It’s time to take the offensive yellowface of “The Mikado” off the stage


I recently blogged about a video produced by the City of Los Angeles – using taxpaper money – that was originally produced with good intentions: Explaining the importance of recycling water. But to make its point, the video used a ghastly, stereotypical caricature of geishas played by non-Asians with painted faces wearing kimonos, including one played by a non-Asian man. Of course, they spoke in “ching-chong” Japanesey accents.

It’s disturbing that it’s OK even in 2013 to caricature Asians with the most shallow racial stereotypes — ones that have been used to depict us for 150 years.

There’s a long tradition in Hollywood and show business in general of “yellowface” – non-Asians (usually Caucasians) cast as Asians. The most egregious example is probably the horrid character of Mr. Yunioshi in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” in which Mickey Rooney played the part to the hilt with buck teeth, thick glasses, squinty eyes and a terrible accent.

But wait, there’s more! He played a perverted lech of a photographer who keeps trying to shoot pictures of his downstairs neighbor Holly Golightly (imagine this name pronounced in a horrible fake Japanese accent), played by Audrey Hepburn.

There are many, many examples of yellowface going back to Katharine Hepburn and Marlon Brando playing Chinese and Japanese characters with their eyes taped back in classic films such as “Dragon Seed” and “Tea House of the August Moon,” all the way to last year’s big-budget sci-fi flick “Cloud Atlas,” in which Hugo Weaving (of “Matrix” and “Lord of the Rings” fame) was among the cast who played both white and Asian parts, with hideously phony-looking makeup.

It’s not just on the big screen. Yellowface has also been a tradition on the stage, and I happened to see two plays recently that used elements of the practice, with varying results.

Gilbert & Sullivan’s famous 1885 comic opera “The Mikado” is known for its social satire; the musical pokes fun at British politics and society by using Japan as the setting for its wacky love story.

But the Japan it portrays is the Japan that people in the late 1800s fantasized about: Exotic, utterly foreign and just plain strange. To ensure that it only depicts simpleminded stereotypes, W.S. Gilbert based the play on a fictional Japan that had just been opened to Western commerce, but he didn’t bother to do any research to make his portrayal of Japanese culture realistic at all.

Instead, he named the village where “The Mikado” takes place “Titipu” and gave his characters improbably names such as “Nanki-poo” and “Yum-Yum.”

The acclaimed New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players (shown above) brought “The Mikado” to Denver for two performances at the University of Denver’s Newman Canter a few weeks ago, with updated lyrics to songs that made fun of Colorado’s legalized marijuana and other contemporary news items.

The social and political commentary was in the grand G&S tradition. But even though the characters at least spoke in British accents (which is how the play is usually produced) instead of horrible Japanese ones, it was difficult for me to get past the exoticized Japanese setting, cheesy fake kimonos-on-acid costumes and of course, the horrid yellowface.

Honestly, I thought for all it mattered, the play could have been set on Navi, the planet on which the sci-fi film “Avatar” took place. For Gilbert and Sullivan, Japan in the late 1800s was as alien as a fictional, faraway planet would be to us. So for anyone considering producing this now-outdated play (the music was utterly forgettable, by the way), drop the fake Japan and go for a place that modern and alien, which won’t offend any ethnicity (unless you’re a blue-skinned Navian who’d take offense).

There have been some protestations over “The Mikado”‘s yellowface, a book written about Gilbert’s use of Japan, and a funny satire for stage and adapted to film called “The Mikado Project.” But most people continue to blindly attend the “The Mikado” and appreciate it as high art.

The following week I attended one of the final performances of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific,” an all-American musical about U.S. military soldiers, sailors and nurses on a Pacific Island during the waning days of WWII. The play was originally produced in 1949 on Broadway, and it was turned into a hit movie in 1958 and remade in 2001. This production was by the local Performance Now Theatre Company, at the Lakewood Cultural Center.

Some of the characters, including a Tongan woman who falls in love with a G.I., was played by a Caucasian woman but she didn’t have any spoken lines so she didn’t need to make a cheap imitation of a Polynesian accent. Her mother, Bloody Mary, was played by Janell Kim who spoke in an exaggerated Asian, not Polynesian, accent but she’s a talented singer and actor, who most recently was in a local production of “Joy Luck Club.”

