The Mask in the Curtain: Against Yellowface at Harvard

To simultaneously acknowledge the mistakes of the past and contribute to a wiser future is not an easy job. Work of this sort requires humility and self-awareness. We believe, however, that these are qualities expected of any informed citizen, and therefore of students of Harvard University. It is to our dismay, then, that the Harvard-Radcliffe Gilbert and Sullivan Players have failed to do both in preparing this year’s rendition of "The Mikado."

Conceived in 1884, "The Mikado" uses a Japanese town to lambast British political culture. Infantilized character names like Yum-Yum and Pooh-Bah set an uncomfortable foundation for the play. Historical productions turn the uncomfortable into the outright grotesque. A 1984 production in Ontario abounded with buck-toothed caricatures. In 2014, a performance in Seattle ignited national outrage with its excessively powdered and made-up representations of the main characters.

The Harvard Gilbert and Sullivan Players have contributed to this tradition every four years. In 1996 they took appropriation of Japanese culture to its logical conclusion with advertising materials featuring anime girls, while in 2012 their performance was replete with Fu Manchu moustaches and geisha make-up. This year, the Players add another entry to this line of productions.

Beneath the powder and eyeliner lies a centuries-old history of erasure. The desire to exclude Asian Americans is not confined to Chinese immigration laws or Executive Order 9066. All of the aforementioned infractions can be broadly lumped under the umbrella of yellowface, the practice of placing white actors in roles formed from reductive interpretations of East Asian culture and character, a foul concept that goes beyond make-up and costuming. Yellowface covers up failures to offer opportunities of consequence to Asian American artists. Long ago, audiences applauded the all-white cast of "The Mikado" for their humorous exoticism; today the Harvard Players have two Asian American actors sprinkled into a white-dominated cast. But the story has not changed: understandings of diversity within the world of performance are limited to cursory gestures, assuaging only the shallowest of racial sensitivities.

Effective representations of diversity are impossible in institutions where stories are written and offered through white perspectives only. Changes that the Players have made to the script this year ultimately consist of attempts to cover up old prejudices with new ones, and therefore do nothing to separate the play from yellowface. They use kasutori culture as an inspiration for the decadent atmosphere of their revision, without acknowledging that kasutori comes from the despair resulting from the atomic bombings of WWII and subsequent American occupation of Japan. Placing kasutori in the United States is a bastardization of that culture, and exhibits disrespect for the trauma of WWII on the Japanese people. Furthermore, in switching the setting from 1880s Japan to 1960s America they have ignored Japanese American internment the same way the original script ignored imperialist intrusions on Japanese soil. They retain the appropriative song “Mi-ya Sa-ma” in the repertoire despite their claims of de-racialization, exemplifying the original play’s disparagement of the Japanese language.

Let us deconstruct their use of yellowface further. The characters in the new version of the play are not ethnically Japanese and are only employees in a Japanese-themed Las Vegas hotel. Though this is not traditional yellowface because the characters are not Japanese, this meta-structure is a distraction from the fact that the employees in this Japanese-themed hotel are themselves yellowfaced in their jobs. The plot has the lower-class employees speaking out against the tyranny of their employer. While this is an interesting, socioeconomically relevant adaptation, it still does not satisfactorily engage racial issues, especially for a play with such a troubled history. This is an embellishment of yellowface, reflective of the euphemized racism of the modern day. The characters still channel shallow, diminutive, and exoticized interpretations of Japanese people. Yellowface is not just a concoction of yellow make-up and kimonos; it is a manifestation of a social force. The racism in the play has been merely updated for a more sensitive 21st century audience.

Erasures of identity fall forcefully upon every marginalized body. It is painful to disparage the work of Asian American students in the production crew in this way, but we cannot ignore that their adaptation is still riddled with the prejudice that has psychologically crippled communities of color. "The Mikado" reminds us that our own faces cannot be peeled off like masks.

We oppose, more than the problems specific to this staging of "The Mikado," the cultural forces that necessitate it, including a need to please alumni and preserve traditional structures at this college. We blame not only the Players for lacking awareness of the harm still very much present in their production, but also a society that fails to educate its citizens on the importance of such an awareness. We call for the Players to consult Asian American justice and social groups on campus in a serious manner in future productions and for the theater community as a whole to cast more Asian American actors. One could be tempted to blame Asian Americans for not being interested in theater. However, the stereotype of the inartistic Asian is not an excuse to ignore nearly a quarter of Harvard’s student body. It is an excuse that our community hears time and time again from Hollywood’s continual placement of white actors in Asian roles and from this nation’s publishing houses when they deny Asian American narratives. It is a consequence of a society that pushes Asian Americans away from art, and as students at Harvard we should seek to oppose this stereotype instead of propagating it.

This Friday, at 7:30 p.m. on the opening night of the play, members of the community will be demonstrating outside the Agassiz Theater. Before the Players’ patrons enter to watch white actors pantomime Asian characters, we will ensure they see the mask in the curtain. Until our artistic culture changes from one of erasure, suppression, and tokenism to a space where complex identities, racial politics, and cultural histories both problematic and uplifting can be explored and engaged freely, we will not keep our peace.

Christina Qiu '19, an Applied Mathematics concentrator, lives in Mather House.
George Qiao '18, a Chemistry concentrator, lives in Cabot House.

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