The Problem with The Mikado

Why Are People So Worked Up About This Year’s Production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Comic Opera?

Comments

1
Why?Because we're Seattle, and that's what we do best! PC all over each other!
2
Thank you. An incredibly insightful piece. Great.
3
To those who are interested,I suggest the 1987 English Opera Company production (on DVD) with Eric Idle as Ko-Ko.Jonathan Miller directed it as an English Panto--set in the 1920's and not a Japanese costume to be seen. This in fact emphasized the English satire. Also if you would like further insight into G&S, I recommend Mike Leigh's film Topsy Turvy. The inspiration for The Mikado is all there. The Gilbert and Sullivan Society could do itself a favor and show a little more imagination in staging the operas. All G&S societies seem to be hidebound and conservative/traditional in their approach to the operas.Throw off the shackles.
4
Brendan, Great work. But please add reference to any other local dialogue about race and the arts. Maybe some local leaders who do work in this area all the time. This isn't the first incident, nor will it be the last. What is the context?
5
And so ends yet another wonderful lyrical light opera at the hands of the politically correct who wear their race and their emotions on their sleeves and cant see anything but white and black, or white and yellow, or white and red, or white and any other color as oppressive as white. Its pathetic! I guess next week we'll be banning the movie "Foul Play" with Chevy Chase and Goldie Hawn because the opera features heavily in it. But in support of G andS, I'm going to hum tunes all day of one of my favorites operas, The Mikado.
6
It's funny when minorities pantomime white people, that is one basic reason to watch any performance art- to let us to see aspects of our character reflected back in interesting, unusual ways.
Plus when minorities imitate white people, it honors the principle of 'comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable' which is another noble mission for art. This helps to emphasize the fact that it is monstrous for the powerful to mock the weak.
But in this case, Asians are really not weak, they are not really being mocked, the whites doing it are not powerful, and it is all rather silly and innocent. I say we all try to lighten up a little...maybe my racism detector isn't set sensitively enough, but my bullshit detector is going off.
7

I recently looked at the mission and goals of the Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society and was struck by this sentence in relation to the current controversy:

"We are proud of the fact that grandparents may take their grandchildren to our shows and they can all laugh at the same jokes and hum the same tunes."

What struck me is the fact that Sharon Pian Chan, Jeff Yang, and Erin Quill represent a generation of Asian Americans whose grandparents grew up in a time, some 12 years before the society’s founding, when they might have experienced extreme (even race-bating) caricatures in popular culture, discriminatory practices in relation to attending live theatre, or worse, internment during WWII. So that the experience, as adult grandchildren, of watching a predominantly white cast perform Gilbert & Sullivan’s "The Mikado" in 2014 would be less to laugh at the same jokes and hum the same tunes, but more to laugh to keep from crying and the desire to hum a different tune by speaking out against the caricature and speaking up for the character of their respective communities.

The society’s mission also states that it provides “the highest quality musical theater productions to a broad Pacific Northwest audience at an affordable price.” No doubt an honorable endeavor, but if the responses by Mike Storie, Dave Ross, and Pam Kelley Elend are any indication of how they have and will continue to handle this issue going forward, then the society’s officers and trustees might need to change one important word in the mission statement – from the ideal of “broad” to the reality of “narrow.”

Creatively,

Tyrone Brown
Theatre Director and Producer
Brownbox Theatre: Re-Imagined Black Theatre
8
Great article. I also read Diangelo's analysis and the backlash against objections to Mikado fit it almost exactly.
9

I recently looked at the mission and goals of the Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society and was struck by this sentence in relation to the current controversy:

"We are proud of the fact that grandparents may take their grandchildren to our shows and they can all laugh at the same jokes and hum the same tunes."

What struck me is the fact that Sharon Pian Chan, Jeff Yang, and Erin Quill represent a generation of Asian Americans whose grandparents grew up in a time, some 12 years before the society’s founding, when they might have experienced extreme (even race-bating) caricatures in popular culture, discriminatory practices in relation to attending live theatre, or worse, internment during WWII. So that the experience of their grandchildren watching a predominantly white cast perform Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Mikado in 2014 would be less to laugh at the same jokes and hum the same tunes, but more to laugh to keep from crying and the desire to hum a different tune by speaking out against the caricature and speaking up for the character of their respective communities.

