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Originally published July 13, 2014 at 4:04 PM | Page modified July 25, 2014 at 11:31 AM

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The yellowface of “The Mikado” in your face

The yellowface staging of “The Mikado” opens up old wounds and resurrects pejorative stereotypes, writes editorial columnist Sharon Pian Chan.


Times editorial columnist

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Remember when someone pranked a San Francisco TV station into reporting that the names of the Asiana plane crash pilots were “Captain Sum Ting Wong” and “Wi Tu Lo”?

After the station KTVU realized its mistake, it fired three producers.

But in Seattle, at least one theater plans to spend the summer guffawing about how Asian names sound like gibberish.

“The Mikado,” a comic opera, is playing at the Bagley Wright Theatre from July 11 to July 26, produced by the Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society.

Set in the fictional Japanese town of Titipu — get it? — the opera features characters named Nanki Poo, Yum-Yum and Pish-Tush. It’s a rom-com where true love is threatened by barbaric beheadings.

All 40 Japanese characters are being played by white actors, including two Latinos. KIRO radio host Dave Ross is in the cast.

It’s yellowface, in your face.

“It’s a fun show. I personally have never heard any complaints,” said Mike Storie, producer of “The Mikado.”

Written in the late 19th century, librettist W.S. Gilbert wanted to poke fun at Victorian society in England by setting it in a place nobody knew anything about.

Storie says shutting down “The Mikado” because it offends our current sensibilities would be like banning historic books. “Should Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn be taken off library shelves?” he said. “Huckleberry Finn is all full of slaps on black people.”

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.

I asked Storie if he would consider producing a blackface show, where white actors paint their faces dark to play caricatures of African-American minstrels.

“Not really,” he said. “It would depend on the context. If it was a historical production where it had some context, that’s fine.”

“The Mikado” is the same shtick, different race. A black wig and white face powder stand in for shoeshine. Bowing and shuffling replaces tap dancing. Fans flutter where banjos would be strummed.

The opera is a fossil from an era when America was as homogeneous as milk, planes did not depart daily for other continents and immigrants did not fuel the economy.

It’s especially disappointing in a city where “Black Nativity” is a Christmas tradition for people of all backgrounds, and families, gay and straight, lined downtown streets for a Pride Parade last month.

“The Mikado” opens old wounds and resurrects pejorative stereotypes.

The caricature of Japanese people as strange and barbarous was used to justify the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Bainbridge Island was the first place in the country where U.S. citizens of Japanese descent were rounded up and expelled.

To learn about that history, check out “Hold These Truths,” another play that will open this summer in Seattle. That play, produced by ACT Theatre, is inspired by University of Washington student Gordon Hirabayashi, who defied the internment order and went to prison instead. His case went to the U.S. Supreme Court. (Hirabayashi will be played by an Asian-American actor.)

There probably is a way to produce a version of “The Mikado” that entertains and makes sense in a contemporary society where difference is valued. The Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society could, for instance, partner with the Asian-American theater group Pork Filled Players to reinterpret the opera. That’s what Skylark Opera did in Minneapolis — worked with Asian-American group Mu Performing Arts to stage a modern “Mikado.”

But this production? This is the wrong show — wrong for Seattle, wrong for this country and wrong for this century. And I don’t mean wong.

Sharon Pian Chan's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her email address is schan@seattletimes.com On Twitter @sharonpianchan



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