Much ado about the Mikado

My earliest Gilbert and Sullivan memory is seeing a poster for our local amateur operatic company’s production of something called, The Mikado. The memory is distinct–a two-tone (this was the 80s) “oriental” (read: bamboo motif) page pasted in the front window of a neighbors’ home. Amateur opera was–at least at that time–quite popular in middle class England. And nothing is more quintessentially English than the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan.


Recently the Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan society has come under fire for its production of The Mikado. You can read the details here. The central assertion is that it is racist–more precisely racial caricature.

Seattle Times writer Sandra Pian Chan points out:

When people of other races don costumes and makeup to play the role of an Asian person, that’s yellowface. Racial caricature — even when done with the purest of artistic motives and sincere love of other cultures — is still racial caricature.

I have no interest in defending the artistic merit of the Mikado since (a) I am not a fan of Gilbert and Sullivan, and (b) because I haven’t seen The Mikado. Quite a number of people–most all of them Asian Americans–I respect have publicly stated their opposition to the production on the basis of its racism and I, for one, am unable and unwilling to dispute that characterization.

At the same time, there is something disturbing about consigning cultural artifacts to the dustbin of history simply because the way they represent a person, culture, or event seems (or is in fact) either inaccurate or offensive or both (i.e., you guessed it, The Mikado). At the risk of drawing a lot of ire, bear with me as I consider a couple of observations.

As a cultural artifact The Mikado represents a snapshot of nineteenth century England. This is an England flush with Imperial aspirations, wealthy by way of mercantilism, militarily dominant across the known world, and all but unfamiliar with Asian, especially Japan. This is Britannia, which rules the waves. Of course ignorance of Japanese culture is exuded in The Mikado, how could it not be? The writers and the audience had never been there. In other words, the “Japan” in The Mikado isn’t really Japan at all–its a representation of an idealized Japan that exists to serve the deeper satire found within the piece. 

Must a piece of art be accurate in order to be artistic?

We are forced to ask a question: must a piece of art be “accurate” in order to be artistic? I think not. The are plenty of classics art that do not meet that most modern of all standards: accuracy. They are, as are all things, representative of the times in which they were written.

A second concern has been the issue of “yellow face”–the practice of non-Asians (usually whites) portraying Asians (often stereotypically) in artistic productions (usually by use of cosmetics). Obviously it is offensive to a person of one ethnicity to have someone of another ethnicity caricature them, but it’s not always a given that this is what is happening when a person of one race represents someone of another.

William Shakespeare set many of his plays in an Italy he had likely never visited. Granted, Italian culture was more well known in Elizabethan England than Japanese culture was in Victorian England. His actors spoke no (or little) Italian and portrayed people of a distinctly different ethnicity. The difference–why no one calls for Romeo and Juliet to be banned–appears to be the degree of similarity between Shakespeare’s Italy and what we know of Italy at the time. If there was a wider disparity, would we demand that Shakespeare be adapted? Probably.

All in all, I am warily sympathetic of calls to somehow alter revise productions of The Mikado. At the same time, I recognize too that calls to censor, alter, revise, or otherwise change pieces of art fail to honor the art as it was created. Perhaps the better way forward is more fully understanding the limits of cultural artifacts as well as their purpose in today’s culture. In other words, The Mikado is not being offered as an introduction to Japanese culture. Instead, it’s being offered as an example of nineteenth century English operetta with all the limitations that that entails.







Trayvon Martin, an anglo reflection

The recent jury verdict in Florida v. Zimmerman has served as a magnifying glass that has focused the rays of racial reality in the United States and caused a fire. My own thought life around the case has been something of a roller coaster ride. Facebook has allowed me to listen in to the pain of others with an immediacy often not afforded across cultures. It has also afforded me the chance to realize how tone deaf those of us in the majority can be to the pain of those who are not.

As I’ve read various blog posts, articles, columns, and the like I’ve noticed something of a trend. Many of the reflections by people of color focus on their first person experiences of profiling or of some other form of injustice. Many of the reflections by anglos have focused on a defense of the judicial system as a reasonably fair arbiter of an approximate truth. In some ways, we’ve been talking past each other.

As a white American, the Martin case has been difficult to interpret both in itself and in how it sheds light on race in America. I don’t have much to offer in this regard.

At the risk of raising the ire of some readers, I’d like to offer a brief reflection on encountering this discussion as a white man. Much has been written using words like “privilege” and “oppression.” I don’t dispute that those are appropriate words in many respects.

It’s curious to me that many who have written about white privilege should be so apparently taken aback when Anglos resist the notion or, at least, seek to minimize it.

Consider what is really being said.

Those words are used to describe a reality that is said to affect all of life, sort of like a filter that is set between a camera lens and the subject of the photo. The filter is prior to the actual scene being shot and yet it silently affects the final photograph. It could also be like the floors in my old house. They have a gentle slope to them–place a ball in the center of the room and it will begin to roll, always in the same direction.

Ironically, despite having cultural privilege and power I have experienced in the Trayvon Martin case a sense of profound powerlessness:

  • I am told that there is something of a cultural law (an uneven floor, if you like) in place that conspires, despite my objections, to automatically favor people like me (though not all equally) over others who are unlike me.
  • That law exists in a space that is unconscious (and imperceptible) to most all of us. In the discharge of their normal duties, many are operating with unconscious reference to this law.
  • It affects everything–employment decisions, subjective feelings of safety, traffic stops, etc.
  • There seems to be precious little that can be done about it in the normal ways we seek to remedy ills. Do we require that juries in certain instances have a fixed number of jurors of the same ethnicity as the defendant? Does this bias the jury or counter-bias it?
  • It renders decisions of even the most sacrosanct institutions of our society–the jury–as open to question. This is no small thing for whites to swallow since we’re generally confidant that our courts will deliver something closely approximating justice.

To someone generally used to being able to solve problems, this powerlessness is profoundly frustrating.

This may sound whiney and I certainly don’t wish to make myself out as suffering in anything close to the same degree as my black friends, but this experience is real. It is a real grieving in the face of something wrong that is bigger than me–even though it benefits me. I’m not sure, but I think this grief undergirds the silence of many in white America.