Last Sunday afternoon, a handful of demonstrators from the Japanese American Citizens League showed up at the Seattle Repertory Theatre to protest this year's production of The Mikado by the Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society. The comic opera was written in 1885 and set in Japan, and this is the 10th time the G&S Society has produced it in their 60-year history.
But this year's production is different. On July 13, two days after the show opened, Seattle Times columnist Sharon Pian Chan called foul, saying that by dressing up as exaggerated Asian stereotypes, the cast—two of whom are Latino, the rest of whom are Caucasian—were performing yellowface. The news went national, with NBC and CNN covering the controversy. Wall Street Journal columnist Jeff Yang wrote one of the most nuanced reactions, describing his childhood love of musicals (his parents brought a big box of recordings when they came from Taiwan in 1967) but feeling concerned by a "resurgence" of yellowface-type performances, from Katy Perry's geisha-ish bit at the American Music Awards to stereotyped characters on recent episodes of How I Met Your Mother and Saturday Night Live.
The Mikado's "biting satire and splendidly silly stage play make it quite possibly Gilbert and Sullivan's greatest work," Yang concluded. "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.'"
But the most interesting part of the dustup came a few days after Chan's Seattle Times editorial, when KIRO Radio host Dave Ross (who plays Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner of Titipu, in this year's show) invited her onto his show and spent the majority of the segment trying to defend himself—he's done The Mikado five times in the past, nobody's been upset before, so what's the problem now?
As Chan patiently walked Ross through some of the issues, he poured all his mental energy into deflection and denial: What about people dressing up as geisha for Halloween? What's wrong with that? (There's a difference, she explained, between dressing up as a specific Asian person—Kim Jong-il, for example—and as a generic race person.) What about people in martial-arts classes who "sometimes wear a very non-Western... I forget what they call it"? Are the tae kwon do students racist? What about people who aren't Polish who dress up like Polish people and dance the polka? Are they being racist?
Ross's reaction seemed like a textbook case of what cultural studies professor Robin DiAngelo calls "white fragility" when it comes to talking about race. In a nutshell, the theory goes that because white people in North America can move through the world without thinking about race, their mental muscles are severely atrophied on that subject. "White fragility," she writes, "is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves." White people who don't make a point to think about race very much can collapse under the slightest weight of a racially stressful situation. Ross didn't say, "You know, maybe you're right, let's calmly explore this subject together." Instead, he dumped out bucketfuls of red herrings, trying to keep his moderate-liberal bona fides intact. It was ridiculous.
It's worth noting that the business manager of the G&S Society is African American and wrote a rebuttal to Chan, calling her column "the journalistic equivalent of a flaming bag of dog poop." But pretty much everyone else, myself included, came to conclusions similar to the Wall Street Journal columnist: The Mikado may be brilliant, and its original intentions may have been to satirize British society by way of satirizing a fictionalized version of Japanese society, but it's aggressively obtuse to perform a racially charged, Victorian-era play and not address the problems with the source material.
Sometimes it's not the original problem, but how we talk about the problem, that matters most.