I'm biracial. Which means that people from two opposite cultures (Japan and America in my case) have freely been talking to me about race in two languages with no filter before I knew what the words meant. So before you dismiss these thoughts as "angry" or a product of a creepy "PC Culture" know that it's an impetuous sense of comfort that drives me to talk and write about these issues in my daily life as they come up because, well, race has been a part of my daily life since I was born. So when this flyer for The New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players production of The Mikado at the NYU Skirball Center For The Performing Arts was delivered to my office on a peaceful Monday morning, I felt totally comfortable calling them directly to ask questions.
Here's how it went.
For the record, I'm not a journalist.
The Guy On The Phone asked specifically not to be quoted (as you'll see below) and so I feel it's important to note that though my recollection of the conversation is pretty clear, it's not an official quote- and most likely some minor nuances and words like "hi," and "okay," were omitted or added. Here goes:
Me: (friendly) Hi. I'm calling about your production of The Mikado.
Guy On Phone: (friendly) Okay sure!
Me: (friendly) How many performers of Asian American decent do you have cast in your production?
Guy On Phone: (friendly, prepared): We're a company of mostly Caucasian members. There are two performers of Asian decent in our production who-just like the Caucasian actors playing Japanese roles- play characters outside of their ethnicity. That being said, "The Mikado," isn't meant to be performed by any specific race or ethnicity. It is meant to be performed by Gilbert and Sullivan experts, which we are.
Me: (friendly) Interesting. Thank you.
I ruminated on this a bit. See, despite being comfortable talking about race, I'm NOT comfortable with the burnt out, draining feeling you get when you're bombarded with defense mechanisms you weren't quite prepared for after simply asking a question or calmly pointing out glitches in the familiar "neutral" pallet often referred to as "whitewashing." Often times, comments about race even in safe spaces with fellow creative cohorts spark conversations that end in tears, or even worse, blatant dismissal and silencing.
And yet, something propelled me to call this guy back.
Me: (calm, but not exactly friendly) So, in this production of "The Mikado" you're using yellowface.
Guy On Phone: (firm) There are two Asian American performers in the cast.
Me: (calm, but not exactly friendly) And the rest?
Guy On Phone: (firm, defensive) We're working with a costume designer to make them look... authentic.
Me: (calm, but not exactly friendly) What do you mean by authentic?
Guy On the Phone: We're working with our designers to uh- well the flyers uh-
Me: (calm, but not exactly friendly) When you say authentic what do you mean?
Guy On Phone: .........
Me: Because I'm looking at your flyer now and it's yellowface.
Guy On The Phone: Like I said, we're working with a designer-
Me: Do you mean like, slanty eyes?
Guy On Phone: Maybe the flyer doesn't reflect the-
Me: (losing my shit) YOU'RE GOING TO GET INTO DEEP SHIT FOR THIS.
And then I thought: Wait. Do I even deserve to be upset? If I were one of these performers, people would probably assume I was a white girl in yellowface makeup. Maybe even one of the actor/singers in this flyer are one of the aforementioned Asian Asian American people The Guy On The Phone claimed were in the cast (NOPE).
But still, I felt bad for losing my temper because I'm smarter than that. But mostly because I'm constantly punished for that. In my years working in the New York Theater scene, I've learned that any comments or views I voice about the so-called "difficult" issues must be veiled under the guise of the Liz Lerman Critical Response Process to have a chance at being digested by the academia infused art culture. Maybe if I said, "Excuse me sir, I have a neutral comment about the use of yellowface in your production of The Mikado would you like to hear about it?" the conversation would be more (buzzword) productive. And then I laughed, because the political climate is tumultuous on it's own and there are so many problems bigger than me. Is something as insular as theater -- much less the New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players -- really a priority at this point? But something propelled me to call him back again.
Me: (calmly, friendly) Hey, so who am I speaking with?
Guy On Phone: (weary) Who am I speaking with?
Me: (calmly, friendly) Leah. I think. I think want to write about your production of "The Mikado."
Guy On Phone: (firm) I don't want to be quoted. I don't want to talk about this anymore. I DON'T WANT TO BE QUOTED.
Me: What's your name?
Guy on Phone: (hesitant) Albert Bergeret
I looked up Albert Bergeret. He's the artistic director of the New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players which can't be an easy job. And he sounded terrified.
