"The Mikado" Performed In Yellowface and Why It's Not Okay

Chris Peterson

While my name might not be an indicator, I am Asian American. So you're going to have to excuse me if I'm more than a bit sensitive to the issues that face Asian performers.

One such issue that has arisen in the last few days is the news that the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players would be performing, again, The Mikado, with a cast made up of primarily Caucasian performers (2 are Asian), which would mean that the Caucasian actors would be performing in "Yellowface" or make up design that would depict stereotypes of Asian people. 

It's Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany's all over again. 

Far better writers than myself, such as Leah Winkler and Howard Sherman have, rightly, already taken the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players to task for this.Their decision to perform the piece with this type of design is equally insulting as it is moronic. 

"But the show is set in Japan!", says the staunch Gilbert & Sullivan purist. 

Yes, but any "Gilbert & Sullivan expert" would know, as Mr. Sherman pointed out, 

The Mikado is a source of offense and insult to the Asian-American community, both for its at best naïve and at worst ignorant cultural appropriation of 19th century Japanese signifiers, as well as for the seeming intransigence of 20th and 21st century producers when it comes to attempting to contextualize or mitigate how the material is seen today. Particularly awful is the ongoing practice of utilizing yellowface (Caucasian actors made up to appear “Asian”) in order to produce the show, instead of engaging with Asian actors to both reinterpret and perform the piece. Photos of past productions by the NY Gilbert & Sullivan Players suggest their practice is the former.

Here's one of those photos.....yeah....

My opinion is this. If the Met views performing Otello in blackface, offensive enough that they shunned the practice of it in 2012, then why is it defensible or acceptable to for The Mikado to be performed in yellowface? 

You would think that since experts in opera figured that out, "experts" in Gilbert & Sullivan would too.

The good news is that the production will be performed in 2016 which is one more year into a time period where companies such as the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players should know better.