Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Asian-Americans should not "get over" the yellowface used in The Mikado

I've been following the commentary of  Angry Asian Man, Reappropriate, and 18 Million Rising about the alleged yellowface of the Seattle's Gilbert and Sullivan Society's theater production of "The Mikado." I use the word "alleged" because although one with eyes can clearly see the non-Asian characters are dressed in cringe-worthy Asian costumes, those in charge of the production and many Mikado fans fail to understand that any non-Asian person dressed as Asian caricatures are by definition doing "yellowface."
A photo from Seattle's Gilbert and Sullivan Society's The Mikado. (Photo courtesy of Angry Asian Man)
On July 13, 2014, Sharon Pian Chan of The Seattle Times first drew attention to the yellowface matter in an op-ed piece. She wrote, "All 40 Japanese characters are being played by white actors, including two Latinos. KIRO radio host Dave Ross (the producer of the play) is in the cast. It’s yellowface, in your face."

And based solely on this picture, I have to agree with Chan. I mean, come on. Anyone who defends the play because they have a soft heart for the history of it or they love the songs or they believe in freedom of theater still has to see how these costumes and make up are not respectful to Japanese people. This disrespect is where the offense is seeded, and Chan choosing to share her feelings should have opened up a discourse about race. Instead, The Mikado's supporters chose to attack Chan personally and any "complainers" who didn't see the "fun" of the show.

For instance, Daisybtoes wrote in the comment sections of Chan's piece:
"I am so sick and tired of PC advocates attacking this adorable classic of British comedy.  They need to get a life and remember that this story first appeared in 1885, when Japan may as well have been on Mars.  Gilbert & Sullivan didn't even try, they just gave us a charming story with memorable characters.  I'll bet these same complainers forget that in 1941, there was an attempt to ban this play for other reasons entirely.  Most people love The Mikado, and the complainers can just get over it."


Dave Ross, the producer of the production, has conducted interviews to defend his work, and he genuinely seemed surprised that anyone would be offended by the play. After all "The Mikado" is in fact a theater classic, and it has been performed around the world since 1885. I feel sympathy towards him for being the first person to receive negative heat for something that people have been performing for decades, but at the same time, the moment someone shares their feelings of hurt should not negate the fact that those feelings were always there.
A vintage poster of The Mikado (Courtesy of Wikipedia)
 The Mikado was written in a time where people didn't know much about Japan, and now it's "Oriental" characteristics are just dated. A smart artistic choice would have been to change the setting or modernize the setting, but The Mikado defenders wish to preserve the integrity of the original. This is a mistake. After all, for instance, if someone were to make a remake of "Breakfast at Tiffany's" should they do it with another Mr. Yunioshia (Mickey Rooney) just to preserve the film's integrity? "Birth of a Nation" is ranked as one of the best films of all time and is heralded for it's pioneering film techniques. However, it is also a pro-KKK film. Should it be recreated? Should the Bugs Bunny cartoons that promote slavery still be allowed on television for our children to watch?
This was in Breakfast at Tiffany's, a beloved movie classic (Wikipedia)
The point is that art is reflective of our times, and The Mikado is no longer modern.
Yellowface has no place in theater, and no person, nor a community, should ever be silenced for expressing how they feel. 

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