I participated in the August 18th community forum on artistic freedom and responsibility at Seattle Repertory Theatre, held in response to the controversy over the Gilbert & Sullivan Society’s production of “The Mikado” (See The Seattle Times' “The Yellowface of The Mikado in Your Face,” by Sharon Pian Chan).
Moderator Kathy Hsieh invited me to talk about the effects of cultural stereotyping on children. I have two daughters — one who is adopted from China, and one who looks Jewish like me. I talked about the stereotyping my children notice in television and film; how all too often in popular kids’ shows the ultra-competitive Asian-looking character reflects our uneasiness about our standing vis a vis China. I talked about how, in the Disney princess lineup, there is one Asian, one black, one Native American and one Arab representative, but nearly a dozen white princesses, and no Jewish ones at all.
That night, I couldn’t sleep.
Given the opportunity to speak from my heart, I had cowardly blamed the makers of mass media — the artists not in the room. Much braver would have been to stand before my friends and colleagues in the Asian American acting community and in the Gilbert & Sullivan Society, and point a way forward – beyond victim and victimizer.
My 9 year-old Asian daughter Abby’s experience in this summer’s youth production of “The Mikado” at Seattle Public Theater provides one example of what that path can look like.
I signed Abby up for the production because its contemporary take, set in the world of Japanese manga, seemed right up her alley. For a period, her favorite bedtime music was “HMS Pinafore,” but she’s also thoroughly modern: She has been begging me for months to get a turquoise streak in her hair, which I finally consented to for the production.
At left: Abby as a schoolgirl in Seattle Public Theater's "The Mikado." Photo: Paul Bestock
If anything, the “The Mikado’s” pseudo-Asian setting made it more appealing to Abby. (Another favorite bedtime music of hers is Puccini’s “Turandot,” set in a fictionalized China.)
Her friend Jing-jing, who was also in the show, is an Asian adoptee with a Chinese mother and a Caucasian father. Jing-jing’s mother said she signed her daughter up for the show precisely because “The Mikado” called for Asian parts.
SPT’s production, directed by Kelly Kitchens and Barbara Lynne Jamison, neutralized some of the show’s cultural appropriation. Set in imaginary cartoon land, “We are gentlemen of Japan” was changed to “We are citizens of this land.” Yet its manga-styled costuming and set design also paid homage to Japan.
I prepped my daughter by talking to her about how Gilbert & Sullivan were poking fun at English, not Japanese, society. The setting may be Japanese, but all of the cultural references are British. Abby played a schoolgirl in the show. One day, referring to a lyric in one of her songs, she asked me what “seminary” means. Japanese girls don’t go to seminary. British girls do. Abby sees herself as both American and Chinese, so she has no problem being both English and Japanese (or in this case “Manga-nese”), Victorian and modern.
Not only is she capable of holding a dual identity, she needs to, so I have learned, in order to feel whole.
With this in mind, I was particularly concerned when controversy flared up over the Gilbert & Sullivan Society’s adult production of “The Mikado.” My first reaction was to shield my daughter from the uproar. I didn’t want her to feel conflicted about her participation in the show or to have to choose sides.
I was worried too about what she would think of me. Would she add this to her list of grievances, along with having to take Saturday Mandarin lessons? I imagined her down the road telling her adult Asian adoptees group, “My clueless white mom signed me up to be in a racist show.”
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