His bio points that he is an accomplished man. I'm sure a talented man. One who has built an entire body of work and garnered respect in the opera world and beyond.
His Artistic Statement suggests that he is a man who values work that "isn't mean spirited."
So I'm sure his defenses are not malicious.
I'm pretty sure his views about The Mikado are just a product of his age, gender, background and training.
I should just let it go.
But then THEN- just then- I remembered the reason I was propelled to keep calling the guy over and over again. THIS SAME THING HAPPENED JUST ONE YEAR AGO IN SEATTLE AND IT MADE NATIONAL HEADLINES.
Last summer, Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society production of The Mikado cast 40 non-Asian actors in Japanese roles and sparked actual protests, a national debate and a series of widely covered discussions that aimed for change.
You can read Sharon Pian Chan's incredible initial article on the whole debacle here: http://www.seattletimes.com/opinion/the-yellowface-of-ldquothe-mikadordquo-in-your-face/
And a round up of the action the article, and the Yellowface production sparked here: http://blogs.seattletimes.com/opinionnw/2014/08/19/mikado-yellowface-debate-at-seattle-repertory-theatre-forum/
And also on CNN, MSNBC, NPR and CBC and blogs like Angry Asian Man and Reappropriate.
I reread the articles and let it all sink in.
I recall the smug feeling I got when I initially read some of those articles as they made their social media rounds a year ago.
The feeling of... Wow, I'm glad I live in NYC where none of this would ever happen.
I was so, so wrong.
The Guy On The Phone -- he seemed to have a prepared statement ready when I asked him my questions. He HAD to have heard about this controversy a year ago. And yet... he still decided to go on with it. People still decided to fund it. And actual subscribers will go to the NYU Skirball Center and watch a cast of white people (minus two) use Opera and expertise as an excuse to traipse around as Japanese caricatures named "Nanki Poo" and "Yum Yum."
And then I watched this YouTube clip of The Mikado by The New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players from 2011 and thought, you know what? I'm not even angry. I'm embarrassed.
Just to be clear.
This isn't a complaint.
This isn't whining.
This isn't even anger.
And I've already thought about all the reasons I'm labeled or dismissed so go ahead and do that if it makes you feel better. I don't care.
Because this is an embarrassment.
It's an embarrassment that as supposedly open-minded, eclectic voiced artists, we can't have real conversations that truly reflect what people talk about with ease on twitter without tears, labeling, shattered friendships and or bruised professional relationships.
Its' embarrassment that "The Mikado," as Sharon Pian Chan so eloquently put it in her article, The Yellowface of The Mikado In Your Face, "a fossil from an era when America was as homogeneous as milk, planes did not depart daily for other continents and immigrants did not fuel the economy," is still, in 2015-2016, planned to be celebrated during the holiday season in the melting pot that is New York City in this tumultuous, complicated, ever changing and current world.
(The current cast of New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players upcoming production of The Mikado)
But hey... Seattle artists figured it out. Seattle artists got it right. The Seattle artists talked to each other.
So NYC artists -- what's good? Asian and non-Asian alike? Are we going to settle and accept that having two Asian actors in this production of The Mikado, isn't quite as egregious as none whatsoever and allow the yellowface set in the "fictional" land of Japan to be depicted in our expensive, wonderful city that we work hard to exist and be heard in every single day? Or are we going to live up to the bar previously set by our allies? I don't think the national spark and debate that the good people of the Emerald City triggered should be forgotten, do you?
Don't second-guess like me.
Don't doubt like me.
Don't over think it like I did. #SayNoToMikado
Demand a conversation.
Contact New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players directly at:
New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players
302 West 91st Street
New York, NY 10024
Albert Bergeret, Artistic Director/General Manager
David Wannen, Executive Director
Via their facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/nygasp
Via Twitter: @NYGASP
And contact NYU Skirball Center For The Performing Arts, who say they are dedicated to groundbreaking international talent, while cultivating audiences through deeper engagement.
Michael Harrington ( I spoke with assistant who was very receptive)
You can also contact Amy Coombs at email@example.com
Via Twitter: @nyuskirball
Via Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/nyuskirball
MORE TO COME SOON.
This post was originally published on Leah Nanako Winkler's website. Republished with permission.