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."

More

Disney has come under fire for problematic portrayals of non-white and non-western cultures in many of its older movies. They aren't the only one, of course, but since their movies are an iconic part of most American kids' childhoods, Disney's messaging holds a lot of power.

Fortunately, that power can be used for good, and Disney can serve as an example to other companies if they learn from their mistakes, account for their misdeeds, and do the right thing going forward. Without getting too many hopes up, it appears that the entertainment giant may have actually done just that with the new Frozen II film.

According to NOW Toronto, the producers of Frozen II have entered into a contract with the Sámi people—the Indigenous people of the Scandinavian regions—to ensure that they portray the culture with respect.

RELATED: This fascinating comic explains why we shouldn't use some Native American designs.

Though there was not a direct portrayal of the Sámi in the first Frozen movie, the choral chant that opens the film was inspired by an ancient Sámi vocal tradition. In addition, the clothing worn by Kristoff closely resembled what a Sámi reindeer herder would wear. The inclusion of these elements of Sámi culture with no context or acknowledgement sparked conversations about cultural appropriation and erasure on social media.

Frozen II features Indigenous culture much more directly, and even addressed the issue of Indigenous erasure. Filmmakers Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck, along with producer Peter Del Vecho, consulted with experts on how to do that respectfully—the experts, of course, being the Sámi people themselves.

Sámi leaders met with Disney producer Peter Del Vecho in September 2019.Sámediggi Sametinget/Flickr

The Sámi parliaments of Norway, Sweden and Finland, and the non-governmental Saami Council reached out to the filmmakers when they found out their culture would be highlighted in the film. They formed a Sámi expert advisory group, called Verddet, to assist filmmakers in with how to accurately and respectfully portray Sámi culture, history, and society.

In a contract signed by Walt Disney Animation Studios and Sámi leaders, the Sámi stated their position that "their collective and individual culture, including aesthetic elements, music, language, stories, histories, and other traditional cultural expressions are property that belong to the Sámi," and "that to adequately respect the rights that the Sámi have to and in their culture, it is necessary to ensure sensitivity, allow for free, prior, and informed consent, and ensure that adequate benefit sharing is employed."

RELATED: This aboriginal Australian used kindness and tea to trump the racism he overheard.

Disney agreed to work with the advisory group, to produce a version of Frozen II in one Sámi language, as well as to "pursue cross-learning opportunities" and "arrange for contributions back to the Sámi society."

Anne Lájla Utsi, managing director at the International Sámi Film Institute, was part of the Verddet advisory group. She told NOW, "This is a good example of how a big, international company like Disney acknowledges the fact that we own our own culture and stories. It hasn't happened before."

"Disney's team really wanted to make it right," said Utsi. "They didn't want to make any mistakes or hurt anybody. We felt that they took it seriously. And the film shows that. We in Verddet are truly proud of this collaboration."

Sounds like you've done well this time, Disney. Let's hope such cultural sensitivity and collaboration continues, and that other filmmakers and production companies will follow suit.

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