The “yellowface” in “South Pacific” was incidental, and I assume the result of the small pool of Asian and Pacific Islander actors in the area. Maybe the production could have featured more accurate ethnic actors, but the casting didn’t bother me. Unlike “The Mikado,” the South Pacific setting of this play is an important part of the narrative.

After all, the main point of the musical is to criticize racism – a pretty progressive idea for 1949, when it originally opened. People probably remember songs such as “Some Enchanted Evening,” “Bali Ha’i” and “I’m Gonna Wash that Man Right Outta My Hair,” but the keynote of the book is “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught,” about the two main protagonists and their racial inhibitions: The nurse who falls in love with a Frenchman but is put off by the fact that he has two children by a native woman who died, and the G.I. who turns away from the Tongan woman he loves because of how others will think.

I enjoyed “South Pacific,” but couldn’t wait for “The Mikado” to end. We need to have some perspective on “classic” theater and judge them by contemporary standards if we’re going to perform them today. As far as I’m concerned, just because it was by Gilbert and Sullivan and is a “classic” work of theater from over a century ago doesn’t make “the Mikado” appropriate for today.

I’d compare “The Mikado” to blackface minstrelsy. Although blackface minstrelsy – a form of musical revue where white performers would smear burnt cork or shoe polish on their face and hands and play broadly stereotyped black characters – was one of the most popular forms of entertainment throughout much of the 1800s and well into the 20th century (Al Jolson famously sang “Mammy” in blackface in “The Jazz Singer,” a 1927 Hollywood film that’s significant as the first “talkie” to feature a synchronized dialogue soundtrack), it’s hard to imagine a theater troupe touring the country today doing a black minstrel routine…, unless it’s to make a point about the racism of blackface.

Likewise, I think it’s time to put “The Mikado” on the shelf – or, if someone wants to produce it, have enough guts and cultural sensitivity to set the musical on another planet. Then in a century, the inhabitants of that planet can complain about the stereotypes and force another evolution. The yellowface of the “The Mikado” is now as out of place as the blackface of “The Jazz Singer.”

Art and pop culture aren’t static, any more than social conventions are static. We shouldn’t continue to accept unacceptable depictions of people just because the play is a “classic” from long ago.

Here’s a promotional video of the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players’ production of “The Mikado”:

And here’s Al Jolson singing “Mammy” — would someone reproduce this in a film or on a stage today?

And here’s the trailer for “The Mikado Project,” which seems to me to be the best way to deal with the play:

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16 Responses to It’s time to take the offensive yellowface of “The Mikado” off the stage

  1. Steven Christian Amendola says:

    I don’t know why you didn’t bother to do at least some basic fact checking. It’s plainly untrue that Gilbert did not bother to research the accuracy of his portrayal. At the time of the original production there was a large commercial Japanese exhibition occurring in Knightsbridge, which had a reconstructed Japanese village with several Japanese men and women inhabiting it. W. S. Gilbert specifically hired Japanese consultants to ensure the production’s authenticity of costume, movement and gesture.* Also, while most of the score was in the style of the Savoy Operas and not intended to sound Japanese, he does include a contemporaneous Japanese military march in the score, called Ton-yare Bushi, appearing in The Mikado as “Miya sama.” You’ll also notice that all instances of the Japanese language in the libretto are not gibberish but are real Japanese.

    *Allen, Reginald. The First Night Gilbert and Sullivan. London: Chappell &, 1975. p. 239.

    Not every production of The Mikado bothers to be as accurate as the original, and the ones that don’t should indeed be criticized on that basis, but this is a question of quality and not of an intrinsic racism of the opera itself. Granted, it’s openly racist towards blacks when Ko-Ko sings “There’s the nigger serenader and others of his race” on his list of people that would not be missed following execution. That line is normally altered today. Yet, towards the Japanese there should be no offense interpreted, as Japanese people themselves do not historically tend to take offense and as recently as the previous decade a popular touring Japanese translation of the Mikado with a Japanese cast toured Japan, and performed in England as well.

    The impossible names you’re referring to are indeed impossible because they are farcical and not designed to sound Japanese, nor do they. They’re very plainly baby-talk of an English nature.

    There at least shouldn’t be anything intrinsically racist about using make up to appear as a different race. It’s something we must be careful of in this, a racist society, specifically, but in a non-racist society it would seem perfectly plot-oriented and casual to wear blackface.

