Why the Mikado is a No-No, and Other Painfully Obvious Realities About Race Representation in the Theatre
Nearly 4 years ago, as a fresh face on New York’s scene, I attended the inaugural Asian American Performer’s Action Coalition (AAPAC) meeting held at Fordham University. A multicultural caucus of over five hundred Asians and non-Asians alike we were gathered to discuss the severe lack in quantity and quality of stage roles available to actors and performers of Asian descent. At the time, I was relatively green in my understanding and in my ability to discuss the troubling realities concerning the diversity gap on stage. However, I was passionate and increasingly hopeful about the progress I was witnessing towards a more inclusive theatre. After all, how could we fill a venue this large and with so many diverse voices if the issue at hand was not one of extreme importance? Why would so many artists spend an evening discussing race representation over precious art-making unless real change seemed possible? Imminent?
Immersed in an eclectic buzz of impassioned monologues streaming in from all sides and in all directions, I remember thinking: How amazing is this!? We are FINALLY having a conversation! Things are CHANGING! What an exciting time to be diverse! To be an artist! To be Asian! Boy oh boy, was I superbly mistaken.
I thought of umpteen ways to begin this article.
I thought about being funny.
I thought about trying to come off well-read, eloquent, intellectual.
I thought about falling back on my usual sarcasm (a preferred method of discussing race) exploiting the inherent racism in The Mikado with (what I narcissistically imagine to be) a palatable yet scythe-like wit.
I thought about writing really ridiculous image laden sentences (like the many strewn throughout) in an attempt to lyrically brainwash you into understanding everything that I was saying was legit.
But sometime, halfway through the 18th rearranging of the same topic sentence, I finally gave up.
I literally said FUCK IT.
I threw my fingers in the air and unleashed a wide range of expletives. An activity which (unfortunately for everyone) has now trumped engaging in any sort of meaningful conversation about such issues with like-minded colleagues or friends. Because honestly…
I don’t know what to say anymore that hasn’t been said.
And I no longer derive comfort from the dozens of private conversations I’ve had about race with those who “get it”, when I know that these conversations should be made public. Even at Columbia University, an academic environment made for knowledge expansion and intellectual discussion, I am consistently either actively or passively silenced with regards to discussing the issue of race and representation, and have often questioned my own sanity (and whether or not I learned anything) as a result of it. In retrospect, I realize I did learn something. Many things. But mostly, I learned that since attending that AAPAC meeting 4 years ago, has been no significant change in representation for Asians.
At the drop of a hat, I am able rattle off a literal scroll’s worth of well-known names, prestigious venues, and award-winning ensembles that have mounted productions where I felt morally compelled to get up and walk out due to blatant racism enacted on the precious few Asian bodies on stage. I add “moral” because I am usually the only patron of Asian decent in the audience and often one of the few women of color. And so I feel compelled to take a stand when I look over my shoulder at a sea of white faces, throwing their heads back with the ease of Pez dispensers, cackling out sugar-laden guffaws at racist jokes and offensive stereotypes (especially since my stoneface and exaggerated sighing seems to be doing the opposite of the trick.)
But, before we begin a séance and start conjuring up nightmare worthy ghosts of racist theatre past…Let us focus on the ever-evolved, present-day, New York stage (!) where plays like The Mikado can still be performed with an almost entirely white cast, complete with actors donning #Yellowface, at a prestigious university that prides itself on educating and invigorating the city it supposedly reflects. Why must we once again go through the panoply of politically correct racial discourse to explain why [INSERT OUTDATED ASIAN MUSICAL HERE] is offensive. Is incorrect. Is *racist*. Notice I use the word “RACIST” here, and not “problematic”, because I’m done pussy-footing around this.
