On Friday, July 25, members of the Asian Pacific Islander community and allies continued an educational protest against the Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan Society’s The Mikado. Protestors have held a presence at the Seattle showings of The Mikado for the last two weekends. Armed with signs, flyers, and a readiness to educate, protesters demonstrated against the production’s use of “yellowface.”
The protests were organized by activist Christina Seong, who created the Facebook group, “Join in Solidarity Against The Mikado,” after reading “The yellowface of ‘The Mikado’ in your face” by Seattle Times editorial columnist Sharon Pian Chan.
In the Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan Society’s production of The Mikado, a play that is set in Japan, there are 40 Japanese characters all played by white actors, including two Latinos. The company cast no actors of Asian descent.
“I think that there needs to be some accountability for casting 40 non-Asian actors to play the ‘Japanese,’” Seong said.
Protestors expressed frustration at the reaction of the Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan Society and attendees to The Mikado.
“One of the things that upsets me the most about this whole production is the people attending this performance are missing the point,” said Matt Chen, who was protesting the show on Friday. “[People attending The Mikado] assume we’re being racist for being here protesting. They don’t understand that the content is racist in their portrayal. The thing that bothers me the most is that they’re dismissing our protest by saying that: ‘You’re too sensitive.’; ‘You’re being silly.’; and ‘You’re being stupid.’”
Washington State Representative Sharon Tomiko Santos also attended the protest on Friday. She said the intent of the protest is to educate people attending The Mikado on the effects of racism and the history of racism against Japanese Americans and Asian Pacific Islanders.
“We are not here to put the Gilbert and Sullivan Society in a defensive mode,” Santos said. “We’re here to educate. We would hope that they take this protest in that spirit and to recognize that the opportunity for dialogue and for working with the community came before this mounted. … One of the most important roles of the arts is to open people’s eyes, open peoples’ hearts, and to educate them.”
Although this is not the company’s first production of The Mikado, the play is inherently problematic from its conception. Yes, the play was written in 19th century England to satirize the British government. However, The Mikado was written at the expense of Japanese and, to a larger extent, Asians. With The Mikado set against the backdrop of Japan, librettist W.S. Gilbert generalized and parodied Japanese culture and people by fabricating the town of Titipu, populated by people with ridiculous names like NankiPoo, KoKo, and PoohBah.
The Mikado is a form of what theorist Edward Said would call “Orientalism”—the way in which the West would conceptualize Japan, Asia, the East, the Orient, and anything that is not the West to be “the other.” The practice of Orientalism is creating a form of knowledge, a set of characteristics to be designated as Orient, or other, that is different, backward, and strange from whatever is West, or normative. The Mikado is brought through the alchemy of imagination, exoctization, and delusion.
Despite emerging Asian figures in the media like Steven Yeun from television show The Walking Dead or Mindy Kaling of The Office and The Mindy Project, yellowface still exists. This is not the first incident of yellowface this year. Katy Perry’s performance at the VMAs, How I Met Your Mother, and Saturday Night Live all made headlines in 2014 by committing yellowface.
There is a problem with yellowface. No, it is not that Asians Americans are sensitive. The problem is stupidity and ignorance. Those who assume that yellowface is fine have no consciousness of the historical, systematic, and continuing discrimination against Asian Americans: Chinese Exclusion Acts; World War II Japanese American Incarceration; Philippines American War; stereotyping; hate crimes and so on. It is the taking of another race without experiencing the prejudice and oppression. Yellowface is the adoption of what it means to be Asian from a white standpoint. It is the ownership of Japan, Asia, the east, and the Orient in terms of the West or whiteness. Yellowface is a form of Orientalism and there is no reciprocal relationship.
There is no such thing as whiteface. People of color can not own whiteness. Not all races are treated equally. Not all races were oppressed and discriminated against in the same way. The practice of yellowface, blackface, and brownface is the misappropriation of another identity, culture, and history amidst a racial hierarchy. Those suffering from historical amnesia and sheer ignorance have absolutely no authority in adorning themselves in another race.
Although it has been a half century since the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the racial climate in the United States is far removed from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s mountain top. Seattle is no exception. The Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan Society’s production of The Mikado is hardly a play that many people of color stomach to see. When passing out flyers and creating a dialogue, one of the attendees on Friday remarked to nationally recognized artist Roger Shimomura: “Why don’t you go back where you come from?”
Shimomura replied, “I’m from Beacon Hill.”
Editor’s note (7/29/2014 at 8:05 a.m.): The sentence, “Not all races are equal,” was changed to “Not all races are treated equally” to more accurately, rather than figuratively, explain the context of inequality.