The society’s mission also states that it provides “the highest quality musical theater productions to a broad Pacific Northwest audience at an affordable price.” No doubt an honorable endeavor, but if the responses by Mike Storie, Dave Ross, and Pam Kelley Elend are any indication of how they have and will continue to handle this issue going forward, then the society’s officers and trustees might need to change one important word in the mission statement – from the ideal of “broad” to the reality of “narrow.”

Creatively,

Tyrone Brown
Theatre Director and Producer
Brownbox Theatre: Re-Imagined Black Theatre
10
So would Dave Ross, if there were a new play featuring Barack Obama as a central character, be OK playing that role in blackface? What about playing Nelson Mandela in blackface? Or Martin Luther King Jr. in blackface?
11
When art is censored through the eyes of the modern age, and filtered via what is now considered "appropriate," we get some good discussions and the art itself is obviously triggering something. This is good. Lashing out at one production for suddenly doing what has been done time and time and time again and calling foul? Well... that just seems lazy and convenient. This argument is ridiculous.
12
This may be a little off topic. Or not.

The issue with white people dressing up as minorities has a long history in showbiz. One of the most misrepresented minority groups in Hollywood has been the Native American. A good movie about the subject is the documentary 'Reel Injun' by Cree filmmaker Neil Diamond (yes that's his real name)

While it doesn't have anything to do with the Mikado it does offer an insight into how many in Showbiz have a habit of misrepresenting minorities (specifically Natives) often in an offensive manner. Reel Injun also shows how these offensive misrepresentations can affect the people - young and old- they are "imitating"

If anything it's a great documentary and instead of white people fending off the issues with "red herrings" and what not it may help ease the ignorance of some.
13
One thing that has rarely been mentioned in any of the media coverage of this "issue" is the fact that Ms. Chan has not seen "The Mikado." That's ANY production of the show, not just the Seattle G&S Society's.

She admits that up-front in her op-ed. So why should any of us take her criticisms and complaints seriously? An open, honest debate about racism and ethnic representation is fine, but Chan's rant holds little weight for me since she's conducting it in a vacuum.

Mr. Kiley, you wouldn't review a play you haven't seen, would you? That's grounds for firing at most publications. So why are we letting Chan off the hook just because she's hiding under the op-ed page?

Her anger is from the same mentality that leads to banning books. Or burning them.
14
@13

I’d be surprised if Ms. Chan hasn’t read the piece. (She doesn’t say.) Does she have to see the production—any production of the silly little operetta—in order to criticize the play? I think that all depends. There are plenty of people bored shitless by the ever-popular Shakespeare who’ve never seen an actual production—excepting perhaps some lame-ass film version. (Hell, I’ve listened to people bellyache about the Theatre in general who’ve never seen a play. But that’s a discussion for another time…)
While they are much more substantial plays to be certain, there are nonetheless a goodly number of religionists who won’t deign to see Kushner’s Angels in America, or McNally’s Love! Valour! Compassion!—to name just two—condemning them as godless garbage, or worse. And you know what? They don’t have to. I get it. I may not agree with their assessment—even find laughable—but I grok their issue(s) with the plays. I fully get the fact they find it offensive, for very personal reasons.
In fact, I know how they feel: I don’t need to see the “innocent merriment” of a minstrel show in order to find the entire concept excretable. Do I really have to see one of these racist ditties to condemn them? Don’t think so.

Which brings us back to Ms. Chan. Perhaps the biggest take-away in all of the media coverage (and copious comments) were people telling Ms. Chan what she may or may not find objectionable or even disrespectful to her own upbringing and heritage. People failing to take into account a simple rubric: Tribe A does not get to tell Tribe B how Tribe B feels or should feel or should or shouldn’t respect on matters directly related to Tribe B.

