Robert DeRobbio responds to charges of racism around production of The Mikado four years ago

Nancy and Robert DeRobbio

During the “undebate” held nearly two weeks ago, James Kuo took Robert DeRobbio, Democratic candidate for Mayor of Providence, to task for Opera Providence‘s staging of Gilbert and Sullivan‘s The Mikado at the the Columbus Theater four years ago. DeRobbio was the president of Opera Providence. Kuo maintains that DeRobbio’s production was racist and that DeRobbio ignored the complaints from people concerned about the production. Kuo and DeRobbio exchanged words outside the show when he protested the performance.  There is a pretty good primer on the entire controversy here. Here’s a perspective on the portrayal of Asians in Western media from Wikipedia.

Today, ahead of tomorrow night’s debate at Dr Martin Luther King Jr Elementary School, DeRobbio held a press conference to answer Kuo’s accusations of racism.

“Free speech is one thing,” said DeRobbio, opening up his press conference inside his campaign headquarters. “Uninformed opinions that are an assault on one’s character and community are hateful and damaging.

“Protesters of Opera Providence’s performance of The Mikado accused me, as President of Opera Providence, as being against Asian culture, with yellowface makeup and criticized the casting, without ever having seen our production,” said DeRobbio. “Protesters in front of the theater were invited to view the production. They refused.”

As a result of these accusations, “Personal attacks on my character have been made publicly and on social media. You can read DeRobbio’s full comments here.

The harsh language DeRobbio used in some of the emails he exchanged with Columbus Theatre management was “probably out of frustration,” said DeRobbio.

I asked DeRobbio if The Mikado is still relevant given the controversy of such productions across the country and around the world. “I have to say that Gilbert and Sullivan summer productions are very in favor [with] a lot of people,” said DeRobbio. “There are whole companies that perform Gilbert and Sullivan productions.”

You can watch DeRobbio’s entire press conference here:

Outside DeRobbio’s campaign headquarters, James Kuo was waiting with his own statement for the press. Kuo was refused entry to the press conference and asked to wait outside. He read his statement, which I present below, with video:
James Kuo

“There are worse things that have gone on in this country than Robert DeRobbio running for mayor. For decades Latinx people have been constantly portrayed on television as being criminals, and now millions of Americans approve of keeping children in cages on the southern border. Minstrel shows and blackface were historically used as a weapon against black people to perpetuate segregation and Jim Crow. These negative portrayals are used to demonstrate the power of the dominant culture. It is them saying ‘You are who we say you are,’ and if you say a group of people are backwards, childish and submissive, it serves as a pretext for doing further harm to them.

The Mikado premiered in 1885 by authors of the colonial era with little knowledge of Japan. It did however give to a white audience a picture of “the Orient” that was to their liking: backwards, childish, and submissive. These negative traits are placed on Asian people and so by contrast the audience can feel the sense of being cultured, of central importance, dominant.

“These ideas, these Orientalized images, served as a pretext that allowed people with power in the US to believe it was proper to colonize the Philipines, proper for England to colonize India, France to colonize Vietnam. This colonial mindset says first of all that your country, your culture doesn’t belong to you and your name and your body don’t belong to you. You are who colonizers say you are.

“I am proud of my heritage– my family is from Taiwan. I love the city of Providence. Seeing a show like this go up in the neighborhood where I live says that I am not welcome here. Seeing white actors dressed up insultingly to look “Asian” says your face doesn’t belong to you. Childish names like TitiPu and YumYum say that your culture and language are backwards, and that your name doesn’t belong to you. You are who white people say you are. It says that you are beneath them.

“DeRobbio uses language that reinforces power difference. When Thomas Weyman, a Columbus Theatre employee, apologized for hosting, DeRobbio tried to ruin his life by taking his job away, saying ‘Thomas and his apology mean nothing to me. He is at the bottom of the food chain. I made a recommendation to his boss that he be fired.’ Saying ‘at the bottom of the food chain’ implies that DeRobbio sees himself at the top. He is campaigning for mayor and making grab at power that he should never have.

