decided to call "King," that the same person can be a "King" one day and a "clown" the next. Racial essentialism in theatrical casting sets race up as the great exception to this flexibility of identity: racial identities get to be held up as fixed, eternal and immutable. Ultimately, that strikes me as a destructive and unhelpful message.
posted by yoink at 8:59 AM on July 24 [1 favorite]




I think it's a shame that this has become an axiomatic belief. It may, in fact, be the case that it has become so widely adopted as a cultural belief that it is simply pointless to fight against it, but it is a belief that rests on really shaky and largely unexamined assumptions. It is as if one were to say that because there is a tradition of racist cartoon caricature of Asians in the west, ALL cartoon representations of Asians are inherently racist. Yellowface (and blackface and redindianface et al) certainly has a long and ugly history of association with racist caricature (Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany's for example), but it's a pretty simple conceptual error to jump from "racist deployment of yellowface is bad" to "yellowface is inherently bad."

It's not a conceptual error. Yellowface is in fact, racist, exactly as blackface is racist. Portraying Asians through archetypal stereotypes (whether the intent is supposed to be positive or negative) is offensive and racist.
posted by zarq at 11:40 AM on July 24 [2 favorites]


Racial essentialism in theatrical casting sets race up as the great exception to the flexibility of identity: racial identities get to be held up as fixed, eternal and immutable. Ultimately, that strikes me as a destructive and unhelpful message

Two problems with this. One, this is yellowface--these are not Asian roles being played by white people, these are racist Asian stereotypes played by white people. Perpetuating stereotypes through an operetta helps perpetuate the world's racism problems.

Two, it is rare indeed to see race-blind casting. Shonda Rhimes, a black woman, is the only person doing it in television. And her shows are thus the most diverse on television--it's amazing what happens when you don't have to assume that most of the the stars, supporting cast, and guest stars will by definition be white. Because most writers, producers, and directors for both stage and screen are white, they pretty much just always cast white people for all roles. And mostly white audiences pretty much just always expect to see white people in all roles and sometimes get angry when, for instance, Audra McDonald gets cast as Mother Superior in the Sound of Music (even though she was literally the only good thing about that movie). If you want to blame someone for 'racial essentialism' in casting, there are more obvious places for blame than audiences and critics upset by yellowface.
posted by hydropsyche at 12:55 PM on July 24 [5 favorites]


For what it's worth, and it has to be worth something, the Eric Idle, 1920s-style production is available on YouTube in its entirety here. Skimming through it, I notice that it has at least one racist gag which isn't in the original business, and wouldn't have worked there anyway. Not that it does work, it's a bit of a shame.

There is the line about the certain "serenader and others of his race" in the list song, but D'Oyly Carte left that out when I saw them do it over forty years ago. That song's always been considered malleable anyway.
posted by Grangousier at 2:09 AM on July 25



It is all just fascinating--defending people, defending art.


White people. exercising the tyranny of the majority, in a desperate attempt to maintain their progressive cred, rationalize their racism.

Sorry white people. Yellow face is racist. Defending yellow face marks you with the racist brand.
posted by Pudhoho at 5:10 AM on July 28 [1 favorite]


A friend who's looped into the Seattle theater scene made the observation recently that this production is a revival of the very same production which this very same company staged six years ago; and while the complainants make valid points, one wonders why no one spoke up about them then.

Would you make this comment in a thread about a woman who had endured ongoing sexual abuse?

"Oh well, she didn't speak up when it first happened, so she must be lying..."

Yeah. Emp-C, you're a lot smarter than that.
posted by Pudhoho at 9:11 AM on July 28


Dude, I'm reporting what someone else said.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:13 AM on July 28


And besides - there is a VAST AND CAVERNOUS DIFFERENCE between "reporting a rape to the police" and "speaking out publicly against a theater performance." And you are smarter than that to suggest that the two are equivalent.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:17 AM on July 28 [1 favorite]


One of the characters I costumed for the last production was Katisha, and she and the title character had the most Asian-influenced costumes (they were based on anime and video game villains).

We were going over makeup notes (the cast mostly did their own makeup with our guidance), and I was trying to be incredibly sensitive about it and I failed miserably. I was so Basil-Fawlty-levels-of-awkward: “Now, this look is based on these characters, [show pictures] and you see how they have really full mouths and round eyes – we want to emulate that Western look as much as possible in the makeup.”