Like Mr. Kiley, and a number of others, I find the conclusion drawn in the WSJ to effectively hit the proverbial nail on the head.
15
I don't see yellowface in this picture. I see 3 white dudes in kimonos.
16
"Silly little operetta?" It is probably the finest and funniest work by two of Britain's greatest theatrical geniuses during one of the greatest theatrical eras in history!

It is critical and inexcusable that Ms. Chan has not seen it, because no one who has actually seen it thinks it is making fun of Japanese people.

Where is the outrage about the Seattle Opera's production of Madame Butterfly?
17
Brendan - So, have YOU seen the show?? This is a great recap of other media buzz, but filing this under the Theatre heading risks eroding your arts credibility if you didn't bother to actually see the supposedly offensive show, don't you think? Especially with the title 'the problem with the mikado'... ?

@7 and others: I am one of those grandchildren, and we did laugh. The 'little list song' is perfect; it mocks the actors (who happen to be mostly full-blooded euro-crackers) in a way that appears to have been designed to answer critiques post-Sharon-Chan-op-ed, yet in truth it's original text - it was the same line when grandpa and I saw this operetta in 2008. It's not unlike Puck's apology to his audience (paraphrase); "if we shadows have offended, be fucking REALISTIC about the fact it's theatre."

For what it's worth, the sets were actually beautiful homages to East Asian architecture and design. (MUCH Better than the same homages given in media franchises with MILLIONS of fans/viewers, such as 'The Last Airbender' or 'Kung Fu').

Is there room for improvement ? Oh sure, yeah. Isn't there always?
That's the definition of why remounts are remounted.
For one: SG&S could get the black editor pen out and not name the foreign nation as "Japan", the way that Star Trek used to - using all kinds of 'aliens & planets' as analogs for race/nation/culture. Not sure why SG&S didn't.

Can I appreciate the art and its echoes of racist tones in the context of how much better we've come, and how Impossible it is that we'll ever backslide to 'Breakfast At Tiffany's' type acting/directing? Yup, I savor that.
Can I appreciate in context of a living museum piece? Yes, especially since I've seen other G&S shows, plus other versions of Mikado. The bumbling, marriage-obsessed, buffooning, officious, violence-threatening airheads are STOCK in EVERY G&S show, so it's all about the context.
Can I appreciate it in the context of being theatre, and therefore reflecting truths about the audience, both positive and negative, easy and hard? YOU BET YOUR SWEET WHATEVER-COLORED ASS I CAN.

Please.
See the show. Have the credibility and the actual evidence, then form your opinions, everyone. I look forward to the pow-wow hosted by the Rep.
(Oh shit, I bet a hapa using 'powwow' is going to be seen as racist, too, right?)

;|
18
Why are all these Chinese-American writers telling Japanese-Americans what to be offended by?
19
Brendan & Sharon's angst is best summed up as follows: Much Ado About Nothing.
20
I'm convinced these controversies only help to perpetuate racism by teaching children that different cultures don’t get along. I have no doubt "white fragility" exists but it appears that “minority fragility” is what starts these balls rolling. The theme with these issues seem to be that white people just don’t understand the harm they are inflicting on minorities when they don any traditional cultural clothing or treat a cultural stereotype with any levity. The solemn duty of faux aggrieved minorities is to stand up and educate the ignorant white person that minority culture is off-limits to them because, well, because… racism.

Well fuck that. White people do know what racism is. White people have met racists. White people see the results of real institutional racism in the markets. Those are real problems but they are almost never overt and are very difficult to trace back to an individual racist white person. The real problems will take years and years to overcome while our children and grandchildren interbreed.

So when a Dave Ross comes along in a kimono as a flesh and blood white person, these ridiculous “white fragility” issues crop up as a surrogate to the real problems and delay progress because it puts people on the defensive and forces people to draw lines in sand the keep us separated.
21
The hue and cry over THe criticism of The Mikado is proof positive that even in a city where international trade is the rule rather than the exception, even in one of the US cities that is closest to Asia both physically and economically, and has one of the largest proportional populations of Asians, racism simmers just beneath the surface of far too many white Americans.

One of the things I love about the Internet is that the veil of supposed anonymity causes people to loosen the reins on their hatred, and out comes the truth. It's even more delightful when people are foolish enough to put their full names behind their false righteousness.