    Even your point of comparison, blackface minstrelsy, doesn’t make your case particularly well because there’s nothing intrinsically racist about that either. Minstrelsy was rather horrible to women, but blacks were not the butt of the joke when it came to minstrelsy. Granted, it was popular during a time when it was socially acceptable to be explicitly racist and so there were racist jokes in some blackface performances and some minstrels I’m sure who were explicit racists, but blackface itself was merely a medium which entertained a wide diversity of humor and the use of the medium itself is not sufficient to interpret the performer’s intentions. The dialects used in minstrelsy were usually accurate, in fact, which is thoroughly addressed in Behind the Burnt Cork Mask. This was particularly true when black performers performed in blackface. Many minstrels considered themselves progressive, and the medium as a way to gain acceptance for black characters in plays. A minstrel could be a lead character in a play, and so now a popular play has a black lead whereas that would have been otherwise impossible at the time. That was a good stepping stone, at least.

    What’s particularly strange to me is your use of Al Jolson as an example, who was not a racist and whose use of minstrelsy is one of the clearest examples of the artfulness of the form. Part of the usefulness of the form as well is that it made facial features “pop,” so that in a large theater which had no method of amplification, facial expressions could be seen clearly by the bloody-nosed audience in the nose-bleeding seats. Minstrels would not only use white make up on their facial features to give it this effect, but would also exaggerate the intensity of their expressions and prolong them so that this would be so, and this technique is apparent even in filmed minstrel performances where it becomes unnecessary, but remains true to the style.

    Minstrelsy was killed by the civil rights movement, and that seems to have been appropriate because it was necessary to go beyond ordinary levels of sensitivity towards racial issues in order to reevaluate the intrinsic inequality of our civilization, and as the intrinsic racial inequality of our civilization has only improved marginally, it still seems appropriate for the moment. Yet, this is not because the medium itself is necessarily racist. It’s a sacrifice we’re making for the times.

    You should also understand that opera is not considered in the same way that theater is considered. It’s essentially a different field of performance. Opera, at least in America, is almost exclusively museum theater. They are making sure that old works and art forms continue to be performed for posterity and for their intrinsic beauty. Yet, they’re not designed such as theater is to comment on the contemporary world and so they are not held by contemporary standards. No one gasps when in The Magic Flute, Papageno sees a black person for the first time in his life and remarks, “There are black birds, so why not black men?” This seems to be the correct approach. A person can rarely think outside of the whole marketplace of ideas that exists in their time, so it would at least be unhelpful or useless to call any racist in the 19th century or prior an immoral person when they didn’t have the benefit such as we do of scientific evidence discrediting the notion of race as a useful division of the human species. So one does the piece as museum theater, to preserve the art form, but accepts that it is not designed to please the contemporary intellect. It would be a good thing if minstrelsy could still be preserved in this way, and perhaps one day it will. Unfortunately it doesn’t have the protection such as opera does of being high art.

    And finally, shame on you for the remark about the music of The Mikado. It’s fine, of course, if you didn’t enjoy it for whatever reason, but you should be ashamed of your poor taste and not publicly mention such a thing. It’s some of the most delightful music ever written for the stage. Its effect on popular American culture has been thorough and it should not be forgotten. Even the phrase “Let the punishment fit the crime” was popularized by this opera. “Tit-willow” has enough pathos to bring one to weeping even though the song is being used as a ruse.

    The City of Los Angeles video is most likely deserving of the criticism.

  2. Gil Asakawa says:

    Thanks for your long, considered and thoughtful comment, Steven!

  3. Anne Miller says:

    Why doesn’t color-blind casting work both ways? In a city where multiethnic casting is increasingly prevalent, I can’t recall a single instance where audiences have been asked to ignore seeing a white actor (not in ethnic makeup) in a traditionally ethnic role.

  4. Gil Asakawa says:

    Hi Anne, I’m not sure what you mean. Are you talking about when an actor of color is cast in a role that’s traditionally performed by or written for a white actor? I certainly think this should happen, though it’s not exactly “whiteface” if the role isn’t specifically a white role. “Death of a Salesman,” for instance I think would be just as powerful performed by an Asian cast, or black, or Latino cast. Shakespeare can’t be done in 16th century English trappings, but the Bard has been adapted for all sorts of crazy modernizations over the centuries. I bet some Asian troupe’s done Shakespeare somewhere, sometime. Thanks for your comment, it got me thinking.

