Wednesday, September 16, 2015

On the Mikado, Yellowface, and Gilbert and Sullivan.... (Again)

So Mikado is back in the news again... Yellowface is back in the news...  again and honestly, it is so exhausting that this is back up, that I'm having this same conversation... Initially I was like, "you know, I dont want to talk about Mikado any more... I dont want to talk about Yellowfacing the Gilbert and Sullivan classic anymore, I'm just exhausted by it.  I'm not engaging in any comment threads, I'm not posting about it I just am too demoralized by it coming back up AGAIN, to even engage...

But A friend asked me to comment, and it makes you go, "If I dont comment, then the perspective is not seen." and like Don Corleone, it just keeps pullin ya back in... 

see, even though I appreciate the discussion, and the questions and Im glad for them cause it means people are opening their minds and their empathy for that bit of time to recognize their own privilege,,.  and I really do appreciate that.   It just gets so frustrating that it happens so often and that a culture of so called "color blindness"  also blinds people to the marginalizing effects of misrepresentation... and the systemic brings. but I accept it cause I kinda have to...  Its a daily everyday part of my life... so here we go... 


Heres the thing... if its about making fun of British people and British society, then make them British. If you want to fictionalize a British society in order to criticize its social trappings, and point out the inherent foolishness of their cultural order, then the best thing to do to serve the storytelling and our modern context that is unfamiliar with 100+ year old British high society and focus the storytelling on what the play is supposedly about., then you should put them in tails and bowler hats and mustaches and corsets. That just makes sense narratively. 

Then you got to ask yourself, if these characters have made up nonsensical names that resemble no culture on earth, but sound like a euphemism for defecation, if they have fictional buffoon like characteristics that are caricatures of people not resembling actual people or cultures, then why or what is the attachment to making them distinctly Japanese-esque?

What is it about making them Japanese and making Japanese-ness into this extreme, wacky "other" so important to the story? 

If the story is more effective because "those oriental people are so wierd" then you have a problem! 

If its effective because "Japanese are so different and that difference makes our social commentary innocuous because that way we're not offending the any normal people" then thats a problem. 
if its because "it was traditionally written as a representation of what Japanese people are actually like" thats definitely a problem. 
If its cause the "costumes are pretty" then not only is that a problem, it also doesn't serve the story, not to mention its pretty dehumanizing in that you're basically just saying "we wanna skin the Japanese people and wear them cause its fashionable." 

At the end of the day, the real reason why G&S decided to write a critique of British class structure and set it in a mythical Japan that looks more like Dr. Suess is because at the time, people saw Asians as bizarre, inhuman, savage and inherently hilarious. The aesthetic is more about otherness for a laugh than it is about understanding or exchange of an actual culture and that is not about political correctness.  Its just plain ol period specific racist hate speech. 

Now I do not hold this against G&S, it was just the point of view at the time...  It is a period piece after all... But theoretically, we've had 100+ years to know better and to figure out how to make this ancient story work in the present day..., (That is why we don't do minstrel plays anymore and we have women playing Female roles when we do Shakespeare instead of young boys playing women as men wanted them to be.... Somehow, its harder for us to carry over this sense of empathy over tradition to Asians and Asian Americans and that is where I challenge all of us to ask... "WHY is that?"  How are you and the rest of our society and culture a victim to these age old tropes about Asians and Asian-ness that it does not grant me the benefit of your empathy the way it does women and African Americans?)

NOW, to next level this..., every time we get in to Mikado played in Yellow face, the first question I ask is, "Well how many Asian people did they get involved?" (Which is usually very few. maybe one or two if that at all... at which point I ask internally, how many self respecting Asian or Asian American people even want to be involved with this crap unless the director has a vision that serves the story, and not the caricature. 

When I find out that no Asians show up to the auditions... I think "WELL, that should probably have been the first tell tale sign that theres something wrong with your show in 2015"

That said, G&S were brilliant. amazing songwriter/lyricist with a legacy of great work. Mikado is part of that. but with any classic you have to ask yourself "what makes this relevant to context of today that we should do it here and now? If you know your audience, then what new or universal meaning does this 100+ year old work have in today's context?" And if you're not asking that question, what kind of director are you? 

Against the backdrop of today where AAPI's have been shut down to only 4% of available new roles on broadway in the past few seasons, and where tv/film luminaries like Aaron Sorkin feel like adapting screenplays from properties based on real life Asian Americans are a waste of time because noone in their right mind will cast an Asian American Lead actor, and the remaining roles that AAPI actors do get are mostly two dimensional, stereotypical portrayals, that ultimately play in to all kinds of systemic exclusion of AAPI's.  For example, the low rates of promotion to executive and management positions despite high representation in say the tech industry. Multiple false accusations of espionage against American Citizens.  And of course, the politicians who rant anti immigrant rhetoric, inspire hate crimes, create a culture where AAPI public school students survey at the highest rate of bullying of all racial groups, and Asian American Women clocking in at statistically the highest rate of teen suicide amongst their peers. To me its not insignificant

No, one production of the Mikado is not gonna make people hate all Asians or Asian Americans, but it is symptomatic of a culture that systemically dehumanizes and belittles perceptions of AAPI's in our culture, and continues to disenfranchise them. 

That said, there have been great productions that used all Asian Casts that allowed for a more sensitive interpretation of the work.  I've seen all white Casts with period British style costumes that were great.  Another inspired production with a multi cultural cast that chose a cartoony Anime inspired aesthetic that played up the ridiculousness of the characters in a modern design aesthetic that was relevant to today's audience. These were Directorial concepts that served the work and the story in the context of contemporary life and sensibilities, vs lazy, trope filled, belittling, minstrel shows that race bait and are just plain awful and tired. 

At the end of the day, when I see these productions like the one at Skirball, I see carelessness, ignorance and sloppy storytelling that lead to really racist results. When I see these companies, I dont think anyone hates me or my Asian-ness, but I do see a bunch of people who are being part of the problem, and not the solution, in addition to just shoddy artistry. 

(so thats my rant... thanks for reading this far with an open mind...)