All white cast for Gilbert & Sullivan’s THE MIKADO at Seattle’s Gilbert & Sullivan Society sparks far-reaching community discussion about yellowface, race, and ethnic stereotypes

Very interesting story here to our north.

A community forum took place last night at Seattle Rep (which drew over 400 people) to discuss fallout from Seattle’s Gilbert & Sullivan Society’s production of THE MIKADO earlier this summer with an all white cast.

The initial salvo was this piece by Seattle Times Editorial Columnist Sharon Pian Chan on 7.13.2014, “The yellowface of THE MIKADO in your face”. To Chan, the work is painful racial caricature, made more offensive by the fact that there was not a single Asian American in the cast.

Coverage then went nationwide. At one point there were protesters with signs outside the Seattle Center where the show was on.

Many interesting theatre questions about who has the right to represent or portray someone else’s story (especially if that person is of another race) were raised. And there is the much simpler matter of what artistic value racially offensive shows may still hold.

While in this particular case, most of Chan’s critique feels spot on (I did not see the show), it’s interesting to consider how her framework could be applied to other shows that may similarly steamroll or misrepresent the cultures they are supposedly about. Are there other shows on that we are similarly oblivious to, in terms of how the portrayed ethnic group may disagree with what they see on stage?

For example, should Irish-Americans gather in protest outside a theatre every time an Irish play is done when the accents are ludicrously off (which is most of the time)?

When Seattle Rep produces one of the worst “Irish” plays ever written this season, John Patrick Shanley’s OUTSIDE MULLINGAR, which completely greenwashes the reality of Ireland today and would have you believe it’s still about 1950 on Eire (when, note to self, Ireland’s Magdalene laundries and industrial schools were full of kids and young adults suffering all kinds of awful stuff – material for a line of plays and movies still coming out), should the Irish Consulate file a protest? I wouldn’t hold my breath for that.

How is Shanley’s play not offensive to people of Irish heritage – just as THE MIKADO is to Japanese-Americans? Could it be called greenface?

Here is Ireland’s version of Sharon Pian Chan, the eminent cultural critic and Irish Times columnist Fintan O’Toole, on why OUTSIDE MULLINGAR has absolutely nothing to do with the Ireland it supposedly portrays.

If issues of authentic cultural representation are dear to you, it’s a must read.

One comment on the thread from O’Toole’s piece says it all – and also serves up a warning to Seattleites:

“Lets face it, the Yanks can’t do Irish, only American Irish, which isn’t the same thing at all. But presumably the American Irish audience, not knowing any better, thought it was great.”

Whether it’s Japan, Ireland, or Uganda – does it matter how badly misrepresented the culture on stage is as long as audiences keep laughing and give a standing o at the end?

Apparently not.

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