In a play from 1885, put on by a society dedicated to keeping these shows alive, accusations of racism have appeared where someone might normally see a show review.
According to Seattle Times’ Sharon Pian Chan:
“The Mikado” is the same shtick, different race. A black wig and white face powder stand in for shoeshine. Bowing and shuffling replaces tap dancing. Fans flutter where banjos would be strummed.
“The Mikado” is the latest production being put on by the Gilbert & Sullivan Society. It’s the ninth time the society has performed the play, the first was in 1955, and it’s the sixth time Dave Ross has had a part in the production.
All 40 Japanese characters are being played by white actors, including two Latinos. KIRO radio host Dave Ross is in the cast.
It’s yellowface, in your face.
John Curley told Dave it looked like he’d been harmed by the editorial. But Dave said he was just confused.
“It’s completely out of left field, dare I say, because we’re doing British accents. The piece implies that we’re somehow doing a Japanese gibberish dialect-sort of line. This is a British play, written for British actors speaking in fake British. So we are satirizing British people mercilessly, especially British bureaucrats in this piece. Tyrants take it on the chin in this piece. There’s a lot of execution talk going around, but the audiences mostly laugh.”
The names Chan questions: Titipu, Nanki Poo, Yum-Yum and Pish-Tush. She even draws on controversy surrounding the Asiana Airlines crash, where you might remember a San Francisco television station wrongly read fake Asian names on the air. She uses “wong” instead of wrong, when talking about the perceived racism in “The Mikado.”
As for offense that Chan took from the names of places and characters in the G&S classic, Dave credits Gilbert, a humorist and writer for Punch Magazine with an attempt at silliness. “Humor was his specialty.”
According to Dave, racism implies a group that considers itself superior is trying to humiliate a group that is on the outs.
“We have a history in this country that makes it inappropriate for us to do blackface,” he said. “But there is not perception that the Japanese minority group in this country is somehow a failed minority group.”
There were plays written with the intention of its actors doing blackface. The Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society is not doing those plays.
“We’re accused of doing whiteface […] If you’ve ever been to Japan, Kubuki art is done in whiteface and deliberately so, which is not racist,” said Dave.
The costumes, according to Dave, are designed to make the actors look like samurais.
“The whole idea, is that I am the executioner. I carry this huge snickersnee. I dress in a kimono. We all dress in kimonos. I wear pink makeup, so that I stick out on stage. Then I use a brown eyebrow pencil. I use a little rouge on the cheeks to denote my taste for sake, and that’s pretty much it,” he said.
He compared it to a Yoyogi Park in Tokyo, where people dress up like Elvis, and by the standards set forth by Chan, those Elvises are making fun of the American icon.
“But I always thought they did it because they enjoyed dressing as Elvis. It’s fun to dress as something you’re not,” said Dave. “I’ve never played myself in any role. I’ve always played someone else that I’m not, including a Spanish Catholic priest and a Hungarian king, and various British personnel.”
In “The Mikado,” Dave plays Ko-Ko, the The Grand High Executioner of Titipu. It’s “a position that doesn’t exist in a town that doesn’t exist.”