Skip to main content

Yellowface staging of 'Mikado' has to end

By Jeff Yang
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1518 GMT (2318 HKT)
An opera production of
An opera production of "The Mikado."
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • To celebrate 60th anniversary of Seattle's Gilbert & Sullivan Society, "The Mikado" is shown
  • Jeff Yang: Yellowface productions of "The Mikado" have to end
  • He says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is offensive
  • Yang: Racial costuming seems to be resurgent; we don't need it in this day and age

Editor's note: Jeff Yang is a columnist for The Wall Street Journal Online and can be heard frequently on radio as a contributor to shows such as PRI's "The Takeaway" and WNYC's "The Brian Lehrer Show." He is the author of "I Am Jackie Chan: My Life in Action" and editor of the graphic novel anthologies "Secret Identities" and "Shattered." The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- Before my parents left Taiwan in 1967, they were given a gift box full of America: A collection of the greatest Broadway cast recordings of all time, lovingly pressed into 50 sleek disks of vinyl. For over a decade, the contents of the box were the only music played in our home.

My sister and I came of age listening to Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe, Sondheim and Styne and Strauss. And when we were finally ushered into the dark of an actual Broadway playhouse to experience firsthand the unique alchemy that occurs when music and theater meet, we were hooked for life.

All of this is just to explain why I'm conflicted by the controversy that's erupted over the recent revival of W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan's comic operetta "The Mikado," which is being presented in celebration of the 60th anniversary of Seattle's Gilbert & Sullivan Society, one of the oldest light opera companies in the nation.

Jeff Yang
Jeff Yang

It's hardly surprising that the Society would choose "The Mikado" for its diamond jubilee year. It is the most frequently staged of Gilbert and Sullivan's operettas and a perennial favorite of the Society. Every time, they have done it the same way: As a photocopy of the Victorian original, with Caucasian actors wearing garish facepaint and outfits that cartoonishly approximate traditional Japanese garb.

There's a term for this kind of racial costuming: Yellowface. It's a phenomenon that seems to be resurgent.

We saw it in Katy Perry's geisha-inspired performance at the American Music Awards in November, in a January episode of the hit sitcom "How I Met Your Mother" and a month later, in the opening sketch of the venerable comedy program "Saturday Night Live."

Each time, the use of yellowface has been defended as loving homage or harmless parody. Each time, when Asian-Americans have pointed out that we don't find the wearing of cosmetics and wardrobe to simulate Asian appearance to be "loving" or "harmless," our concerns have been dismissed.

Which is why, despite my deep personal love of musical theater, I think these "traditional" productions -- yellowface productions -- of "The Mikado" have to end.

Show's kung-fu tribute deemed racist
Asiana filing suit against TV station

They are the deep-drilled root of the yellowface weed: the place from which the scourge keeps springing back, even when its surface expressions are plucked. There are older examples of yellowface in entertainment than "The Mikado," but none so popular, and certainly none that have been as popular among mass audiences for as long -- 129 years and counting.

I want to be clear that I'm not saying that "The Mikado" shouldn't be performed at all.

Its biting satire and splendidly silly stage play make it quite possibly Gilbert and Sullivan's greatest work. But when it is performed by an all-white troupe of actors dressed and made up as Asians, it shifts from a brilliant comedy of manners to, as Asian-American actress and blogger Erin Quill says, a "racist piece of crap."

Quill, a musical theater veteran and original cast member of the bawdy Off-Broadway hit "Avenue Q," is actually quoting herself. That's the first line spoken by Cheryl, the character she plays in the indie film "The Mikado Project," a mockumentary that follows an Asian-American theater troupe forced to put on a production of "The Mikado" in order to stave off bankruptcy.

"In the movie, the artistic director makes a desperate attempt to convince us that it won't look like yellowface, because underneath the costumes and makeup, it's Asians playing Asians -- or at least the Asians white people think we are," says Quill, who also co-wrote the screenplay. "Obviously, the company is not down for it."

By demonstrating that Asians can't present a "traditional" version of the show without looking and feeling ridiculous, the film aptly exposes the uncomfortable racial reality behind operetta's fanciful farce. But it then goes on to show how little it takes to make a version of "The Mikado" that isn't offensive: A commitment to multiethnic casting and an end to the use of makeup to ape "exotic" Asian features.

And while we're at it, maybe change the cast names to something that don't sound like schoolyard slurs? There's no reason why Nanki-Poo, Ko-Ko and Yum-Yum couldn't be Namihiko, Kaku and Yume, all names that Japanese humans might actually be called.

Change is painful. Hardcore fans find the suggestion of any kind of alteration of G&S's works to be anathema. But live theater is unsettled and organic by nature. No two performances are the same, and shows are revived time and again, with each new production adding contexts that enhance rather than erase the original.

Indeed, "The Mikado" has seen the wildest set of adaptations of all of Gilbert and Sullivan's works.

1939 saw the first staging of "The Hot Mikado," a jazzed-up edition of the opera featuring an all-black cast, which has since itself been revived dozens of times. In 1987, Monty Python member Eric Idle headlined a much-celebrated version of "The Mikado" for British television, which was traditional in all respects, except for resetting the antics at an English seaside resort.

Even "traditional" productions embrace mutability and modernity.

The song "I Have a Little List," sung by Ko-Ko the Lord High Executioner, details a lengthy set of individuals who "never would be missed" if they were to encounter the business end of a chopper. Every "Mikado" production customizes the lyrics of the song, rewriting them to lampoon present-day celebrities and situations. If Ko-Ko can sing about Kardashians and customer service operators, there isn't any reason why the rest of the play can't be updated as well.

A hundred and thirty years ago, Asia was exotic and alien and strange; today, sushi is sold in 7-Elevens (now a Japanese-owned chain!) and there are 18 million Americans who trace our ancestry to that continent, but keep our homes and hearts right here.

Isn't it time to lower the curtain on yellowface for good?

Read CNNOpinion's new Flipboard magazine

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 1938 GMT (0338 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT