When a theater in New York sent out this racist flyer, few noticed until one woman gave them a call.

Leah Nanako Winkler was sorting mail when she saw a photo on a flyer that stopped her cold.

There's ... a problem here. Photo by Leah Nanako Winkler, used with permission.


"I saw the front cover, and I was like, 'Oh, weird,'" Winkler, a New York City-based playwright told Upworthy. "And then I looked at the inside cover, and I was like, 'Oh no.'"

"The Mikado" is one of Gilbert and Sullivan's most well-known comic operas. It takes place in Japan — as imagined by two 19th century British writers who knew very little about the actual country or its people.

And there's a pretty big problem with it.

"The Mikado" is frequently performed in yellowface.

"Yellowface" is the practice of non-Asian or non-Asian-American actors portraying characters of Asian descent on stage or on screen, often in heavy, feature-distorting makeup.

Mickey Rooney's supporting role in "Breakfast at Tiffany's" is probably the most infamous example.

Yikes. Photo from "Breakfast at Tiffany's"/Paramount Pictures.

But throughout film and theater history, the practice has been, sadly, commonplace.

Winkler found the contact info for the production company — the New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players (NYGASP) — and called them up.

Winkler, who is of American and Japanese descent and identifies as biracial, thought surely performing "The Mikado" in yellowface couldn't be their plan in 2015.

Yes, they told her, the company would be doing "The Mikado." And yes, most of the roles would be played by white actors in "authentic" Japanese costumes.

By the end of the conversation, Winkler was frustrated. It was clear to her that the company just didn't understand.

"You're going to get in deep sh*t for this," she predicted before hanging up.

As Winkler anticipated, NYGASP soon found themselves indeed in "deep sh*t."

The "About Us" section of the NYGASP website, which features a photo of cast members of a 1998 production in yellowface makeup posing with former Chief Justice William Rehnquist.

After Winkler broke the news on her blog, many in New York's Asian-American theater community began echoing her frustration at being too frequently caricatured and reduced to stereotypes in movies, TV, and live theater.

"I think what's really nice about this is that there is kind of another generation that's taking up these causes and looking at that [the issue] differently even than my generation did." — David Henry Hwang, playwright

"My first reaction was: Honestly, I can't believe it. But I can," Ming Peiffer, a New York City-based playwright and artistic director, told Upworthy.

Peiffer blames the "model minority" myth — the stereotype that most Asian-Americans are well-educated, assimilated, and financially successful — for the fact that instances of racism against the group are regularly minimized and ignored.

"For some reason Asians seem to be one of the few races that it's still totally chill to be racist against [on stage]," she said.

Many others expressed frustration that racist portrayals of Asian characters feel like the whole point of productions like "The Mikado."

"I find it sort of grotesque," Michael Lew, co-director of the Ma-Yi Writers Lab, a development hub for emerging Asian-American playwrights in New York City, told Upworthy. "To me, yellowface is no different than blackface… I don't see why it shouldn't be as taboo."


For Lew, the decision to mount the production went beyond obliviousness, considering the well-publicized, national outcry that erupted when a Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan company produced a predominately white "Mikado" in 2014.

"I think this is an instance of willfully denying Asians their humanity as opposed to ignorance," Lew explained.

The producers of "The Mikado" initially issued a statement in defense of the production, arguing that their goal was to stay, "as true to the original intent as possible."

"Our board of directors established a separate committee to analyze and scan 'The Mikado' and discuss a way forward and how we wanted to be sensitive to the issues and address them in our production," David Wannen, executive director of NYGASP, told Upworthy.

In response to the outcry in Seattle, NYGASP's production originally planned to forgo the "yellowface makeup," while keeping the costumes and wigs intact. In a September 16 conversation, Wannen explained the company was receptive to the notion that they have more work to do. And by that afternoon, they had pulled the brochure from their website.

"We are open and we're working with it," Wannen said, "And all I can say is we are responsive people and adaptive people and by all means want to be sensitive to this important issue."

"It's disheartening, and there's a sense of déjà vu, certainly," playwright David Henry Hwang told Upworthy.

Photo by Jemal Countess/Getty Images.

Hwang is one of the most prominent Asian-American writers in the world — the first to win a Tony Award and a professor of playwriting at Columbia University. In 1990, Hwang led protests of the original Broadway production of "Miss Saigon," over the casting of (white) British actor Jonathan Pryce in the role of the engineer, a French-Vietnamese character.

Hwang suspects that some productions employ yellowface in a misguided attempt at a "post-racial aesthetic" — the notion that racism is over and that merely demonstrating an awareness of the stereotypes being played on stage is sufficient — while others may do so because they lack historical memory.

"[Yellowface has] become more visible in the last five years or so," Hwang told Upworthy. "Taking a longer term view of this, it is interesting to me how something that I kind of maybe mistakenly thought was part of the past suddenly came back to life."

Ultimately, NYGASP decided to shelve the production and stage another Gilbert and Sullivan classic — "The Pirates of Penzance" — in its place.

A still from a NYGASP production of "The Pirates of Penzance." Photo by New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players.

"NYGASP never intended to give offense and the company regrets the missed opportunity to responsively adapt this December," read a statement submitted to Upworthy late Thursday evening, Sept. 17, 2015. "Our patrons can be sure we will contact them as soon as we are able and answer any questions they may have."

NYGASP deserves a lot of credit for listening and doing the right thing.


Winkler and her cohort deserve even more credit for not backing down.

"I think what's really nice about this is that there is kind of another generation that's taking up these causes, and looking at that [the issue] differently even than my generation did," Hwang told Upworthy.

Winkler says that she's faced criticism for being "too angry" or "too sensitive," but taking a stand against yellowface felt personally necessary.

"[Yellowface] evokes a lot of really terrible memories," Winkler said. "I don't think that should be dismissed as just being too sensitive."

via Kat Stickler / TikTok

Kat Stickler has created a hilarious series of videos about her husband that a lot of women say they can relate to because theirs behave the exact same way.

Stickler is a mother who shares funny videos about her domestic life on TikTok where she's earned over six million followers.

In the videos, she transforms into her husband Mike by throwing on a backward baseball cap and adopting a deeper voice. From the videos, it's pretty clear that Mike always wants some sort of praise for doing the things he's supposed to do.

The interesting thing about the couple is that they went from dating to parents pretty much overnight. Three months after their first date, Kat was pregnant and they were married.

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via Kat Stickler / TikTok

Kat Stickler has created a hilarious series of videos about her husband that a lot of women say they can relate to because theirs behave the exact same way.

Stickler is a mother who shares funny videos about her domestic life on TikTok where she's earned over six million followers.

In the videos, she transforms into her husband Mike by throwing on a backward baseball cap and adopting a deeper voice. From the videos, it's pretty clear that Mike always wants some sort of praise for doing the things he's supposed to do.

The interesting thing about the couple is that they went from dating to parents pretty much overnight. Three months after their first date, Kat was pregnant and they were married.

Keep Reading Show less
True

Each year, an estimated 1.8 million people in the United States are affected by cancer — most commonly cancers of the breast, lung, prostate, and blood cancers such as leukemia. While not everyone overcomes the disease, thanks to science, more people are surviving — and for longer — than ever before in history.

We asked three people whose lives have been impacted by cancer to share their stories – how their lives were changed by the disease, and how they're using that experience to change the future of cancer treatments with the hope that ultimately, in the fight against cancer, science will win. Here's what they had to say.

Celine Ryan, 55, engineer database programmer and mother of five from Detroit, MI

Photo courtesy of Celine Ryan

In September 2013, Celine Ryan woke up from a colonoscopy to some traumatic news. Her gastroenterologist showed her a picture of the cancerous mass they found during the procedure.

Ryan and her husband, Patrick, had scheduled a colonoscopy after discovering some unusual bleeding, so the suspicion she could have cancer was already there. Neither of them, however, were quite prepared for the results to be positive -- or for the treatment to begin so soon. Just two days after learning the news, Ryan had surgery to remove the tumor, part of her bladder, and 17 cancerous lymph nodes. Chemotherapy and radiation soon followed.

Ryan's treatment was rigorous – but in December 2014, she got the devastating news that the cancer, once confined to her colon, had spread to her lungs. Her prognosis, they said, was likely terminal.

But rather than give up hope, Ryan sought support from online research, fellow cancer patients and survivors, and her medical team. When she brought up immunotherapy to her oncologist, he quickly agreed it was the best course of action. Ryan's cancer, like a majority of colon and pancreatic cancers, had been caused by a defect on the gene KRAS, which can result in a very aggressive cancer that is virtually "undruggable." According to the medical literature, the relatively smooth protein structure of the KRAS gene meant that designing inhibitors to bind to surface grooves and treat the cancer has been historically difficult. Through her support systems, Ryan discovered an experimental immunotherapy trial at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, MD., and called them immediately to see if she was eligible. After months of trying to determine whether she was a suitable candidate for the experimental treatment, Ryan was finally accepted.

The treatment, known as tumor-infiltrating lymphocyte therapy, or TIL, is a testament to how far modern science has evolved. With this therapy, doctors remove a tumor and harvest special immune cells that are found naturally in the tumor. Doctors then grow the cells in a lab over the next several weeks with a protein that promotes rapid TIL growth – and once the cells number into the billions, they are infused back into the patient's body to fight the cancer. On April 1, 2015, Ryan had her tumor removed at the NIH. Two months later, she went inpatient for four weeks to have the team "wash out" her immune system with chemotherapy and infuse the cells – all 148 billion of them – back into her body.

Six weeks after the infusion, Ryan and Patrick went back for a follow-up appointment – and the news they got was stunning: Not only had no new tumors developed, but the six existing tumors in her lungs had shrunk significantly. Less than a year after her cell infusion, in April 2016, the doctors told Ryan news that would have been impossible just a decade earlier: Thanks to the cell infusion, Ryan was now considered NED – no evaluable disease. Her body was cancer-free.

