Playbill: Casting and advertisement of Yellowface play “The Mikado” stirs controversy amongst Asian community in NYC

 Playbill (by Michael Gioia):

When a flyer advertising The New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players‘ December production of W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan‘s The Mikado — featuring four Caucasian actors portraying Japanese characters in the classic Gilbert and Sullivan opera — was sent out to theatergoers, members of the Asian community took offense.

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 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 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, 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.”

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Museum cancels yellowface-themed fundraiser after accusations of racism

CBC News:

Racism complaints force WAG to rework fundraiser theme

The Winnipeg Art Gallery is changing the theme of its Art & Soul fundraiser after complaints of racism.

The theme for the Feb. 22 event was initially called Big in Japan and encouraged people to “grab your chopsticks, show off your jiu-jitsu skills”  and “get noticed by Geisha girls.”

Jenny WillsJenny Wills wrote a blog post criticising the Winnipeg Art Gallery’s theme for an annual fundraiser. The gallery later changed it.

Jenny Wills condemned the event in a blog post that has since gone viral. People flocked to Twitter to criticize the event, using the hashtag #WAGOrientalism.

My initial reaction was that it had to be a joke. The original page has things like, ‘This party will be so epic, you’ll think you’re turning Japanese,’” said Wills, who teaches Asian studies at the University of Winnipeg. “It was just sort of horrifying to me that some of the stereotypes that had been used to make me feel othered as a child were still being used — and being used by a cultural institution in the name of fundraising.”

The website for the event also referenced environmentalist David Suzuki, who was born and raised in Canada. That particularly hit a nerve for Wills.

This is the same kind of ‘forever a foreigner’ that was used to intern and deport over 20,000 Canadians with Japanese ancestry during World War 2, more than half of who were born in Canada,” she said.

It was surprising that the art gallery didn’t realize their event would offend a lot of people, said literature professor David Palumbo-Liu, who specializes in Asian-American studies at Stanford University in California.

If you had an event and called it ‘Let’s be Jewish for a Day’ And you mimicked various Jewish customs and food. I think the Jewish community would think of it as being anti-semitic,” he said. “Just imagine your ethnic background becoming a spectacle.”

“Through social media and emails, several people have expressed their dissatisfaction with the Big in Japan theme,” Stephen Borys, WAG director and CEO, stated in a press release.

It became clear over the course of the last few days that the event itself was being overshadowed by the issues at hand. However, when the community speaks up, we listen.”

The fundraising event “will feature four floors of décor and entertainment reflecting Manitoba’s distinctive seasons,” the press release stated.

We’ve heard opinions expressed across the spectrum, many who wanted to stay with the theme who believed in the event as a cultural celebration, but at the end of the day we needed to do the right thing,” said Borys.

The WAG would never want to reduce any culture to stereotypes and we thank those who contacted us directly with their concerns, and we are sorry for any offence that was caused.

Japan theme at WAGThrough social media and emails, several people expressed dissatisfaction with the Big in Japan theme, said Stephen Borys, the WAG’s director and CEO.

We had several people speak to the issue of cultural appropriation and the offence that this theme was causing. The dialogue around what is respectful and beneficial to everyone is important to the WAG, and that’s why we’ve decided to choose an alternative theme.”

Art & Soul is in its 25th year as an annual fundraiser for the WAG. The event takes place throughout the entire building and centres on a particular theme that changes every year.

Wills said cultural institutions need to be aware of what kind message they are sending with their events.

She has spoken with employees with the WAG about having cultural workshops to avoid something similar happening again, but for now, said she’s happy they listened to her concerns.

I respect them for that very much,” she said.

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Museum cancels yellowface-themed fundraiser after accusations of racism


“How I Met Your Mother” faces Twitter backlash after putting a character in Yellowface

Monday’s episode of “How I Met Your Mother” on CBS continued an ongoing joke about a slap bet between Marshall and Barney. In order to win the bet, and give the best slap to Barney, Marshall explains he learned the “Slap of a Million Exploding Suns” by seeking wisdom from three great masters.

It turned out these supposed wise ones were played by Marshall’s friends — Colbie Smulders, Josh Radnor and Alyson Hannigan — in yellowface. People went to Twitter with #HowIMetYourRacism to takedown the episode.


I used to watch @HowIMetMother but I now refuse to and hope they apologize for yellowface. #HowIMetYourRacism


#HowIMetYourRacism Hey, Katy Perry called and wants her costume back. Oh wait, she stole hers too.


