With last year’s massive national controversy about The Mikado in Seattle, it’s difficult to believe that anyone, anywhere, would be doing The Mikado in yellowface, right? I mean, Rick Shiomi at Skylark Opera in collaboration with Mu Performing Arts in Minneapolis showed us all how it’s done back in 2013: Since the work is actually meant to lampoon British Victorians, why not actually dress them as British Victorians? A few very small, non-invasive line changes and voila. Now you get to have Mikado sans racism. That’s what we all want, right?

As it turns out, no. The New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players is doing a production of The Mikado this upcoming holiday season, with most of the characters in yellowface. Playwright Leah Nanako Winkler wrote a fantastic piece about it on her blog that was picked up by Angry Asian Man, in which she expresses her shock and calls for people to speak out in solidarity with the Asian American theatremakers (and audience members) who are fighting for better representation of Asian people on American stages. If you want to contact the Skirball, she lists all the contact information you need.

Several of the usual (awesome) suspects in the theatre blogging community are writing about this production as well (Howard Sherman, Erin Quill). With all these articles burning up my feed, I’m seeing the inevitable backlash comments as well, defending The Mikado in particular and racism in art in general. I’ve covered this issue before. We’ve all covered it before. And yet the apologia for racist content never stops.

So, I’m thinking it’s time to play Racist Art Apologia Bingo! EVERYONE PULL UP YOUR FACEBOOK FEED. Find the first article about this set to “public” and open the comments. Get ready to check those comments for these well-known racist apologia statements as Millie calls them! Ready? GO.

I'm ready!

I’m ready!

(Tumbles wheel full of racist apologist statements) OK, I’ll just reach in here and pull these out one by one. See if you can find them in your feed!

Source: bossip.com

Millie draws the first one! (Source: bossip.com)

B17: “The one who points out racism is the REAL racist.” Quote from my feed:  “[The Mikado] is only racist in the eyes of a racist.”

Analysis: ILLOGICAL. I get that you’re going for the time-honored “I’m not the nerd; YOU’RE the nerd” you picked up in grade school, but it doesn’t fly in grown-up discussions. Let’s think about this for a second. The primary voices speaking out against yellowface are Asian American. So Asian Americans who say The Mikado is racist are the real racists? Because . . . ?


Here comes the next one!

N44: “Why should we pander to political correctness/SJWs/liberal demands?” Quote from my feed: “A work of art shouldn’t pander down to ignorance but insist that an audience rise to its challenge.”

Analysis: BELITTLING. Treating people of color with respect is never “pandering.” You only “pander” to demands when those demands are unworthy of consideration. Making this argument is tantamount to saying that racist portrayals of people of color on our stages, including yellowface, are so perfectly acceptable that the protest against them is worthless, and any consideration of that worthless protest is pandering. This quote is even worse, as it assumes that people who protest the racism in The Mikado are just “ignorant” and unable to “rise to the challenge” of art.


Did you get both? Get ready for the next one:

I29: “It’s actually anti-racist if you think about it.” Quote from my feed: “What always matters in the question of whether something is racist is intent. It is actually making fun of an Englishman’s condescending attitude towards other cultures…or specifically, the Japanese.”

Analysis: WISHFUL THINKING. So let me get this straight: The cartoonishly stereotypical characters in The Mikado are actually fighting racism because they’re mocking Victorian racism through modern white people performing cartoonishly racist Asian characters. This is like claiming you punched someone to show other people that punching is bad. MY INTENT WAS CLEAR. I am anti-punching. Therefore, I get to punch whoever I want. QED.


Ooh, I bet you guys are getting close! Just a couple more spaces to fill……

042: “You just don’t understand.” Quote from my feed: “[The claim that The Mikado in yellowface is racist] is an astonishingly simple and one-dimensional understanding of this lighthearted but really profound and many layered work of comic art.”

Analysis: NONSENSE. We understand; we just disagree. We see all the layers that you do, sweetheart, we just don’t agree that the “profound” message that Victorians were racist and Orientalist (lol, “profound”) does not earn the right to perform yellowface in 2015.


One more . . . Come on, Millie! I’m so close!

