The last few days have been brutal for The Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society, and me in particular, since Sharon Pian Chan published her opinion piece on our production of The Mikado: Yellowface in your face. I don’t know if Sharon Pian Chan is a good or bad person. I have never met her, nor spoken to her beyond taking a message that she wanted to talk to our Producer, Mike Storie. I can’t say one way or the other if she is, or is not a good person. I can only judge the opinion piece she wrote for the newspaper. I won’t rail, I won’t yell, I won’t curse her; I am just too tired, too bruised, and just too plain heartsick too expend the energy. Although I do not condone her method, or her failure to actually see the show, or her failure to make some effort to find out if any of her assumption and assertions were true, I get how she could make the leap to outrage from one badly lit picture.
I get it because as a black woman I am often confronted by issues of racism and sexism, be it blatant, subtle, institutionalized, or perceived. I too have reacted in a knee-jerk fashion. I believe when confronted with these issues I have always dug a little deeper, checked other sources, and did some research on my own before taking action. Given what I, and the Society have been through in the last few days, I hope to God that my actions were indeed merited. The idea that I may have caused the kind of damage that we are experiencing to some other organization, individual or institution because I took a head long rush to judgment based on a headline, or an opinion piece, and regarded those things as fact sickens me to my soul.
I get it, I do, but unlike Ms. Chan when I make a headlong leap to accusation I don’t get to blast it across the Opinion page of a major newspaper under my own byline. Not only does Ms. Chan have the power of the press, it also appears to me that she does not have to stick to any journalistic standards of due diligence and fact checking. I can only guess that since she is writing an opinion piece she does not have to research her material, or back up her statements with facts. She can make any statement she wants because it is her OPINION. Behold the power, prestige and privilege of the press.
So, although I cannot know if Ms. Chan, or her motives are good or bad, I can assign a value judgment on the opinion piece she wrote on Monday, July 15. Ms. Chan formed her opinion, and it is an opinion not backed up by facts, research, or actually seeing a performance, nor is a ten minute conversation, if you can call it that, with our Producer Mike Storie, research. Ms. Chan didn’t converse with Mike, nor did she interview him. She railed at him, bombarded him with accusations and open-ended questions that had no really good answer, which she then placed, out of context, throughout her opinion piece. The open-ended questions where on a par with, “So Senator, when did you stop beating your wife?”
But the biggest problem with Ms. Chan’s opinion piece is the title: Yellowface in your face. That title is the equivalent of a linguistic Molotov cocktail. Those words had such a hard hitting, gut wrenching, knee jerking power that for some people that was all they needed to read, and they dug no deeper for facts them Ms. Chan’s scratch across the surface. I know this because I am the one who is getting the emails, the voicemails, the phone calls, the name calling, the profanity laced invective, and the hate.
Did Mike Storie say the things that were quoted in Ms. Chan’s opinion piece? Did he actually say, “It’s a fun show, I personally have never heard any complaints”. Yes, he did because it’s true. In the 60 year history of the Society we have never received a complaint about The Mikado, and even in 2008, the last time we produced the show, we received no complaints. And I might add that until Ms. Chan published her piece on Monday we still had heard not one word of complaint. We announced last year that we were staging The Mikado. That information has been in newsletters, emails, letters, press releases, radio ads, print and online newspapers, as well as entertainment magazines and at no time until Ms. Chan published her piece did we hear any kind of criticism.
Did Mike equate shutting down The Mikado to banning historical books like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn because “Huckleberry Finn is all full of slaps at black people”? Yes, he did, and I agree with him whole heartily. I don’t advocate the banning of any book or play either. But Ms. Chan took that statement further then he went when she, not he, with her inflammatory follow-up statement: “Well no, those books should not be banned. But a theater production of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn should be shut down if the character of Jim, an African American were played by a white actor with shoe polish smeared all over his face”. Well, guess what Ms. Chan? The slaps to black people still remain in every production of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn I have ever seen, be it live or on film, even when a black actor is cast. Should we now ban its production too? I also have a real problem with The Taming of the Shrew and it misogynist message, Porgy and Bess for its portrayal of black life, and Show Boat. My list is long and sundry, but I would by no means suggest that we ban them all, stop staging them, or that we heat up the cauldron and sharpen the knives for any theater company that decides to do so.
