Mayoral candidate DeRobbio defends role in 2014 operetta

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Democratic mayoral candidate Robert DeRobbio said Wednesday he did not authorize white performers to use yellowface during a 2014 production of “The Mikado” at the Columbus Theatre in Providence.

DeRobbio, who serves as president of Opera Providence, said he felt compelled to respond to criticism he’s seen on social media regarding the years-old operetta, which was first produced by Gilbert & Sullivan in 1885.

“This goes beyond attacking Robert DeRobbio,” he said during a press conference at his campaign headquarters on Hathaway Street. “The pictures that have been portrayed are pictures of artists that come out of New York City, that come out of Massachusetts, that come out of Connecticut. They all have agents. They are all known for the roles that they perform and they were selected to do this performance based on their credentials in doing roles from Gilbert & Sullivan.  So it not only defames my character, but it's also hurting their future roles and their future livelihoods."

Yellowface is controversial because it involves the use makeup by non-Asian performers who are playing the role of Asian people. A group of individuals protested the 2014 performance, but Columbus Theatre allowed the show to go on advertised.

DeRobbio said the tone of two emails he sent at the time – including one where he said he was recommending a Columbus employee be fired – was “probably out of frustration.” He said Opera Providence spent $6,000, but did not receive the level of service it expected from the theatre.

DeRobbio also said performers were not told to wear yellow makeup. He provided several pictures of cast members as evidence that yellowface was not used.

But James Kuo, who protested the performance in 2014 and has become a leading critic of DeRobbio’s campaign, maintains actors did use yellowface. He attended the press conference, but was told to wait outside. A campaign aide offered him a bottle of water as he stood in the heat.

Kuo, who is of Taiwanese descent, said seeing white actors dressed up insultingly to look Asian sends the wrong message.

“This colonial mindset says, first of all, that your country, your culture, doesn't belong to you and that your name and your body don’t belong to you,” Kuo said. “You are who colonizers say you are.”

DeRobbio is running in the Democratic primary against incumbent Mayor Jorge Elorza and community advocate Kobi Dennis. The winner will take on independents Dee Dee Witman and Jeff Lemire.

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Dan McGowan ( covers politics and the city of Providence for Follow him on Twitter: @danmcgowan

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