G8: “This is ART.” Quote from my feed: “There’s a very good reason these works have endured…why they are admired.”

Analysis: IRRELEVANT. This is an apologia favorite. “Art needs to be protected; art should be pushing boundaries and making people uncomfortable; pieces like The Mikado have have endured and long been admired; we should never censor art.” No one is claiming these works should be demolished. We should continue to study them. Pretending our history of racism never existed is a dangerous idea. But what we’re choosing to perform as “light-hearted” comic performances, what we choose to put on our stages, and how we choose to present work, are all completely different considerations. The work didn’t endure because of the racism in it, and often, as Rick Shiomi demonstrated, there’s a wonderful workaround that makes the piece relevant to an audience for whom racism is no longer acceptable.

The main problem with the “preserving ART” argument is that racism and racist caricatures had one cultural context in the Victorian (or Elizabethan, or Classical, or what you will) era, and have completely different contexts now. Fighting to preserve a racist work as written most often vandalizes that work’s original intent. The racist symbol was created to convey a meaning it can no longer convey. Yellowface can no longer convey the meaning Gilbert originally intended when writing The Mikado because that meaning has been superceded by a modern understanding of yellowface’s inherent racism. Even if you believe the yellowface in The Mikado means “Victorians are racist; isn’t that funny?” it can never mean that to an audience in 2015 because yellowface is read as racist in and of itself, and stomping your feet and insisting that Gilbert’s intent was completely different does exactly nothing to change that.

But purism is a smokescreen to hide the real issue at hand. If people are fighting so hard to perform classic works as originally performed, where are the castrati? The boy actresses? The act intervals? The on-stage audience seating? These people have no interest in purism as such. They’re upset because they feel entitled to the right to be able to decide what is acceptable and what is not. White people have always had that right, and the idea that people of color might have the cultural power to contradict them and be heard galls them. An issue these white people find acceptable– racism in performance– is being challenged, and they will fight as hard as they can to retain the cultural supremacy that entitles them to continue to define racist performance as “acceptable.” They’re fighting more and more furiously because they know they are losing.

I, however have WON!


Suck it, Marlene, Esther, and Florence! See you at the next Hadassah meeting in my NEW HAT.

Suck it, Marlene, Esther, and Florence! See you at the next Hadassah meeting in my NEW HAT.

P.S. Shana Tova to my fellow tribespeople and Jew-ish affiliates! I hope you all have a wonderful 5776.

UPDATE 9/18/15: NYGASP has announced the production will be cancelled and replaced with Pirates of Penzance. I still think a better solution would have been to update the work like Rick Shiomi did, but I understand why they felt they should just shut the whole thing down. I hope this opens a conversation at NYGASP (and elsewhere) about representation and diversity on our stages.

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6 thoughts on “BUT I GET TO BE RACIST BECAUSE ART: The Mikado

  1. JR says:

    Thanks for your invitation on Mike’s fb, and I apologize if I was intemperate. I don’t think your race or mine matter, per se, though I do find the critiques above don’t address my position / make me feel a little bad, given that I don’t identify as white. (For full disclosure about identities, again, as this seems de rigueur in these things, my mom’s Japanese-American, my Obachan and Ojichan were interned during WWII; my dad’s family are New York Jews; I was raised Jewish, bar mitzvah’d etc., but am currently non-practicing). Also, now that every Mikado is cancelled for Penzance, maybe this is all unnecessary, but

    Let me say what I’m not doing here, also, to try to clarify where I’m coming from, and hopefully start this dialogue off on a good foot: I don’t mean to call into question other people’s offense at Mikado as illegitimate (I don’t think people like you and Mike are insincere or ignorant or inaccurate) and I’m not asking you and others to not be offended (I generally don’t think imagining myself the tyrant of other’s opinions is a good rhetorical/life strategy).

    So why not leave it at that – we have incommensurable opinions about what’s offensive? Because I think where we do disagree is what the appropriate response is to these plays or other media, and it’s more than a tactical difference – that is, I don’t just think we shouldn’t protest these plays because it might be ineffective – I don’t think we should protest these plays at all because the protest itself causes injury.

