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July 25, 2014 at 6:16 AM

‘The Mikado,’ yellowface and seeing the Seattle show

Mikado Seattle

Actress Alexa Jarvis in the role of Yum-Yum in the Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society’s “The Mikado” (Photo by Ray Welch / Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society)

After seeing the Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society’s production of “The Mikado” on Sunday, it’s clear why so many people enjoy this opera. Anyone who likes a Disney musical would appreciate the pretty melodies. The slapstick comedy drew lots of laughs. The acting, singing and production were all high quality.

But this production of “The Mikado” is still racial caricature. It is still a show where an all-white cast (including 2 Latinos) plays 40 Japanese roles.  Every snap of the fan was a slap in the face.

When people of other races don costumes and makeup to play the role of an Asian person, that’s yellowface. Racial caricature — even when done with the purest of artistic motives and sincere love of other cultures — is still racial caricature.

It is difficult to spend three hours watching people of another race mimic its idea of what your own race is supposedly like. It’s an emotionally wrenching, viscerally exhausting experience. If you don’t feel that discomfort, consider yourself privileged.

The show makes sense as satire about Victorian British Society. It makes zero sense why this satire about the British is set in Japan. If it’s not about Japan, then why does it need to be set there at all?

If librettist W.S. Gilbert intended, when he wrote “The Mikado” in the late 1800s, to set an opera in a place no one knew, then it’s now time to reset this opera in the “Game of Thrones” kingdom of Westeros, in the inscrutable offices of the NSA or the Marvel kingdom of Thor. It’s not just the racial caricatures that are disappointing. The production lacks innovation. It reflects little of the creative, cutting-edge theater for which Seattle is known. It’s an embarrassing anachronism in a global city in a trade-dependent state on the Pacific Rim.

This conversation began with my July 14 column, “The yellowface of ‘The Mikado’ in your face.”

Since then, the Seattle show has provoked criticism from the Japanese American Citizens League, the Chinese American Citizens Alliance, OCA of Greater Seattle and the International Examiner’s editorial board. Asian Americans across the country who have written commentary, including Phil Yu at Angry Asian Man, Jeff Yang on CNN.com, Gwynn Guilford at The Atlantic’s Quartz, Sean Miura at ReAppropriate.com and many blogs. NBC News covered the controversy in a news story.

Protesters outside the July 20 performance of "The Mikado" at the Bagley Wright Theatre in Seattle. (Photo by Sharon Pian Chan/Seattle Times)

Protesters outside the July 20 performance of “The Mikado” at the Bagley Wright Theatre in Seattle. (Photo by Sharon Pian Chan/Seattle Times)

A small group of protesters demonstrated outside the shows last weekend with signs saying: “My culture is not a costume,” “Yellowface in your face — not OK,” and “Titipu isn’t real. Bainbridge internment was.”

In keeping with The Seattle Times Opinion section’s goal of creating a space for civil debate, my editor and I invited supporters of the show to submit a guest column. On Wednesday, our section published an opinion piece by show producer Mike Storie and Gilbert & Sullivan Society board member Gene Ma, “Why ‘The Mikado’ is worth performing.” Our letters section has also featured reader perspectives from all sides.

Mikado cast member and KIRO Radio host Dave Ross and I debated the issue of yellowface in a radio interview.

Seattle Repertory Theatre, which runs the Bagley Wright Theatre at Seattle Center, plans to continue this dialogue in person by holding a community conversation event on a to-be-determined date. This is an encouraging step. (The Rep clarified in a statement that it did not rent the performance space to the Gilbert & Sullivan Society. It is required to provide the space to the Society under its lease agreement with the city’s Seattle Center department, an arrangement which can be traced back to 1962.) 

Mike Storie said the Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society also planned to have a community dialogue about it. A date has not been set.

A poster for the upcoming youth performance of "The Mikado" produced by Seattle Opera and Seattle Public Theater. (Courtesy of Seattle Public Theater)

A poster for the upcoming youth performance of “The Mikado” produced by Seattle Opera and Seattle Public Theater. (Courtesy of Seattle Public Theater)

Incidentally, the Society’s show won’t be the only production of “The Mikado” in Seattle this summer. Seattle Opera and Seattle Public Theater are doing a youth performance of “The Mikado” from  Aug. 1 to 3. Unlike the Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society’s faithful historical reproduction, the youth production will be done anime style, like Japanese cartoons. The set will look like the fantasy world of manga graphic novels with blocky colors and sharp angles. Characters will wear white, blue and pink wigs and costumes inspired by cartoon characters. The cast draws from diverse backgrounds.

“If you do put certain pieces on as a museum piece and you don’t update it to what the current world looks like, you’re going to run into all kinds of issues whether it’s this piece or another piece,” said Kelly Tweeddale, executive director of Seattle Opera.

This is how Barbara Lynne Jamison, youth programs manager, said she explained “The Mikado” to the kids in the cast: “When it was written, Japan was this far out place that nobody knew anything about and just this distant thing. And now we know about Japan, and we have friends and allies in Japan, so it’s not that way anymore and that’s why we’ve taken it into cartoon,” Jamison said.

“They said, ‘Yeah, we like that better, we like that setting.’ ”

Me too.

Comments | Topics: arts, asian americans, mikado

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