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‘The Mikado’s’ yellowface through the eyes of my Asian daughter

The Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society's production of "The Mikado." Credit: Photo: Patrick Andre

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.”

Still, we were curious to see it, so I took her to the Gilbert & Sullivan Society production as preparation for her own performance. She was excited to go. She invited a friend from school, and explained the plot with the authority of an expert. She brought along her score and nudged me every time they came to one of her songs. Because of our conversations, she saw the characters onstage more for their universal human foibles — the pompous bureaucrat who holds all the jobs and the lovesick hero who is willing to cut off his future for one month of wedded bliss – than their ethnicity.

Lacking a history of institutionalized racism, she could delight in all that silly humor without seeing the stereotyping that was going on. But prior to the production, somebody from the G & S society came out and made a speech alluding to the controversy. Abby and her friend looked at me questioningly.

“Uh, I’ll explain at intermission,” I said.

To my relief, when intermission arrived, Abby and her friend were too busy getting cookies to pursue it further.

Working through my own white liberal defensiveness, I found reasons to defend the G & S Society production: Not only did they know that this was a cultural appropriation, they, in fact, poked fun at themselves, inserting a quip into the lyrics about “Yanks pretending to be Japanese.” Their biggest gaffe, I considered, was an uninspired costuming choice: If this is about England and not Japan, then why have everyone wear black wigs?

But then I asked myself how would I feel if the operetta were set in some mythical Jewish shtetl, and the cast all had yarmulkes and fake big noses?  It would bother me.

Moreover, I realized, this wasn’t just about costuming. Demeaning names such as Yum-yum, which liken the Asian ingénue to a candy treat, have become especially offensive in light of the cultural stereotyping that followed Gilbert & Sullivan’s time, casting Asian females as docile objects of Western desire. (Take, for example, “Madama Butterfly.”) 

The 1885 “Mikado” might have been intended as a playful romp in an exotic locale, but a history of Western imperialism has added layers of complication that cannot be shrugged away. Ultimately, it was mother’s pride that pushed me to turn this into a teachable moment.

When the SPT youth production started getting positive press in print and online as a counterexample, I couldn’t help but share it with Abby. But first I had to explain how it was that a kids’ production was getting all this publicity anyway.

So I told her about British colonialism, Orientalism, Japanese internment during World War II, blackface minstrel shows and everything I could think of to help her understand.

Her response: “Can I go back to my iPad?”

“Well no, darling, this is an important conversation we’re having. Let’s finish our conversation. How did it make you feel to see all those people dressed up, pretending to be Japanese?”

“Was that ‘yellowface”?”

“Yes. We call it that because it reminds us of blackface.”

“Put your arm next to mine, Mom….  I’m not really yellow”

“No. You have a beautiful golden tan. And I’m not really olive either. What did you think when you saw the adult actors dressed up like that?”

“That I hope I can learn all my lines.”

At last week’s forum, there was considerable talk about appropriation — a one-way taking from another culture without understanding it — but what I wish we’d focused more on is that there are also ways to fuse cultural icons in a respectful two-way process that isn’t appropriation.

Reimagining “The Mikado” in a manga environment is one example. Manga itself draws its characters with all different hair colors and varying facial features — even though they are meant to be Japanese. In other words, manga has appropriated western culture as much as we in the West have appropriated it. It’s a two-way street.

My daughter’s experience in SPT’s “Mikado” got her away from Disney and Barbie for the summer and left her with a positive self-image. Her take-away memories are of singing catchy tunes, dressing up in lively, hip costumes, and going out for ice cream with the cast, which included East Asian, South Asian, white and bi-racial kids.

And now that she’s caught the theater bug, I can bet she’ll want to go back next summer, whether it’s for “HMS Pinafore” or the “Merchant of Venice”.

To the Gilbert & Sullivan Society, thank you for your humility and willingness to listen to painful lessons from the community. And when you do produce “The Mikado” again in six, 12 and 18 years, get ready. Because the next generation of performers is going to be a lot like the rainbow-colored cast at SPT. And they’re not going to stand for yellowface.

The Seattle Public Theater cast of the manga Mikado. Photo: Paul Bestock.

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