Leah Nanako Winkler was sorting mail when she saw a photo on a flyer that stopped her cold.
There’s … a problem here. Photo by Leah Nanako Winkler, used with permission.
“I saw the front cover, and I was like, ‘Oh, weird,'” Winkler, a New York City-based playwright told Upworthy. “And then I looked at the inside cover, and I was like, ‘Oh no.'”
“The Mikado” is one of Gilbert and Sullivan’s most well-known comic operas.
It takes place in Japan as imagined by two 19th century British writers who knew very little about the actual country or its people.
And there’s a pretty big problem with it.
“The Mikado” is frequently performed in yellowface.
“Yellowface” is the practice of non-Asian or non-Asian-American actors portraying characters of Asian descent on stage or on screen, often in heavy, feature-distorting makeup.
Mickey Rooney’s supporting role in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” is probably the most infamous example.
But throughout film and theater history, the practice has been, sadly, commonplace.
Winkler found the contact info for the production company the New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players (NYGASP) and called them up.
Winkler, who is of American and Japanese descent and identifies as biracial, thought surely performing “The Mikado” in yellowface couldn’t be their plan in 2015.
Yes, they told her,
the company would be doing “The Mikado.” And yes, most of the roles would be played by white actors in “authentic” Japanese costumes.
By the end of the conversation, Winkler was frustrated. It was clear to her that the company just didn’t understand.
“You’re going to get in deep sh*t for this,” she predicted before hanging up.
As Winkler anticipated, NYGASP soon found themselves indeed in “deep sh*t.”
The “About Us” section of the NYGASP website, which features a photo of cast members of a 1998 production in yellowface makeup posing with former Chief Justice William Rehnquist.
After Winkler broke the news on her blog, many in New York’s Asian-American theater community began echoing her frustration at being too frequently caricatured and reduced to stereotypes in movies, TV, and live theater.
“I think what’s really nice about this is that there is kind of another generation that’s taking up these causes and looking at that [the issue] differently even than my generation did.” David Henry Hwang, playwright
“My first reaction was: Honestly, I can’t believe it. But I can,” Ming Peiffer, a New York City-based playwright and artistic director, told Upworthy.
Peiffer blames the “model minority” myth the stereotype that most Asian-Americans are well-educated, assimilated, and financially successful for the fact that instances of racism against the group are regularly minimized and ignored.
“For some reason Asians seem to be one of the few races that it’s still totally chill to be racist against [on stage],” she said.
Many others expressed frustration that racist portrayals of Asian characters feel like the whole point of productions like “The Mikado.”
“I find it sort of grotesque,” Michael Lew, co-director of the Ma-Yi Writers Lab, a development hub for emerging Asian-American playwrights in New York City, told Upworthy. “To me, yellowface is no different than blackface I don’t see why it shouldn’t be as taboo.”
For Lew, the decision to mount the production went beyond obliviousness, considering the
well-publicized, national outcry that erupted when a Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan company
produced a predominately white “Mikado” in 2014.
“I think this is an instance of willfully denying Asians their humanity as opposed to ignorance,” Lew explained.
The producers of “The Mikado” initially issued a statement in defense of the production, arguing that their goal was to stay, “as true to the original intent as possible.”
“Our board of directors established a separate committee to analyze and scan ‘The Mikado’ and discuss a way forward and how we wanted to be sensitive to the issues and address them in our production,” David Wannen, executive director of NYGASP, told Upworthy.
In response to the outcry in Seattle, NYGASP’s production originally planned to forgo the “yellowface makeup,” while keeping the costumes and wigs intact. In a September 16 conversation, Wannen explained the company was receptive to the notion that they have more work to do. And by that afternoon, they had pulled the brochure from their website.
“We are open and we’re working with it,” Wannen said, “And all I can say is we are responsive people and adaptive people and by all means want to be sensitive to this important issue.”
“It’s disheartening, and there’s a sense of dj vu, certainly,” playwright David Henry Hwang told Upworthy.
Photo by Jemal Countess/Getty Images.
Hwang is one of the most
prominent Asian-American writers in the world the first to win a Tony Award and a professor of playwriting at Columbia University. In 1990, Hwang led protests of the original Broadway production of “Miss Saigon,” over the casting of (white) British actor Jonathan Pryce in the role of the engineer, a French-Vietnamese character.
Hwang suspects that some productions employ yellowface in a misguided attempt at a “post-racial aesthetic” the notion that racism is over and that merely demonstrating an awareness of the stereotypes being played on stage is sufficient while others may do so because they lack historical memory.
“[Yellowface has] become more visible in the last five years or so,” Hwang told Upworthy. “Taking a longer term view of this, it is interesting to me how something that I kind of maybe mistakenly thought was part of the past suddenly came back to life.”
Ultimately, NYGASP decided to shelve the production and stage another Gilbert and Sullivan classic “The Pirates of Penzance” in its place.
“NYGASP never intended to give offense and the company regrets the missed opportunity to responsively adapt this December,” read a statement submitted to Upworthy late Thursday evening, Sept. 17, 2015. “Our patrons can be sure we will contact them as soon as we are able and answer any questions they may have.”
NYGASP deserves a lot of credit for listening and doing the right thing.
Winkler and her cohort deserve even more credit for not backing down.
“I think what’s really nice about this is that there is kind of another generation that’s taking up these causes, and looking at that [the issue] differently even than my generation did,” Hwang told Upworthy.
Winkler says that she’s faced criticism for being “too angry” or “too sensitive,” but taking a stand against yellowface felt personally necessary.
“[Yellowface] evokes a lot of really terrible memories,” Winkler said. “I don’t think that should be dismissed as just being too sensitive.”