Don't be shy; tell us how you really feel. Show us how proud you are to belittle the experiences of the marginalised!

But remember, the measure of compassion is not our behaviour toward those who are more fortunate than we, but our behaviour toward those over whom we enjoy advantage.

It is possible to somewhat excuse the Gilbert & Sullivan of 1885 by understanding history. Not entirely, but as a relic of history, we can let bygones be bygones, provided it isn't continually revived and thrown in our faces. It is not possible to wave away the fact that we now understand The Mikado to be racist in its very nature. The play should not "be banned", but it should "be ignored", and allowed to die out.

Misha Berson's article from the other day is extremely insulting to Asian-American students of the Theatre. It positions yet another white person as the expert explaining to a benighted minority why we shouldn't be offended, and erases the long history of Asian expertise in the dramatic arts. "Oh, if only you had *seen* it!" cries Berson, "only *then* could you possibly have anything valid to say about 'The Mikado'!" As if there is no possibility that we could have actually seen the play at any point in our lives, much less studied the libretto and history of Gilbert & Sullivan in one of the most prestigious drama schools in the world. I went to Carnegie-Mellon University for Theatre. CMU is one of the top 10 professional drama schools in the world. And I'm Asian-American.

There are many works of art from the past which are widely regarded now as racist or at the very least highly insensitive to marginalised people, and which are no longer celebrated, even if they are still studied for their historical context. Berson also committed the fallacious error of assuming that one Japanese woman's bemusement with The Mikado production in Tokyo is sufficient stand-in for the feelings of anyone else, at all, let alone Asian-Americans who exist in a far different context than the till relatively isolationist Japan.

At what point are white people going to give up on justifying their racism?
22
I'm sorry, but I no longer have the patience to tolerate any of this. Activist fanatics of all kinds turn me off cold. What is particularly offensive in this case is that Gilbert & Sullivan, in particular, The Mikado, are venerable, well-loved icons that have never hurt anybody - anybody worth mentioning, that is. In fact, The Mikado has been important to many people on a personal, even theraputic level. I am personally delighted that the much-talked-about "protest" was a miserable flop. They deserved nothing less. And they certainly do not speak for the Asian Americans who also love The Mikado.
23
@14 To answer your first question: Yes she does. As a paid opinion writer for the Times, Chan's voice is louder than yours and mine. And understanding the issues she's writing about is part of her job.

It's unprofessional for her to hand down judgment against something she admits she knew little about and made little-to-no effort to educate herself on.

Since then, she's seen the show, so good for her. (Spoiler alert: She still thinks it's racist.) But Chan's demerits for the initial piece stand. She stirred up a race debate by shouting her opinion, based solely on a photograph and, I'm guessing, a quick glance at some G&S Society promotional materials.

Besides, to use your A/B rubric: As comment 18 points out, isn't that precisely what Chan was doing with her initial op-ed?
24
My issue with the term "yellowface" applied to this is that it suggests this staging of the Mikado was similar to actors putting on blackface early in the 20th century. I'm sorry, but I don't see the connection. There was no intent to say anything pejorative about the Japanese culture or people in the costumes or set of this show.

The operetta was originally set in Japan; the opening song announces "we are gentlemen of Japan". This was simply a traditional staging of the operetta, as it was originally conceived. The set shows a painted screen, a form of art perfected in Asia and a wonder to the rest of the world. Painted Japanese screens adorn some of our local museums, I believe. It wasn't chosen as part of the set to be pejorative, it was chosen because it was admirable. I believe the motivation Gilbert and Sullivan had for setting it in Japan was to also showcase Japanese fashion and art, which were growing in popularity in England at the time. The text of the show certainly shows no disrespect to Japan, its people or its culture.

It is hard to know why Ms Chan saw this as yellowface, rather than simply as imitation: imitation is, after all, the most sincere form of flattery.
25
@6 "I say we all try to lighten up a little...maybe my racism detector isn't set sensitively enough, but my bullshit detector is going off."

