Next weekend, the theatre productions of “Yellow Face” and “The Mikado” will be performed on the Colorado College campus. Though different productions theatrically and narratively, both deal with themes of race and Asian identity. The production of ”Yellow Face,” a semi-autobiographical play, is directed by Professor Idris Goodwin and comprises a cast made up entirely of CC students. The production of “The Mikado,” an opera, is comprised of community members and brought to Colorado Springs by the Opera Theatre of the Rockies and director Steven LaCosse. With rehearsals for both productions in Cornerstone Arts Center leading up to opening night, the dissonance in representing Asian and Asian-American identities and cultures in the two productions has created tensions. Goodwin penned an open letter last week to address the tension.
In the letter, Goodwin confronted the Opera Theatre of the Rockies directly, asking them to engage with the racial and cultural politics of “The Mikado.” He explained the premise of “Yellow Face” as “a direct critique of a lengthy history of Orientalism and stereotyping of the eastern Asian body.” The critique begins with the title and pervades all facets of the production, addressing “the legacy of cultural appropriation in western drama, one that continues on both stage and screen.”
Goodwin’s letter goes on to contrast his production with “The Mikado.” “In a twist of irony, directly across from us you are rehearsing […] ‘The Mikado’” Goodwin wrote. “The Mikado” uses Orientalism, the decadent, sensual portrayal of Japanese people, to tell a story often seen as a critique of the late-19th century British politics playing out when W.S. Gilbert wrote the opera. Acknowledging the historical context, “to me and my multiethnic cast, the sights and sounds coming from your rehearsal room are having an unsettling impact,” Goodwin wrote. “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.”
The letter called for a public discourse, which manifested as a panel discussion Wednesday. Students, faculty, and community members participated in “Responding to Representation: Staging Asia and Asian-America,” which featured three CC professors, a board member of Opera Theatre of the Rockies, and the director of “The Mikado.” History professor John Williams and music professor Ryan Banagale contextualized Orientalism in “The Mikado.” Williams explained the consumption of all things perceived as Japanese as a sign of status that consumerism democratized, giving the middle classes access to “ownership of, and spokesmanship for, the foreign and the exotic.”
“The Mikado” trend did not seek to be authentic to a Japanese context, rather to be authentic to the production. “It didn’t have to be Japanese, but it had to look that way,” said Williams. Banagale expanded on the musical tropes of the production and shared that Edward, “defines Orientalism as ‘a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient’ and this is directly related to the colonialist and imperialist attitudes of superiority and control.”
Feminist and gender studies professor Nadia Guesseous explored the “effects of living in a world that normalizes orientalist conceptions.” Looking at artistic representation, Guesseous explored reductive logic, the currency of hegemonic orientalist discourse, and “the relationship between representations, embodied practices, and subjectivity.” After explaining the decolonizing function “Yellow Face” serves as an artistic work, she asked the audience and other panel members, “Can we have some room and space to decolonize our representations and our subjectivity without being subject to the epistemic violence of blatant Orientalism?”
“The Mikado” director Steven LaCosse defended his production by citing the relevance of pieces that continue to be performed saying, “a good piece of art is only performed if it remains relevant and it has an audience that it can speak to. Otherwise it goes away.” He focused on intent and his goal of “always just trying to tell the story the best I could,” leaving audience members with questions of whose story and who has the right to tell it. “I don’t believe that the intention of us producing [The Mikado] was to offend anybody […] it is as Caucasian as you can get, except people dressed in these silly costumes” said LaCosse, referring to Japanese kimonos. “Well how is that any different from Melissa McCarthy dressing up as Sean Spicer on Saturday Night Live?”
Opera Theatre of the Rockies board member George Preston offered examples of colorblind casting in operas across the country, emphasizing the importance of voice over anything else in opera. He then cited many operas that include racist, classist, and sexist components. “We do those works in spite of their flaws, in spite of those moments where almost all of us, at some point will cringe, because they continue to have some artistic merit” Preston said.
Having listened to such contradicting perspectives on Orientalism and the function and value of artistic expression, audience member, senior theater major and cast member of “Yellow Face” Clay Edwards responded, addressing LaCosse and Preston: “What we do is we disseminate cultural products that have a variety of impacts, so I think it’s important to divorce ourselves from intent and impact. So with that in mind, I feel very compelled to call racism ‘racism’ when I see it.” “How is it ethical to reduce a culture to a costume […] and then sell that for a profit?” The panel ended without an answer to his question.