Is The Mikado an antiquated period piece best left to history’s dung heap? Is The Mikado on its face racist? Is it a stereotype laden, caricature driven, finger pointing farcical look at a racial group? Yes it is. It is a stereotype laden, caricature driven, finger pointing farcical satire of white people, and in particular the British Peerage of the 19th century. It is a poke at that august sector of Society, who had little to no understanding of Japanese society and culture, but held a superior belief that they did understand Japanese society and culture, and could not be bothered to learn otherwise.
Did we produce it exactly as it was written 130 years ago? No, because like Gilbert & Sullivan we update our productions to reflect and satirize the societal, economic and political realities of the here and now, but we do it in keeping with the beauty of the original production. Everything about the production is hyper-realistic; the props are larger than life and even the staging is a minimalist confection of perceived Japanese symbols. And yes, the makeup is in the same over the top exaggerated hyper-real Kabuki-esque style that is not, nor intended to be a depiction of Japanese people, nor is it a yellowface caricature of Japanese people.
Gilbert & Sullivan, the social and political satirist of their time, mocked that particular phenomenon by creating the entirely fictional and exaggerated town of Titipu. The town is populated by white people who speak and sing in plummy British accents, use typical British colloquialisms, hold particularly British office and titles, and who are dressed in exaggerated, over the top kimonos, obis, head gear and wigs, and make-up due to their imperialistic view of Japanese life. The character’s names are an exaggeration of British baby talk of the 19th Century, and not as Ms. Chan assert “gibberish Asian names.”
Ms. Chan also faults our casting methods, although she never bothered to find out what that method is, and it appears to me that she doesn’t really care because if she were to actually research, investigate, or just plain ask us, it would probably not be in keeping with her ‘Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society’ as racist narrative. Is the majority of our 40 member cast white? Yes they are, and I have to tell you the majority of performers that come to our auditions are white, and despite all our recruitment strategies, and there are many, we cannot cast anybody that does not walk through the door. I can’t tell you the number and times I have heard some variation on the words, “The Gilbert & Sullivan Society? Aren’t they just a bunch of stodgy old white guys”? Well, no we are not. This belief is lingering, pervasive and both frustrating and annoying in the extreme. The Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society has throughout its existence cast to talent, and has cast people of color who were right for the role even before “color-blind casting” became the PC mantra of the day.
But with that said, I am saddened that this cast can be dismissed as irrelevant because they are white. Every person on that stage won the right to be there. Every one of them has worked hard, studied hard, and works constantly to refine their craft to the highest possible quality. They have spent years training their voices to achieve the range, power and beauty they command. I am awed and humbled every time I am privileged to hear those voices, and I am grateful that my years of education and experience have brought me to this job, this company, and these people.
The cast, the crew, the production team and the many volunteers gladly sacrifice money, work and time away from their families to produce our shows. The cast only gets reimbursed for expenses, the crew gets a small honorarium, and the orchestra willingly plays for less than they can command elsewhere. The only person who gets a paycheck is me, as I am the only paid employee of the Society.
Racism in the arts is indeed a topic worthy of discussion and debate, and it clearly is a hot button issue for Ms. Chan. I believe absolutely in speaking truth to power and I would have no problem with her speaking her truth, as I have no problem speaking mine, and I welcome discussion or a debate on race in theater. But, in this instant Ms. Chan held all the power of the press with which to start such a dialog, but instead she chocked off that avenue, and she wielded that power like a catapult to lob the journalistic equivalent of a flaming bag of dog poop on our door step. We can try to stomp out the fire, and rinse off the residue, but we are still tainted by the stink.
Pamela Kelley Elend
Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society