Ryan is still NED today and continuing annual follow-up appointments at the NIH, experiencing things she never dreamed she'd be able to live to see, such as her children's high school and college graduations. She's also donating her blood and cells to the NIH to help them research other potential cancer treatments. "It was an honor to do so," Ryan said of her experience. "I'm just thrilled, and I hope my experience can help a lot more people."

Patrice Lee, PhD, VP of Pharmacology, Toxicology and Exploratory Development at Pfizer

Photo courtesy of Patrice Lee

Patrice Lee got into scientific research in an unconventional way – through the late ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau.

Lee never met Cousteau but her dreams of working with him one day led her to pursue a career in science. Initially, Lee completed an undergraduate degree in marine biology; eventually, her interests changed and she decided to get a dual doctoral degree in physiology and toxicology at Duke University. She now works at Pfizer's R&D site in Boulder, CO (formerly Array BioPharma), leading a group of scientists who determine the safety and efficacy of new oncology drugs.

"Scientists focused on drug discovery and development in the pharmaceutical industry are deeply committed to inventing new therapies to meet unmet needs," Lee says, describing her field of work. "We're driven to achieve new medicines and vaccines as quickly as possible without sacrificing safety."

Among the drugs Lee has helped develop during her career, including cancer therapies, she says around a dozen are currently in development, while nine have received FDA approval — an incredible accomplishment as many scientists spend their careers without seeing their drug make it to market. Lee's team is particularly interested in therapies for brain metastases — something that Lee says is a largely unmet need in cancer research, and something her team is working on from a variety of angles. "Now that we've had rapid success with mRNA vaccine technology, we hope to explore what the future holds when applying this technology to cancers," Lee says.

But while evaluating potential cancer therapies is a professional passion of Lee's, it's also a mission that's deeply personal. "I'm also a breast cancer survivor," she says. "So I've been on the other side of things and have participated in a clinical trial."

However, seeing how melanoma therapies that she helped develop have affected other real-life cancer patients, she says, has been a highlight of her career. "We had one therapy that was approved for patients with BRAF-mutant metastatic melanoma," Lee recalls. "Our team in Boulder was graced by a visit from a patient that had benefited from these drugs that we developed. It was a very special moment for the entire team."

None of these therapies would be available, Lee says without rigorous science behind it: "Facts come from good science. Facts will drive the development of new drugs, and that's what will help patients."

Chiuying "Cynthia" Kuk (they/them) MS, 34, third-year medical student at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine

Photo courtesy of Cynthia Kuk

Cynthia Kuk was just 10 years old when they had a conversation that would change their life forever.

"My mother, who worked as a translator for the government at the time, had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and after her chemotherapy treatments she would get really sick," Kuk, who uses they/them pronouns, recalls. "When I asked my dad why mom was puking so much, he said it was because of the medicine she was taking that would help her get better."

Kuk's response was immediate: "That's so stupid! Why would a medicine make you feel worse instead of better? When I'm older, I want to create medicine that won't make people sick like that."

Nine years later, Kuk traveled from their native Hong Kong to the United States to do exactly that. Kuk enrolled in a small, liberal arts college for their Bachelor's degree, and then four years later started a PhD program in cancer research. Although Kuk's mother was in remission from her cancer at the time, Kuk's goal was the same as it had been as a 10-year-old watching her suffer through chemotherapy: to design a better cancer treatment, and change the landscape of cancer research forever.

Since then, Kuk's mission has changed slightly.

"My mom's cancer relapsed in 2008, and she ended up passing away about five years after that," Kuk says. "After my mom died, I started having this sense of urgency. Cancer research is such that you work for twenty years, and at the end of it you might have a fancy medication that could help people, but I wanted to help people now." With their mother still at the forefront of their mind, Kuk decided to quit their PhD program and enter medical school.

Now, Kuk plans to pursue a career in emergency medicine – not only because they are drawn to the excitement of the emergency room, but because the ER is a place where the most marginalized people tend to seek care.

"I have a special interest in the LGBTQ+ population, as I identify as queer and nonbinary," says Kuk. "A lot of people in this community and other marginalized communities access care through the ER and also tend to avoid medical care since there is a history of mistreatment and judgement from healthcare workers. How you carry yourself as a doctor, your compassion, that can make a huge difference in someone's care."

In addition to making a difference in the lives of LGBTQ+ patients, Kuk wants to make a difference in the lives of patients with cancer as well, like their mother had.

"We've diagnosed patients in the Emergency Department with cancer before," Kuk says. "I can't make cancer good news but how you deliver bad news and the compassion you show could make a world of difference to that patient and their family."

During their training, Kuk advocates for patients by delivering compassionate and inclusive care, whether they happen to have cancer or not. In addition to emphasizing their patient's pronouns and chosen names, they ask for inclusive social and sexual histories as well as using gender neutral language. In doing this, they hope to make medicine as a whole more accessible for people who have been historically pushed aside.

"I'm just one person, and I can't force everyone to respect you, if you're marginalized," Kuk says. "But I do want to push for a culture where people appreciate others who are different from them."