An Open Letter to The Opera Theatre of the Rockies regarding their production of The Mikado
April 27, 2017
I am an Assistant Professor of Theatre and Dance at Colorado College. I am currently directing a group of our students in a production of David Henry Hwang’s Yellow Face. The play is a biting satirical comedy that explores questions of Asian American identity politics and representation on stage. It is a direct critique of a lengthy history of orientalism and stereotyping of the eastern Asian body. The title Yellow Face refers to the practice of white actors using makeup to appear Asian just as white performers did to appear African American (and basically any other group that wasn't white). Hwang’s play is about the legacy of cultural appropriation in western drama, one that continues on both stage and screen.
In a twist of irony, directly across from us you are rehearsing the Gilbert and Sullivan Opera The Mikado. And while I know there is a predominant school of thought that asserts that Gilbert had no ill intent and was actually attempting to poke fun at British society veiled as an imagined Japan, to me and my multi ethnic cast, the sights and sounds coming from your rehearsal room are having an unsettling impact.
I am familiar with The Mikado and know the wide range of interpretations. I am also familiar with the consistently dismissive refrain: “This is a play about Britain not Japan” “It doesn’t take itself serious” “He’s not trying to offend” “Its supposed to be silly” but it feels like a joke only one part of the cafeteria is in on. The show invites largely white casts, like yours, to pretend to be the Japanese people dreamed up in the brain of a Caucasian European who had never actually been to Japan. It invites a superficial engagement with Japanese aesthetics without having to truly engage with Japanese people. This will no longer fly.
This is not a plea for you to cancel your production. I do not believe in censorship.
However, I do believe in the validity of all voices within the space. Because both of our productions are currently sharing space, even as we rehearse, my cast and I feel an overwhelming need to speak.
Mostly I want you to be aware of that.
It has added new relevance and urgency to our production, which incidentally opens the same weekend as yours, right here on the same campus --two diametrically opposed works on the same campus, in May (Asian Pacific Islanders month no less.) I see this coincidental occurrence as an opportunity for us to have a conversation around the role and responsibility of we in the performing arts. I am inviting you to respond. Any company choosing to produce a show like The Mikado must directly address the racial and cultural politics of the show in a real and substanative way. And I of course extend this to my Colorado College Colleagues who are involved in the production.
I want to know if you and your team discussed the implications of mounting a show in which non-Asian performers are invited to perform as some diluted version of east Asian people?
I wonder if you spoke with any Asian or Asian American organizations? Are there any Asians involved in any significant production capacities? Since you are presenting your production on a college campus, are you at all concerned with the way in which students of color on campus especially the Asian students may respond to your presence?
Are you at all attune to the more recent critical discourse and protests of productions of The Mikado in cities like New York and San Francisco? I have attached a few articles written by some of your fellow artists of the theatre regarding these protests.
I look forward to the start of a thoughtful public discourse.
Idris Goodwin - Playwright, Director Assistant Professor of Theatre and Dance - Colorado College