I am done attending shows simply to justify my frustrations with this industry and this country. I’m done seeing shows where the only people of color are killed on stage as scene transitions or glorified theatrical devices. I’m done waiting for the privacy of my own home to voice my disgust when I watch jokes made at the expense of the colored persons’ identity. I am done monitoring my own language when others are allowed to spit racial slurs out like coins and theatre companies (like NYGASP) continue to use the most offensive racial slurs, stereotypes, and exploitative caricatures in the guise of “satire”. The mental state and historical perspective of a racist society is not, and never was, a sufficient “big reveal” to breathe life into these productions time and time again.
I don’t need you to “show me” racism. I get enough of that real representation in my daily life.
I don’t need to watch the indulgence of White Guilt in an attempt to display the “awareness” of it.
What I really don’t need is to watch an entire play, set in a fictitious Japan that exploits and belittles an entire race and culture simply to highlight, or “poke fun” at the absurdity of those silly Brits! A facebook user commented:
“Yellowface is THE WHOLE POINT of The Mikado. Call it dumb, call it racist, but if you’re going to tolerate the show AT ALL it makes no sense to demand an Asian cast. It’s almost literally a minstrel show (the hero sings a “Wandr’ing Minstrel I”) [where the] British are lampooning the British while playing childish dress-up–they knew basically nothing about Japan at the time. Personally I think the show should be retired for a while.”
I disagree with this comment.
Firstly, because it operates under the assumption that audiences inherently understand the satire Gilbert was trying to accomplish. Secondly, because it ignores the fact that using an entire country or culture as a backdrop for white people to make jokes about white people, is in itself a problematic erasure of a race of people. Thirdly, because we cannot censor the work, I feel that the only possible way I personally believe this show might be staged without being deeply and permanently offensive is to follow in the footsteps of Mu Performing Arts’ production directed by Rick Shiomi. They produced the show with an all-Asian cast, and an updated script. Even then, I am still skeptical due to the sheer backwardness of the entire script. Perhaps a further overhaul, like Brandon Jacobs Jenkins’ An Octoroon, is the only way for Asian people to reclaim the identities systematically ironed out by the creators of the show and those (NYGASP) that continue to produce it.
The saddest part is that this is the second article I’ve written where I’ve had to put my own creative endeavors aside to criticize the programming of some of the most well-respected theatrical venues in New York, the mecca of the theater world. As an Asian American artist who strives to be seen as an artist, as a human, and also as an Asian American–I cannot shake the feeling that this is yet another all nighter I’ve spent fruitlessly arranging my thoughts in an attempt to make someone (anyone) hear them.
At that AAPAC meeting years ago, one moment in particular continues to shine out brighter than the rest of the memories my mind recorded that night. A question was posed: “What do we [the Asian American community] need to do to gain recognition in theatre?” The artistic director of one of New York’s most respected theaters (a white guy serving on the Asian American panel—Hilarious? Maybe) offered the fact that years ago African Americans, in response to blackface, used to picket outside of theaters …and suggested that we might do the same. This comment was met with more than its fair share of skepticism, and even disbelief. The idea that in the twenty first century, in a society where the term“post-race” has been used to death, our community must gather outside and brandish signs to keep racism at bay was our best option was shocking. I remember thinking:
Surely we are beyond this.
But a sad, slow realization has brought me to this juncture. To this very sentence where I don’t know where to go or which keys to press. It is now painfully obvious that we are so far from “beyond this.” Be it racism, inequality, misogyny, homophobia, class discrimination, or any of the social mores embedded in our society that we have not yet begun to dismantle.
This embedded racism is evidenced by even a top-notch education center like NYU Skirball, that should know better, hosting a performance with such flagrant racist themes. Even worse is the thought that culture centers like these don’t view the donning of Yellowface, regardless of the play’s content, as the inherently racist and entirely unacceptable practice that it is and has always been.
I don’t know what to do. So instead, I ask you, Dear Reader–
How can I be seen as real? As multidimensional? As idiosyncratic? Must I be portrayed with the lazy stereotypical costume, stylized giggling, just the “right” application of eye make-up, and maybe a thick accent with broken English thrown in for laughs?
How can I, a biracial female artist of Asian descent, finally be portrayed as human?