Playwright and blogger Leah Nanako Winkler was among the first to speak up, posting (from memory, not directly quoting) her conversation with NYGASP artistic director Albert Bergeret, in which he explained that out of the approximately 40 members of the company, only two actors are of Asian descent.
Erin Quill, a former Christmas Eve in Broadway’s Avenue Q who bills herself as “The Fairy Princess” on her Fairy Princess Diaries blog, also responded to the planned production, stating that when she saw the NYGASP’s last production of The Mikado, it was not “historically accurate” in its presentation and that Gilbert “wanted the representation of Japanese people to be respectful and elegant.”
Instead, Quill said that artistic director Bergeret added a character called The Axe Coolie (“coolie” is a term used to refer to Chinese workers at one time in America, yet the show is set in Japan), a small female child who ran around the stage dressed as a male Asian shouting “High Ya.”
She told Playbill.com that while some actors in that production were “just in a costume and doing their track, others were taking special delight and making a large effort to use stereotypical behavior. There was pulling of the eyes, there was shuffling of feet, there were exaggerated gestures in many regards, but when one cast member both pulled his eyes and gnashed his teeth — it was clear that this production had nothing to do with Gilbert and Sullivan any longer, it was an excuse to indulge in caricature that was degrading and hurtful.”
She concluded that the company “played The Mikado for cheap laughs at the expense of Japanese Heritage.”
Since both posts began circulating the Internet, New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players pulled the season brochure post on their page and issued statements explaining that they have taken in the “constructive criticism” and are meeting on how to proceed with the production.
David Wannen, the executive director of NYGASP, explained to Playbill.com via phone that the actress on the cover of the brochure (who has asked to remain nameless) is of Asian descent and that the Caucasian actors inside the brochure are not “manipulating” their facial features to appear Asian (therefore, they are technically not painted in Yellowface, a form of theatrical makeup used to represent an East Asian person).
According to the company’s casting policy, “Qualified singers of all ethnic backgrounds and those with disabilities are encouraged to audition in all appropriate categories. There are no ethnically specific roles in Gilbert & Sullivan.”
While the company has held various auditions over the last five years, they said it would be “hard” to get a “demographic percentage of how many actors of Asian descent audition, and of those how many are cast.” Regardless of race or culture, the company casts “based on merit alone, and how that merit fits into the needs of a repertory company.”
In a statement issued to Playbill.com, NYGASP explained, “The original plans for the production have been worked on by an independent committee of the board who scanned The Mikado for offensive material and practice. It was determined that the practice of Yellowface makeup — using make up to appear Asian — was the most offensive practice brought to light by the Asian-American community. As part of a policy that is generally outlined by the statement on the website, we agreed to instruct the cast to avoid this practice specifically. Makeup that was appropriate for the stage without the manipulation of features or complexion. We also agreed to go ahead with the wigs and costumes of our traditional production. Obviously, from the reaction to images on our promotional material, this distinction was not able to be seen and was not satisfying to this community.
“We are listening to the response we have received. The Executive Committee of the Board is meeting to discuss a strategy and policy going forward. We have taken this issue extremely seriously since the outcry last summer (2014) and remain committed to doing so.”
On the company’s Tumblr page, they addressed the community’s concerns, stating, “We have attempted to keep the satire in our production of The Mikado as true to the original intent as possible; that is, using the fictional Japanese town of Titipu as the setting for satirizing the very real people of Victorian England.”
They added that, in terms of casting for the company’s repertory nature, “There is no separate casting for parts in specific plays. NYGASP cast members are G&S specialists who must be able to play Japanese villagers in The Mikado one day, British sailors in H.M.S. Pinafore the next day and Venetians in The Gondoliers the day after that. The music, the libretti, the stage direction, the singers’ interpretations, the sets, the costumes and the staging must all combine to create the belief that each actor indeed becomes multiple different characters across the spectrum of Gilbert and Sullivan’s imaginative works.
“NYGASP exists to nurture the living legacy of Gilbert and Sullivan – not to preserve the past unthinkingly, but to show how much G&S can still teach us about the foibles of human nature that are both geographically universal and timeless. We believe passionately that these enduringly entertaining works of 19th Century England – of which The Mikado is the best known – continue to speak to every generation that watches and listens with an open heart.”
By email, Quill added, “No Asian American disputes that The Mikado is a staple of the G&S canon, nor that the music is lovely. The Mikado, in mocking British mores of the time, says many things about being an individual, about standing up against petty tyrannies, that love will find a way no matter what age you are, and that ultimately if you speak your truth to power, reason will prevail. (Yes, there are large amounts of ‘poo’ references in the names of characters and the town itself. At the time, it was funny, now it is a bit of a ‘groaner.’)
“However, the execution of any production that allows exaggerated makeup, inaccurate costuming, and mockery of Asian people is not, in this day and age with Hamilton, Allegiance and School of Rock, acceptable. When you view the current Lincoln Center Theater performances of The King and I, and see how beautifully APIs [Asian-Pacific Islanders] can inhabit a show that is, yes, a standard of the MT [musical theatre] canon, then you can see the authenticity of a pan Asian representation and what it brings to a production.
“We, the Asian Americans, do not want to ‘take away’ your precious Mikado – we want you to do better. We want you to stop constantly mocking us and telling us by your actions and deeds that Yellowface remains part of your theatrical lexicon. We want you to make any production of it, smarter, less full of stereotypes – more full of the respect G&S were trying for.”
Wannen said, “I really believe that the issue is a larger issue, obviously, than who is Asian and who isn’t. We’re dealing with this on a global level and listening to this outcry.”