No sooner had I posted my last blog entry on Frequently Asked Questions About Yellowface Casting, then I was made aware of a brewing controversy regarding the Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society‘s current production of The Mikado. An op-ed by Seattle Times writer Sharon Pian Chan blasted the production for its yellowface caricatures of the Japanese, saying it “opens old wounds and resurrects pejorative stereotypes.”
The comments section for the article lit up with impassioned defenses of the G&S Society, as well as support for Chan’s viewpoint. Some of the posts were well reasoned while some were not – on both sides. On my personal Facebook feed, this issue was debated amongst friends and acquaintances, theatre professionals and casual observers.
Some people took their anger and discontent further, filling the Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society’s Yelp page with negative reviews and photos that call them out on the racism of their current production. Interestingly, some of the reviews I recall seeing there earlier in the week have now disappeared, which leads me to wonder if the G&S Society is actively trying to get them removed from their Yelp page. A recent article in Forbes gives a better picture of both the charges leveled against Yelp about helping businesses remove negative reviews and Yelp’s claims that they don’t do that. However, they do at the very least try to filter responses via an automated recommendation software that targets infrequent or neophyte users, multiple posts by the same person, or “unhelpful rants and raves.”
In any case, there are still some harshly worded critiques on the G&S Yelp page such as this one-star review from Ken N. that begins, “I get so tired of the argument that Gilbert & Sullivan wrote this as a satire on their own Victorian England. What do audiences see when they see a production like this? They see white people mincing around, squinting their eyes, and one of the actors in the photo is bucking out his teeth. THAT is what the audience sees.”
[UPDATE: As of July 22, all the negative reviews plus the photos that were posted onto the Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society’s Yelp page have been removed for the ostensible reason of violating Yelp’s content guidelines and/or terms of service. I’ll grant that the photos that were posted (depicted on the screen shot that leads off this article – click on it to see a bigger version) did actually violate the content guidelines as one could argue that they were not “broadly relevant to the business and reflect the typical consumer experience.” However, several of the written reviews were well-worded and non-abusive complaints that commented on a very specific way that the G&S Society does business, and I don’t see how they were in violation of Yelp’s policies. Once again, it makes me suspicious of the way Yelp operates. A couple of new negative reviews have now appeared, but I have doubts about how long they’ll stay visible. You can still read one of the negative reviews (a very nicely written one at that) that is “not currently recommended” and therefore not figuring into the Yelp ratings at this link, as well as see that Yelp has removed three pages worth of other reviews for violations of content guidelines or terms of service. At the same time, three five-star reviews – all added in the same period of time as the removed negative reviews – remain on the site, allowing the Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society to have a higher overall rating than it might otherwise.]
At this juncture, there’s been a lot said on the subject of The Mikado – including Asian American theatre scholar Josephine Lee’s book The Japan of Pure Invention: Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado, which is perhaps the most detailed discussion of the constructions of race and racism found in various iterations of it. So I don’t really feel the need to add to that particular discourse. [UPDATE: You can hear Josephine Lee talk about this latest Mikado controversy in a radio interview on KUOW.]
Instead, this latest dust-up has prompted me to think about what are the most effective methods of protesting misrepresentation, and what is going too far? Despite the difficulties I noted earlier, I like the idea of posting on Yelp, as that website is set up to review businesses, and those making negative comments have a legitimate beef with the way the offending organization is conducting their business.
But how much can be accomplished via the Internet? Earlier this year, there was a debate over the efficacy of so-called #hashtag activism. Suey Park – who had effectively led a Twitter campaign about Asian American feminism with #NotYourAsianSidekick last December – tried to #CancelColbert after the late night comedian did a satiric sketch that utilized Asian stereotypes to make a point about football team owner Dan Snyder’s Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation. The resulting backlash is effectively summed up here with a great think piece by Esther Wang about how social media can still be used as an activist tool here. However, Wang is quick to point out that it needs to supplement face-to-face organizing, not replace it.
Pickets and other direct-action strategies were utilized effectively during the protests against the Broadway musical Miss Saigon in the early 90s. Signs were displayed with slogans such as “Stop Stereotypes” and “Third World Women and Children Are Not Broadway Props,” helping to raise awareness amongst playgoers and the media. I should note that this aspect of the protests – specifically about racist stereotypes – were separate from but related to the protests launched by Asian American actors who were not given a chance to audition for the role of The Engineer, which I’ve previously discussed on this blog.
One of the most radical political actions during this period occurred when a couple of protesters snuck into a benefit performance of the show and interrupted the musical. The fundraiser was for Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, an LGBT organization. The protesters were part of a coalition of activists – many of whom were both Asian and queer – who had previously tried to get Lambda to cancel its fundraiser due to the misrepresentations of Asians found within the musical.
Yoko Yoshikawa documents this incident in her first-person account “The Heat Is On Miss Saigon Coalition: Organizing Across Race and Sexuality” that is published in The State of Asian America: Activism and Resistance in the 1990s. She writes:
Rumor had it that Jonathan Pryce, a Caucasian British man and leading actor, was close to a nervous breakdown, unnerved by all the controversy and criticism of his role as a Vietnamese pimp. We sat and nervously waited specifically for him. As Pryce entered the set and launched into song, we blasted into ours—deliberate discord, whistling, yelling at the top of our lungs: This play is racist and sexist, Lambda is racist and sexist!
I’ll admit that, as a theatre person, this protest makes me uncomfortable even as I recognize the efficacy of this type of direct-action strategy. I participated in a number of similar protests as part of ACT UP, and specifically at the Board of Education as a member of the affinity group YELL (Youth Education Life Line), as we interrupted meetings to call attention to the lack of effective AIDS education in New York City public schools.
But I don’t really like the idea of interrupting a live performance of a theatre show. I also have a great deal of sympathy for Pryce as an actor, even if I don’t regard him as completely innocent in his continuing to perform the role once he was made aware of how Asian Americans found his use of yellowface offensive. And yes, I understand that he didn’t create the musical, and that the role was a huge opportunity for him that eventually won him a Tony Award that advanced his career.
I remain ambivalent about this kind of protest. When I’ve brought it up in my theatre studies classes, my students have typically been horrified that people would actually interrupt a Broadway show in this manner. Interestingly, I don’t get as many objections to it when I teach the same subject matter in my Asian American Studies classes.
One strategy that I wholeheartedly support is the way the Asian American Performers Action Coalition responded to La Jolla Playhouse’s yellowface casting in its production of the new musical The Nightingale. They worked with the theatre to arrange a public forum to discuss the issue. The show’s creators appeared alongside AAPAC members, including Christine Toy Johnson who talks about this panel in the interview with her that I published earlier on this blog. A video of the entire La Jolla Nightingale discussion is available here, and is worth a look.
One of the biggest complaints that I’ve heard over the last couple of weeks is that we seem to keep fighting the same battles over and over again. What’s happening with The Mikado and Pacific Overtures now isn’t all that different from what went on with The Nightingale and the RSC’s The Orphan of Zhao a couple years ago. Those controversies, in turn, raised many of the same issues as the 1990 Miss Saigon protests. Going back even further, protests against the use of yellowface in Len Jenkin’s New Jerusalem at the Public Theater in 1979 opened up a dialogue between Joseph Papp and the protesters that would lead to the emergence of playwright David Henry Hwang, whose play FOB debuted at The Public shortly after.
Battles over (mis)representation are, unfortunately, likely to continue. But as indicated by that last example, sometimes real change can occur as a result. I’m curious to hear what strategies others have found to be particularly effective or ineffective. So feel free to share your own stories or opinions in the comments section.