Talk of New York Gilbert and Sullivan’s (NYGASP) upcoming production of The Mikado was flooding my Twitter feed on Tuesday night. Making reference to Leah Nanako Winkler’s recent blog post on the production and its purported use of yellowface, many have taken to voice their concerns to both the presenting company (NYGASP) and the venue (NYU Skirball) on popular social network sites. The responses are quick to state how yellowface is offensive and racist, but do not really further articulate what exactly is problematic about it. Thus, I want to take a quick moment to dissect this particular production, highlighting three large issues for me.
1. Cultural Appropriation
To understand why yellowface is racist and offensive, we have to take a look at its construction. Cultural appropriation refers to the adoption of elements of a minority culture by a dominant culture; in essence, it is the use of cultural elements in a colonial manner, commodifying the “exotic.”
With the above in mind, we can begin to see the issue with The Mikado. The opera is premised on the satirization of British politics vis-à-vis the lens of the foreign, in hopes of creating a parallel point of comparison and relevance. Gilbert and Sullivan set the production in Japan, which presents tricky ground for contemporary stagings. To honour the text is one thing, but to follow the script to tee without consideration is another.
It is a choice to cast mostly Caucasians; it is a choice to dress the actors in traditional Japanese dress; and it to create the likeness (or exaggeration) to Asian facial structures by means of external application (i.e. product). In effect, it is a choice to place an idea of the “exotic” on a pedestal for comic entertainment.
2. Feigned Ignorance
Even though putting on yellowface was once a theatrical device, does it mean it still has to be used? When you contextualize the times in which this opera was put on, the fact that Asians were treated as second-rate persons (if even that) surfaces. A quick look at the Chinese community in America demonstrates the strong contempt held against them during the late 19th century: the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. How can we justify replicating a production to its finest details when there are underlying currents of mockery and disdain of the foreign?
3. Passing It On
In presenting art, performers pass their artistic messages onto the patrons. This interactive exchange is what makes live performance so powerful, creating human connections in isolation. Disconnected from the rest of the world for a few hours, the conversation is an exclusive one—just you, audience, and artist. Expansion of this artistic dialogue is possible—pre- and post-show conversations easily elongate this brief relationship, while also offering the exchange of peripheral ideas.
Nods toward family-friendly programming are made with performances that carry an addition of a “family overture.” How do you explain to children that what is being displayed on stage is culturally insensitive?
Mentions of post-show dialogue only refer to discussion with the artistic staff. How do you ask a team about their outdated vision?
With that said, putting the onus on the production to include an educational component during these events that contextualize the production goes a long way in creating informed audiences.
I am not asking for an apology nor am I asking for an explanation. I am simply asking we be mindful.
Disclosure: I worked at NYU Skirball from August 2013 to May 2015; I was not in the loop of the 2015-16 season.
1946 production photo of The Mikado by Charles Gorry for AP.