    Okay, so to get to it: why am I “fine” with yellowface? I think it goes to your earlier point about anti-Semitism in the Merchant of Venice and more broadly the intersection of two competing goods: a generally liberal position in re the private policing of speech (to be clear, not a 1st amendment claim, no one thinks that the state should have forced the Skirball to shut ‘er down, and I don’t mean to strawman you by suggesting that) and a generally communitarian position in stopping speech that causes harm to members of the community in which we live.

    Neither of us takes a maximalist position on either side, I’d think – that is, we both think that if, say, the Klan were to put on An Octoroon (and not the Branden Jacobs-Jenkins version), that this would be worthy of protesting the play and venue. Shut it down. And on the opposite side, if someone were to put on a play satirizing W Bush as a drunk Jesus-freak Amerikkkan pedophile (that is, making a claim that would be legally libelous if Bush weren’t a public figure), I don’t think it’d be appropriate to protest the venue for staging it. Similarly, if someone were to put on a play satirizing Obama as a baby-killing Kenyan-born Muslim genocidaire, I also don’t think it’d be appropriate to protest the venue for staging it. We might already disagree with the Presidential plays, but let’s unpack where I’m coming from.

    In the latter two cases, for me, the object of the plays’ status as public figures with power overrides the community’s offense, despite the bigotry inherent in each piece of satire; in the case of An Octoroon, the position of African-Americans as subaltern in a system of white supremacy that immiserates, incarcerates, and murders them suggests that the burden of merit vs community harm is far too high for almost any use of blackface to meet.

    But let’s take the Merchant of Venice, perhaps a middle case. Certainly all Jews are not a President. Say that the Kennedy Center decided to put on the show, and it’s a European non-Jewish director (a Dario Fo type), and it’s a non-Jew playing Shylock, and they want to make some sloppy point about global finance, and it’s not really well thought out and Shylock comes off pretty much as an anti-Semitic caricature (hook nose and all), and worse, one that suggests that all Jewish bankers today are basically Shylocks. So Abe Foxman and the ADL and Joe Lieberman get together and start protesting (in this hypothetical), and they call for people, especially Jewish folk who work in global finance like me to participate in this protest. But I think that’s absurd, and I’m kind of embarrassed about the ADL and want the to shut up (both in this hypothetical and generally). Why? Possibility one is that I’m just a self-loathing anti-Semite, but I’m going to strike that one off the list – you’ll have to trust me that though I’m not practicing, I like being culturally Jewish.

    My take is that the harm to the Jewish community from this (or almost any conceivable) hypothetical play is too minor to justify complaint. Because we have great positions of economic and political power in this country – that don’t make anti-Semitism any less real, or people offended by anti-Semitism insincere – but certainly make it less important in scope, relative to other possible claims. Because by amplifying a particular pathway of victimhood, we come close to making a false claim (i.e., roughly Jews are Other, rather than being beneficiaries and implicate in our system of white supremacy), we do additional harm to Jews like me (who are offended by the ADL’s constant equation of Jews as victims: that’s real psychic harm to me – I don’t like being reminded of anti-Semitism; I don’t like being told that I’m an Other; I don’t like being told I’m being wronged. That isn’t ignorance, it’s about how to choose how to navigate Identity without feeling Other-ed), and we damage the system of complaint (roughly the ADL takes the microphone away from no more real but more deserving complainants). It’s like Leon Wieseltier once wrote at the old TNR about the danger of describing all threats to Judaism or Israel as existential and therefore worthy of panic (http://www.newrepublic.com/article/hitler-dead): by losing the ability to discriminate between what actually threatens us, we diminish ourselves (“But the real problem with typological thinking about history is that it is not historical thinking at all. It is ahistorical thinking. It obscures and obliterates all the differences between historical circumstances in favor of a gross, immutable, edifying similarity.”).

    And if I can’t really sanction a complaint about this hypothetical Shylock-y Shylock because I feel the complaint injures me more than the performance, why should I think that complaints about yellowface in G&S are any different? For me, it doesn’t. Asians (particularly East Asians like me) have lower poverty rates than whites, higher household income, much higher educational attainment, lower incarceration rates, and much lower crime victimization rates. We’re slighly underrepresented in theater (~3% vs 5.6% based on Mike’s stats), which seems like something that could be better — more Asian plays sounds great, but it’s hard to compare with other inequity.