So I watched @HIMYM_CBS and was disappointed. Then I came on Twitter and saw #HowIMetYourRacism. Good job, Twitter.


Really, #HIMYM?? You couldn’t even bring yourself to hire Asian actors for this? #HowIMetYourRacism@CBS


@CBS #Yellowface doesn’t get you better ratings, it just makes people want to boycott your network #HowIMetYourRacism


I’m not surprised about #howimetyourracism and #yellowface on@CBS. The network’s name warned us that we’ll see BS.


I remember the very first episode of HIMYM where Middle Eastern women (lebanese to be exact)were deemed as sexual objects #HowIMetYourRacism


@humancity @suey_park #HowIMetYourRacism – when a show’s cast has no People of Color – racism will surely make cameo appearances


people are already claiming asian american’s are overreacting. demanding to be treated w/ decency is never overreacting.#HowIMetYourRacism


How I Insulted & Alienated Asian Americans? How I Was A Complete Jerk? How I Cheaply Exploited Others?#HowIMetYourRacism @HIMYM_CBS @CBS




I thought the transphobia in #HowIMetYourMother was bad enough. An entire episode of yellowface? Really? #HowIMetYourRacism


Disturbing takeaway is that it’s somehow acceptable—safe, even—to do racist Asian jokes. It’s not edgy cable, it’s CBS.#HowIMetYourRacism


#HowIMetYourRacism our race and cultures are not convenient costumes, punch lines and terrible story writing for @CBS‘s#HIMYM


Yeah, seriously, that episode of #HIMYM was so bad I turned it off. I couldn’t stomach it. #HowIMetYourRacism


Besides the gross orientalizing of the women, Ted wore a fucking Fu Manchu stach! Who thought this was ok? @HIMYM_CBS#HowIMetYourRacism


If you’re going to make fun of Asian people and kungfu, at least use Asian actors on your show instead of whitewashing it#HowIMetYourRacism


“I cant think of any jokes to write tho thats my job. I found an ethnic costume in the cupboard.” HIMYM writers meeting?#HowIMetYourRacism


#HowIMetYourRacism–>”@brokeymcpoverty: uh oh.@literalpornWHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOUR WHOLE WRITING STAFF IS WHITE @CBS ”


I thought the transphobia in #HowIMetYourMother was bad enough. An entire episode of yellowface? Really?#HowIMetYourRacism


…outdated, overdone, not to mention UNFUNNY racial, ethnic, gender, sexual stereotypes. #HowIMetYourRacism#HowIMetYourMother


HIMYM better get it to together. Who the hell thinks it’s ok to do racial caricatures for laughs in 2014?! #cbs#HowIMetYourMother


Didn’t we agree that Mickey Rooney’s yellowface is an embarrassment that ruins Breakfast at Tiffany’s?#HowIMetYourRacism


Maybe @HIMYM_CBS was trying to appeal to Asian-Ams by “appreCiATINg our CULtuRE!” Congrats. You miserably failed.#HowIMetYourRacism


#HIMYM has always strained too hard for cheap boring laffs, but these Asian stereotypes (see #HowIMetYourRacism) are just…yeesh.


This is what happens when there are no PoC in the writer’s room. No cultural accountability. #HowIMetYourRacism


Watch @CBS pull an #SNL and hire one asian writer…for the remainder of a dying season. #HowIMetYourRacism


Let’s put this in stone shall we? White people cannot be “Asian” to “honor” the culture ever again starting in 2k14.#HowIMetYourRacism




So disappointed in @HIMYM_CBS/@CBS. Way to mock a culture for cheap laughs. #HowIMetYourRacism #LazyAssWriting


Yellowface and stereotypes about Asians happen a lot in media. But now the internet is blowing up and mobilizing against#HowIMetYourRacism


Update — Jan. 15, 6:45 p.m. ET: “How I Met Your Mother” co-creator Carter Bays has responded to this criticism on Twitter:

Hey guys, sorry this took so long. @himymcraig and I want to say a few words about #HowIMetYourRacism.

With Monday’s episode, we set out to make a silly and unabashedly immature homage to Kung Fu movies, a genre we’ve always loved.

But along the way we offended people. We’re deeply sorry, and we’re grateful to everyone who spoke up to make us aware of it.

We try to make a show that’s universal, that anyone can watch and enjoy. We fell short of that this week, and feel terrible about it.

To everyone we offended, I hope we can regain your friendship, and end this series on a note of goodwill. Thanks. @CarterBays@HimymCraig

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