Well put. I couldn't have said it better myself.
26
So interesting, and I agree with the critics. But that's because I've been having a similar gender-related discussion elsewhere. Outraged, at one point, I stated that men should stay out of discussions on women's issues. All because I realize the truth about myself, that I have no idea how minorities, other ethnicities (I am Caucasian), see discussions of which they are the center.
27
The Mikado encompasses some of the best light opera music ever written. The end of first act number is the most hummable piece of music imaginable. Plus the play is still funny. Plus it was written, as another commenter has already noted, as an homage, and not in the interests of white supremacy. Plus this whole "issue" smacks of manufacture, and is all so fucking stupid. The world is literally falling down around our ears, and there are a million places to demonstrate your liberal bona fides, in a more meaningful way.
Gary Ross is a dipshit though. No argument there.
28
I want to see a show this weekend, so I was checking out my options -- my goodness, it sounds like people are complaining that this 'Mikado' show deliberately ridicules another culture and engages in broad stereotyping of that culture for comedic effect. Some people have even said that it personally offends them. Well, I certainly don't want any part of that! Let's see what the paper recommends... hey! Looks like this 'Book of Mormon' show is a musical too! And they love it! Problem solved.

29
The only racism I saw in this article came from Chan, Yang and the author for presuming to know what the Japanese take offense to and acting - unbidden - on their behalf. DiAngelo is a racist-and-a-half for alleging herself to be some sort of expert on the subject while coining an undeniably racist phrase....one which she'd no doubt throw a fit about if someone else had coined it referencing a race other than "white".
30
Was listening to National Putrid Radio. I never learn. A couple of women who sounded more like snotty nine-year-olds were denouncing alleged racism and racial stereotypes in opera and operetta. They started with poor old "Mikado," a jolly farce with lots of jolly, farcical oriental-sounding names such as "Nanki-poo." This, in the view of the snotty nine-year-olds, had something to do with creating the incarceration of Japanese-Americans in World War II. Really. I kid not. An "editor" at the Seattle Times (Asian-American woman, natch) actually said this. (No wonder newspapers are nearly dead.) Of course, no mention was made that "The Mikado" is a fantasy, a comedy, and is constructed around a thing called "music." Rather wonderful music, at that. No mention was made that "The Mikado" was intended to be something called "fun," generating a phenomenon called "pleasure." No mention was made that "The Mikado" is a satire of British classicism set in a fictional, cartoon-y version of Japan, and has nothing to do with Japan. Then one of the snotty nine-year-olds---I mean they really sounded like this---denounced Puccini's "Madame Butterfly" for portraying the principal (Japanese) character as a "subservient woman" and "child bride." Well, darn my white malenesss (something the nine-year-olds repeatedly and oh-so-politically correctly took shots at, of course), but, well, Japanese women used to be taught to be. . .very subservient to men, and being a child bride was common practice. Right about the time "Butterfly" was written, in fact. But never mind history, the snotty nine-year-olds said---let's make these works of art "relevant." Yes, "relevant," that old tired bit of verbal propaganda meaning, "let's change everything in some way so other politically correct, reactionary adult nine-year-olds with no understanding of history or context cannot be offended." Translation: let's censor it! What's more, no mention was made that in "Butterfly," the principal character is 100 percent sympathetic; that she is a young woman with no authority over her own fate who is callously used by an American Navy man, left pregnant, yet nobly awaits his return year after year, in vain. In the end, realizing how used she has been, and how rejected by her own society she is, she ends her life. No, no mention of this was made. No mention was made that this opera has only generated sympathy for women forced into subservient lifestyles by their societies. No mention was made that the hideous child bride practice continues in many societies today, and that Puccini's story, if anything, castigates such tradition. Why was no mention of these aspects made? Because Puccini was one of those evil white males, whom the politically correct crowd loves to blame for all horrors and atrocities. This sort of pseudo-intellectual would-be censorship by ethnocentrists and PC reactionaries is no different from Hitler capriciously declaring certain art and music as "degenerate." It is as vapid and stupid as the flatulent pontifications of the Tea Party. It is just what one expects from giant children with power. National Pubescent Radio.