“When I protested his show, DeRobbio said that my actions were inexcusable. Because I did not appreciate Asian people being mocked, he said that I was a ‘true ignorant, uncultured, uninformed asshole.’ As the head of an arts organization he stooped to insults and swears over this confrontation, it does not bode well for how he would act as mayor.

“DeRobbio could have put on any show he wanted and he chose the one that degrades Asian people, he could have canceled the show and replaced it when he discovered the harm this causes, he could have apologized when Sakiko Mori and I asked him to, he could have apologized when nearly 600 people demanded it in a petition. DeRobbio chose not to. He chose to PROMOTE racism with his yellowface show. he chose to DEFEND racism by mocking the people of color who confronted him. And he chose to ENFORCE racism by threatening the job of a Columbus Theatre employee. Nothing he said today changes his actions. He will have to hear about this every day until September 12th when Providence voters Say No to Racism, and Say No to DeRobbio.”

Kuo was met with some anger from DeRobbio supporters, who accused him of being paid by incumbent Mayor Jorge Elorza:


See also:

Mayoral candidate DeRobbio defends role in 2014 operetta


DeRobbio supporters
James Kuo

Here are the photos DeRobbio released from the production:


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About Steve Ahlquist 669 Articles
Steve Ahlquist is a frontline reporter in Rhode Island. He has covered human rights, social justice, progressive politics and environmental news for half a decade. Uprise RI is his new project, and he's doing all he can to make it essential reading. atomicsteve@gmail.com

4 Comments

  1. Gilbert and Sullivan made fun of everybody, especially the English (as in Pinafore, Pirates, lolanthe, Patience) but also inquisItors, gondoliers, and high officials everywhere including Japan as in the Mikado. Indeed the “pooh-bah” character is synonymous with a corrupt pompous official everywhere! It also should be pointed out that the “good guy” hero and heroine in Mikado are also Japanese. We’ve seen similar protests about things like Porgy and Bess, the Merchant of Venice, the Godfather series, Hogan’s Heroes….all of which play to some possibly offensive stereotype. To avoid offending anyone there will be no satire, no drama, no humor, no art.
    The Mikado has great songs and lyrics. I don’t blame DeRobbio for being annoyed at being called names for putting on a fine show. If an Asian doesn’t want to see the Mikado then don’t see it, but the idea that someone who produces arts in the city is running for office seems like a good thing.

  2. The first appearance of Porgy and Bess occurred in 1935 and “featured a cast of classically trained African-American singers—a daring artistic choice at the time.” Gershwin “chose as his choral director Eva Jessye.” Jessye was an African American woman.

    “These negative portrayals are used to demonstrate the power of the dominant culture. It is them saying ‘You are who we say you are,’ ”

    I could say more but Kuo’s comment sums things up succinctly.

  3. I was one of the protesters against this production in 2014.

    Regarding our “uninformed opinions” as Mr. DeRobbio says- What the protesters expressed was not an opinion. We expressed the pain caused by the decision to stage this operetta.

    We did not see or hear any acknowledgement from Opera Providence that the original production of The Mikado had stereotypically offensive expressions towards Asian people, even though there have been an increasing amount of controversies around presenting this work in recent years.

    Maybe it’s hard to understand what the problem in this production is, if you have never been on the other side. But if a bunch of people express their raw emotions that root down deep in their history, emotions caused by one’s unintentional yet unfortunately hurtful behavior, and ask for acknowledgement- is it so difficult to respond with some sense of sensitivity or sympathy? Or do we still ignore them, or say that they are wrong to have those feelings?

    A person whose only reaction to voices of concerns is to defend their position, should not be a leader.

  4. This statement by Mr. Kuo is asking some important questions not only about what kind of arts and culture we want in Providence, but also about what kind of leader we want. Mr. DeRobbio’s bullying responses to the voices raised in protest– his inability to even entertain opinions that differ from his– show that he would be a terrible leader of our city.

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