by Sharon H Chang
Last month Seattle's Gilbert & Sullivan Society, one of the oldest performing arts organizations in the city, staged a production of the 1885 comic opera Mikado at the Seattle Repertory Theatre. It did not go well, to say the least...
There were outraged protestors on the ground outside all eleven performances. Seattle Times editorial columnist Sharon Chan wrote a scathing review which was quickly followed by the strong critiques of other locals (The Stranger, The International Examiner, The Japanese Citizens League, etc.) and then outcry at the national level (Angry Asian Man, NBC, CNN, etc.). Protestors objected deeply to the operetta's outdated and discriminatory racial overtones:
'The Mikado' was written as a critique of British politics and institutions, set in distant, mysterious and mostly made-up Japan -- a place that few in Gilbert and Sullivan's 19th century British audience knew much about -- to mask that criticism with exaggerated, sing-song names and simplistic Orientalist stereotypes (Frances Kai-Hwa Wang, "Stereotypes in 'The Mikado' Stir Controversy in Seattle," NBC News, July 17, 2014)
But making matters infinitely worse, The Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society cast whites in all 40 Asian roles, with the exception of two Latin@s, who performed the operetta's "exaggerated sing-song names and simplistic Orientalist stereotypes" as Asian people, in Asian makeup, and ethnic garb; an offensive and age-old practice known as yellow face. The show's producer, Mike Storie, then defended his production with an op-ed unapology and lots of excuses; dismissing protests with a wave of his white hand as the feelings of "some people"; admitting it might be a good idea to cast racially relevant POC but they'd have to be willing to work for no pay; excusing the show's racist caricatures as of-the-time, unintentional, but still "worth performing and preserving."
In response to this fiasco Seattle Repertory Theatre, with support from the Seattle Office for Civil Rights and 4Culture, hosted a community talk last night at their Bagley Wright Theatre, "Artistic Freedom and Artistic Responsibility." The talk was presented to a full house packed with an impressive, large, and racially diverse audience. On stage there were 10 panelists, half men half women, at least three AAPIs, one African American (the AMAZING Valerie Curtis-Newton), and two to three Native American Indians. The panel's moderator was Asian American Kathy Hsieh, Cultural Partnerships & Grants Manager at the Office of Arts & Cultural Affairs, and Co-Executive Producer at SIS Productions. The structure was proclaimed "tribal" rather than "Western hierarchical" with equally alternating questions and commentary by panelists and audience alike across two hours. The talk streamed live and supposedly will be posted permanently online soon.
|Artistic Freedom & Artistic Responsibility, full house|
|Artistic Freedom & Artistic Responsibility, panelists|
I was able to go to the talk but am afraid I don't have a positive review. I was thoroughly underwhelmed, infuriated, and depressed by it. Even though the night was spurred by an event targeting Asians, the hurtful experience of that event by Asians themselves was not represented in any impactful form. In fact by my recollection, Mikado was not mentioned till about 60 minutes in and then only briefly. At the same time history was leveraged to protect the operetta the space tried to operate as ahistorical, important racial terms and discriminatory behaviors were not defined/clarified, yellow face was never mentioned, and systemic racism was not added to the analysis in any meaningful way. Meanwhile there was a lot of talk about the "right" to artistic freedom coupled with the strong implication that protesting racial discrimination in the arts might be analogous to artistic censorship.
Also I call it a "talk" because that's exactly what it was. This was not a dialogue nor an open community forum. Though questions and commentary did alternate between panelists and audience, the questions posed and the audience members who spoke had been respectively cherry-picked and invited before the event mostly from pre-dialogue online (by whom and based on what criteria was unclear). No hand-raising, unsolicited feedback, or uninvited commentary were allowed. In my view this appeared a very purposeful format designed to keep things from "getting out of control." There were a lot of buzz phrases and smart words thrown around, but from the get-go the whole thing felt -- in typical Seattle pseudo-progressive style -- very careful and carefully orchestrated.
Not surprising then to find racial tensions running pretty high. Even though Kathy Hsieh wore a happy face for the duration, she was palpably anxious and seemed like she might unravel by the end. Seattle Repertory Theatre directors Braden Abraham and Jeffrey Herrmann (who appear white) barely said more than three words and looked as though they would appreciate disappearing or being invisible. When a Native question was posed to the panel, the Native panelists were overlooked and one was so upset she couldn't contribute for the first hour. When a representative of the Japanese Citizens League stood up to speak with poetic passion in/to the audience and asked, "What would Martin Luther King do?" another audience member interrupted sharply, "Don't you dare." About halfway through, white parents of transracially adopted children were bizarrely invited to stand and speak: a white mother started in on race but nervously shifted to anti-Semitism (presumably because she is Jewish?) and a white father spoke all-knowingly (to a room full of many Blacks) on how important it will be to teach his adopted Black son about racial profiling, at which point a Korean adoptee sitting behind me became so enraged she started objecting out loud and furiously tweeting her upset to the talk's hashtag.
Then I cried. I did. I cried right therein the audience; in the front row;in front of all the panelists.
But really the highlight of the evening for me was when Mike Storie, who had refused to sit on the panel but was sitting in the audience unbeknownst to most, was invited to stand/speak. And then proceeded, in one fell white-dominant swoop, to remain as dismissive as ever, repeat every defensive argument he had ever made, and re-orient the entire conversation. One person. One man. One white man. One instant. Mikado is "a great show," he proclaimed, with "good songs." Sure there's such a thing as "white privilege" and sure, "things have changed somewhat," but Gilbert was "paying homage to the beauty of Japan as he saw it at the time." I have Japanese friends who weren't offended. No Asians auditioned. And anyways, "Nobody's forcing you to go the show." Then the real kicker. The Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society will probably put on Mikado again in another six years. And he sat down.
Then I cried. I did. I cried right there in the audience; in the front row; in front of all the panelists. I cried thinking about all the things I've read, all the stories I've heard, all the interviews I've had the great honor to conduct, where Asian Americans have shared their endless experiences of being mocked, minimized, and thrown to the side. I cried thinking about how my husband grew up with racial teasing; how I worry about my son dealing with the same when he starts public school in a year; and now how our whole family will have to face Mikado again in six years. I cried thinking about the long, insidious history of race and the racist system that lead so many people of color last night, not just Asians, to feel hurt -- but how one white man still got to get up and brush it all aside at his leisure. And I cried that even in a room full of so many people with (mostly) good intention, that we still found it so hard to call out that system, to hear each other, and talk about the things that really hurt.
I want to have hope for humanity and I do have hope for humanity. I believe we can go places. But until we can get raw and real, dig down deep, look each other in the eye, and sit with it -- I don't think we're going anywhere. Dear Seattle, we can do so much better than this. SO much better.