She got completely the wrong idea. “I can’t MAKE my eyes that round! I’ve always had small, narrow eyes, and my sisters used to pick on me for it, and no matter how much makeup I use…”

I broke my brain trying to do the Algebra of Relative Privilege™ in my head too quickly. We’re both white, but she’s from a white minority group, and although I’m working class I’m so WASP I sting myself when I walk. So, I just blurted out, “Look, all I’m really trying to say is don’t do yellowface!

So, I ended up not only picking at the scabs of someone’s childhood insecurity, but worrying if they felt I thought they’d default to racism without me telling them not to.

I could practically see the caption appearing in the air in front of me, in all-caps Impact: “WHITE PEOPLE PROBLEMS”
posted by The Underpants Monster at 10:05 AM on July 28 [1 favorite]


A friend who's looped into the Seattle theater scene made the observation recently that this production is a revival of the very same production which this very same company staged six years ago; and while the complainants make valid points, one wonders why no one spoke up about them then.

Seriously? What a breathtakingly stupid argument.
posted by zarq at 10:42 AM on July 28


I mean, it's practically a textbook "red herring" defense. The same being offered by the director and at least one of the play's actors.

People didn't complain. They are now. The fact that they didn't in the past in no way diminishes the validity of their complaints, and is not a defense against them.
posted by zarq at 10:58 AM on July 28


I didn't say there's no reason to complain, nor was my friend saying that. He was just intellectually curious why the earlier production didn't draw the same ire - much as I am now wondering why y'all weren't freaking out about what I said back when I said it seven days ago, but all of a sudden y'all are freaking out now.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:26 AM on July 28 [1 favorite]


Dude, I'm reporting what someone else said.

Dude, that wasn't clear. Fair enough.
posted by Pudhoho at 11:27 AM on July 28


I didn't say there's no reason to complain, nor was my friend saying that...

Yah, I didn't understand that it was your friend who said that.
I was floored that you might say such a thing because that statement is totally out of character.
Thank you for the clarification. Please accept my apology.
posted by Pudhoho at 11:32 AM on July 28


Nah, we're cool. But in his defense, he was also speaking from a seeing-this-from-both-sides perspective - you know, "I totally get why they are upset, but...what was the thing that stopped the complaints six years ago, 'cos that's weird".
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:35 AM on July 28


Yah, I hate that 'both sides" hoo-hah, but I won't belabor it.

Thank you for accepting my apology.
posted by Pudhoho at 11:41 AM on July 28


He was just intellectually curious why the earlier production didn't draw the same ire - much as I am now wondering why y'all weren't freaking out about what I said back when I said it seven days ago, but all of a sudden y'all are freaking out now.

I just noticed your comment in this thread's activity and am responding to it. No one is freaking out. I sometimes respond to things late, if I don't notice them immediately.

Three years ago, a play was held in Seattle which may have helped bring the issue into the mainstream. Prior to that, some Seattle residents may or may not have been in a position to speak out in the media. Non-Asians may or may not have been conscious of yellowface being a problem. Or, like many Asians that I'm acquainted with, that community may very well have collectively resigned themselves to the fact that Asians are routinely under-represented and stereotyped in mass media and seen a fight against that status quo as futile. Over the last few decades quite a few racist issues have gone from being unconscious or subconscious to conscious, including that one.

For me, being aware of the problems inherent to yellowface is not "all of a sudden." I wasn't aware of this production then. I am aware of this one and spoke out about it here and at least one of my social media accounts. We're now done litmus-testing my bona fides. I have no intention of further justifying to you why I am responding to your comment.

Lack of action then has nothing to do with being proactive now. And as I said, it's a red herring defense to assume it does.
posted by zarq at 11:43 AM on July 28


Man, grump central in here today.
posted by josher71 at 12:04 PM on July 28


Yeah, I think it's just a case of people being more likely to share what they're thinking about these sorts of things now than they were even six years ago, and mass communication having progressed far enough in that time that we're hearing more about it when people do speak up. #CancelColbert only happened a few months ago, and I wouldn't rule out the idea that some people who, in the past, may have figured there was no point in saying anything, were galvanized by the fact that it got people talking.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 1:26 PM on July 28 [1 favorite]


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