  5. Stephen Creswell says:

    Unlike the situation with minstrelsy, where blackface is an essential (and perjorative) marker to today’s cultural sensitivities, the term “yellowface” is being used in two different ways in your post. One involves casting and offstage look of the actor, compared to the role he or she will play, and the other involves acting, costuming, and the actual portrayal of that role. This is why the Rooney portrayal is especially disgusting; both dimensions of yellowface appear glove-in-glove, so to speak, together. How indefensible of the director and producers who allowed it!

    You yourself do make allowances for small numbers of Asian- or Pacific Islander-American actors available for “South Pacific,” but decry the yellowface that is still occurring in Hollywood today, as equally-talented actors may be given no consideration because of their ethnicity. You can appreciate “The Mikado Project” even as its trailer shows Asian-Americans acting out stereotypes–of course: it is part comedy, part cultural critique. But imagine a 2014 production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s opera that featured lines in English delivered in jibbering, false accents? That would be deplorable, yellowface at its worst.

    Happily, here in Seattle, there are no baldy+tonsure wigs, no arched 4-inch stick-on eyebrows, in the Mikado being put on by our local Gilbert & Sullivan Society. The female antagonist of the opera is wearing a gorgeous artistic face mask, inspired by Noh drama aesthetics. All the accents are in British English, are suited to each character, and during one of the patter songs, a line has been changed to, “…nothing more ridiculous, a stage full of Yanks in British accents, playing Japanese.”

    Having seen more than a dozen “Mikados”, my amateur opinion is that this one has the least yellowface (of the second variety) I have seen.

    The local newspaper disagrees, in part: a journalist in Seattle has appropriated some of your language and re-stated several of your key points in an op-ed published on July 14, 2014 in The Seattle Times.

    It’s too bad she can’t see the difference between the two kinds of yellowface, and really a shame that she didn’t read Mr. Amendola’s comments, above. Thanks for affording all this space for this ongoing and important issue.

  6. Gil Asakawa says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Stephen — it looks like your production is aware and addresses issues artistically. I’ll have to try and catch it sometime.

  7. Ken Narasaki says:

    Here’s a funny piece that addresses the differences between yellowface and other forms of cultural misappropriation:

    In all seriousness, though: Look at the publicity photo of the production:


  8. Gil Asakawa says:

    Thanks, Ken. Always love 18MMWs’ take on issues. And yes, when I look at that publicity photo my stomach clenches and I get pissed off….

  9. George89834 says:

    “I bet some Asian troupe’s done Shakespeare somewhere, sometime.”

    Romeo was black in a performance in Belgium back in 1998..the actor’s name was Ray Fearon. He was beaten up by a bunch of white people after the show and had his arm and nose broken. Read Frank Wu’s Yellow for details. One thing is for sure. Asians dont complain all the time but unlike white people never threaten anyone or even worse, carry out the threats. The fact is many white people dont like Asians or blacks taking on white roles.

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  11. YPCheng says:

    First of all, I have not seen the production. It would be nice of the general public takes on an artistic view of the production. However, as a kid growing up in Long Island stereotypes created by mass media and theater production accepted by the mass lead to acceptance of those stereotypes. I would like to think we are moving away from that form of humor generated from the past. Kids can be brutal to new immigrants of an Asian descent especially if they do not speak the language. And the names of these immigrants will definitely be the subject of ridicule of their classmates. The worst part of it the adults in those classroom will deem it acceptable! Been there…and would not want to turn back the clock to the past.

  12. Gil Asakawa says:

    Thanks for your comment!

  13. Travis Risner says:

    I would like to point out that the young lady in the South Pacific you’re referencing was of Polynesian descent. Just FYI.

  14. Melody says:

    I read trying to be sensitive to your concerns but you just lost all credibility when you described the music as forgettable. I suppose next you would ban Madame Butterfly?

  15. Gil Asakawa says:

    Hi Melody, thanks for your comment! I admit my comment about the music is a bit overstated — I was a music critic for many years — but I really did find the music forgettable. I haven’t seen “Madame Butterfly” though in general I find the music that I have heard of G&S dated.

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