    When I married my wife (Midwest white Catholic), no-one said anything about my ethnicity or my mother’s ethnicity — and why would they? Intermarriage rates are incredibly high among Asian-Americans. We out-marry more than almost any other Census group. I don’t expect that this would have been the same if I had been black; that is – had I been a black Christian, rather than an Asian Jew, I expect I would have faced much more casual racism and bigotry within my own family (as it is, none). Asians haven’t suffered systematic discrimination in American society recently – which is not to say that anti-Asian prejudice doesn’t exist – it does, just like anti-Semitism, but that it has to be contextualized in what oppression means today. Since of course race and racial supremacy are socially constructed, rather than biological, my belief is that Asians, like Jews, have become “White,” and part of that “white-ness” is realizing that we’ve become oppressors and beneficiaries of white supremacy.

    So, just like hypothetical Shylock, the complaint against the Mikado makes me feel worse than the initial “injury.” The Mikado, even in full yellowface, doesn’t make me feel anything, really. The protest says that I’m a victim, an Other, a casualty of white supremacy – things that injure me, and make me feel guilty of distracting from white supremacy’s real victims, who aren’t exactly Ivy educated Asians working in theater and finance.

    Maybe I’m just self-hating and dead inside – or maybe, and here’s what I hope is going on, is that I feel powerful enough to recognize injury’s context and brush my shoulder off. I’m a big believer in feeling powerful and brushing my shoulder off, that, for example, a focus on all these microagressions is a focus on re-injury that re-victimizes minorities. I think some of this disagreement is roughly generational (though you and Mike and I are all the same age); my arguments definitely feel a bit “older” minority (and that tracks when talking about it with my parents or their friends versus my peers, who are more likely to agree with you). At any rate, thanks for asking me to engage in dialogue — though I thought too long about how to say this, because now there are no more Mikados. Cheers.

    • Dana says:

      Or, you look white enough that people have treated you as white all your life and that’s the perspective you are coming from now, therefore all the borderline whitesplaining.

      (As for the “cultural Jew” bit, when did Jewish people start counting their ethnicity through the father’s line? News to me.)

      Meanwhile, I think it entirely appropriate for white people to police other white people when those other white people are perpetuating all these microaggressions you speak of, much less the major aggressions that leave people raped and maimed and dead. And it is *definitely* appropriate for people of color to police us. If either of those bother you, that’s your fault, if I’m going to judge you by your own standards.

      • JR says:

        Real classy to deny my Asian-ness based on physical appearance. As far as _cultural_ Judaism, a) 1983 the Reform movement switched to patrilineal, b) my mom converted anyway, c) do you know what the word cultural means?

        Your whole comment reveals the racist nature of your politics and a lack of reading comprehension. Nowhere above did I say that being offended meant being at fault; the entire piece is about the ways in which taking offense itself can cause offense by re-victimization and by taking the microphone away from others. Thank you for existing, because I’m often worried that I’m straw-manning people who disagree with me.

  2. Steven Walvick says:

    JR, I hear what you are saying, but i would argue it’s a little more nuanced than that. My friend Michelle Levin makes the analogy that Jews (and perhaps East Asians) are “off-white”–that is, sometimes he beneficiery of White priviledge but sometimes still its victim…. As someone who goes around with a yarmulke, it’s easy to identify me as a Jew, and on occasion to be on the receiving end of hate speech or other negative stereotypes. Now I always have the option of wearing a baseball cap or even taking off my yarmulke which a person of color can’t really do (unless you’re Eddie Murphy or I believe the Wayans Brothers).

    There are still significant numbers of people out there who believe that you can “Jew down” the price of something, and as they sing on Avenue Q “everyone’s a rittle bit lacist” towards Asians among others…..

    So we’re stuck in the middle, much like the Irish and Italians of years gone by….

  3. Shall we keep insisting on the all, and only, black casting for Porgy and Bess?

  4. Headington says:

    The characters in the Mikado may be “cartoonish”, but no more so than in any other Gilbert & Sullivan operetta. What “asian stereotypes” do you see?

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