31
Damn......what a drag...now i really want to see the Mikado.....oy, there's nothing better for the box office than a good scandal eh? we've been here before and over and over again....and the blood quantum requirements for permission to be allowably offended or dismissed are just sooo difficult to be constantly mindful of. I get bored with scrutinizing the surnames of writers and looking at people's clothes for clues of their ethnic allowables.....give me a freakin' break. There are too many effing rules and invisible gatekeepers popping up to protest because it's frankly ez to be heard when you cry racism. Real racism is so hugely daunting that the little shit...like guys in kimonos...will do in a pinch. Gotta include some coverage of racism so make it the ez kind.

BUT remember to really pick your battles because there are some big ones out there......and by the time a stodgy, satire filters it's way down to a production at the Seattle Rep-----there is no chance in hell that we are pointing a finger at real racism......it's out there....just not there. Keep looking.....sigh.....it's free for the taking...everywhere..don't gotta buy a ticket....................it's free........forest for trees................
32
If you want to know which group of people is genuinely offended by this "controversy", Ms.Chan - who has shown herself to be an opportunistic racist - has genuinely offended lifelong Gilbert & Sullivan fans, particularly those of us who love The Mikado. What she did to us all was the lowest of the low. Using a dress rehearsal photo, she made up her mind that this was one of those evil, disgusting vehicles for insulting Japanese culture. She personally singled out Dave Ross as a racist fiend because he was the star of the show. The SG&S singers were completely blindsided by such an uncalled-for attack. Her argument boiled down to the fact that she disliked seeing white people wearing Japanese costumes. Can we call her a "racist" now? Her other complaint? She hated all the comical Britishisms that the play is filled with, including nonsense names for the characters, which in themselves should have told her not to take the play too seriously. But the next day after her op-ed appeared, the blogosphere was suddenly full of her friends and followers, dumping bile on innocent G&S singers. I have seldom been so angry about such a contrived stunt. aimed at hurting people and hoping to destroy a classic piece of theater that's been around longer than any of them have, and which will be around long after they are gone.
33
I can't stand even the sight of these idiots in the photos. Can't they see that if dressing up like an "Oriental" is the joke, there's something inherently wrong with that? Minstrel shows were not done specifically to ridicule black people either. Shows using black face were also usually about something else - with a story structure, often satirizing contemporary issues. No one watched minstrel shows to ridicule black people. It's just that the idea of dressing in costumes and doing black face was, in itself, the joke. The ridicule of black people was the by-product, not the goal, of minstrel shows.





And yes, minstrel shows often had great music. And they were considered just silly fun. Shall we bring those back, DaisyB? I bet you'd love them.





I've seen the Mikado twice. The first time I was disgusted. The second time I was dragged to it by a white friend who promised me that if I went in the right spirit, I'd enjoy it. He was wrong. This friend, who was gay, had to reconsider his position: how would he feel if a show, written and performed entirely by straight people, used gay people as jokes? If the gay-ness itself was a point of fun? If the satire amounted to: "Our society is so ridiculous, it's just like being gay!"





Guess what? The Mikado hurt. Both times. But the G & S theater nuts REFUSE to listen to why. Maybe when you put it on, you're innocent. But when people of Asian descent tell you - please, this is horrible. This hurts. And then you keep doing it, and dismiss their concerns? That's racism.





Names like "Nanki-Poo" are certainly silly. But every Asian American has childhood memories of hearing nonsense gibberish spoken at them - "Your mom talks like this!" The rendering of our languages as gibberish means something different to us. It carries pain with it.





What's so disgusting is that our cultures are just used as ornament, as punchline, as just another tool for white people's entertainment.





Some white people get so angry when you take away their good clean racist fun.





And it's also part of a pattern. A pattern where Asian faces are excluded from movies, where Asian men are never rendered as full human beings, where the supposedly liberal theater world casts a classic like the Orphan of Zhao with entirely Caucasian actors, and then uses as its excuse, "Asian actors just weren't talented enough to be in our production!"
34
Hmmmm....http://www.vox.com/2015/3/17/8230783/jap…