Forgotten Musicals Friday: THE MIKADO

The image that caused all the trouble: promotional photography used to promote the New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players' production of THE MIKADO

The image that caused all the trouble: promotional photography used to promote the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players’ production of THE MIKADO

All right. It’s hardly forgotten – and, strictly speaking, it’s not a musical either. But The Mikado has been placed under the spotlight once again this week, so I thought I would feature W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan’s classic comic opera in this column to reflect upon some of the issues raised in the controversy around the The New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players’ planned production of the piece, which was announced as having been cancelled earlier today.

The Mikado; or, The Town of Titipu debuted in 1885, the ninth collaboration by the widely popular Gilbert and Sullivan. A satire of Victorian England, looking both politics and other institutions of the time, librettist Gilbert used the setting of Japan as a disguise for his commentary. Plot-wise, The Mikado tells the tale of Nanki-Poo, the son of the Mikado of Japan who has fled his father’s court to escape marriage to the elderly Katisha. Disguised as a ‘wandering minstrel’, arrives in the town of Titipu, where he falls in love with Yum-Yum, the young ward of Ko-Ko. Complications ensue, but everything works itself out before the final curtain.

The creation of The Mikado was itself the subject of a film, Topsy-Turvy and, if you are unfamiliar with the show, there are many audio and film recordings through which you could familiarise yourself with this much-beloved comic opera, including an adaptation using jazz and swing music (The Hot Mikado) and one set in the Caribbean using rock, reggae, blues and calypso to flavour the score (The Black Mikado).

Caucasian actor Peter Kramer as the Japanese Mikado in the Cape Town Gilbert and Sullivan Society's production.

Caucasian actor Peter Kramer as the Japanese Mikado in the Cape Town Gilbert and Sullivan Society’s production.

I must admit, this is not the first time The Mikado has been on my radar this year. Earlier this year, a local amateur dramatics troupe, the Cape Town Gilbert and Sullivan Society, mounted a production, which included many – mostly – Caucasian actors in both principle roles and the chorus. Back then, I had had problems with the fact that nobody seemed to bat an eyelid at this casting and the production company’s silence on how it would enable its mostly white cast to represent Japanese people in the production – given that cultural appropriation was a trending topic on many South African social media accounts at the time and that South Africa is a country which has its history and present tied up in tensions around race adn ethnicity. That The Cape Town Gilbert and Sullivan Society and its production of The Mikado escaped any kind of scrutiny whatsoever, barring two tweets where I tried to start a conversation about the issue, is – at the very least – surprising to me.

But let’s get back to the issue at hand.

An etching of Gilbert and Sullivan

An etching of Gilbert and Sullivan

On Wednesday, Playbill reported that a flyer sent out by The New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players about their upcoming production of The Mikado had offended members of the Asian American community. The flyer featured four white actors playing Japanese characters from the play. When it was reported that the company barely featured any cast members of Asian descent and that the company’s previous production of the comic opera was historically inaccurate and culturally insensitive, things worsened. Speaking to Playbill, actress and writer, Erin Quill said that a character named “The Axe Coolie” had been added to that production, “coolie” being a slur used to describe Chinese workers, while another character ran around the stage shouting the stereotypical exclamation, “High ya!” She added that:

(Some actors were) just in a costume and doing their track, others were taking special delight and making a large effort to use stereotypical behavior. There was pulling of the eyes, there was shuffling of feet, there were exaggerated gestures in many regards, but when one cast member both pulled his eyes and gnashed his teeth — it was clear that this production had nothing to do with Gilbert and Sullivan any longer, it was an excuse to indulge in caricature that was degrading and hurtful.

With a precedent like that, is it any wonder that Quill and others who spoke out against this new production feared that The New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players would once again mount a production of The Mikado ‘for cheap laughs at the expense of Japanese Heritage.’

J. Hassal's THE MIKADO illustration

J. Hassal’s THE MIKADO illustration

The New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players, of course, claimed the opposite, choosing to focus on the fact that – in a statement released to Playbill – the production would have avoided the practice of Yellowface, the use of make-up to appear Asian, that – on their Tumblr page – the production was simply in line with the original intent of The Mikado as a vehicle to satirise Victorian England. There’s almost a sense of surprise in Exective Director David Wannen’s statement, “I really believe that the issue is a larger issue, obviously, than who is Asian and who isn’t.”

Of course there are larger issues at play! One only has to take a look at the responses on social media sites about this situation to see that. Today’s column is getting a little long, so I’ll share some of the shocking attitudes reflected in social media statements about this situation in tomorrow’s Saturday List – statements that point to some of those larger issues.

But to close off for today, I’ll share a final quotation from Quill:

No Asian American disputes that The Mikado is a staple of the G&S canon, nor that the music is lovely. The Mikado, in mocking British mores of the time, says many things about being an individual, about standing up against petty tyrannies, that love will find a way no matter what age you are, and that ultimately if you speak your truth to power, reason will prevail. (Yes, there are large amounts of ‘poo’ references in the names of characters and the town itself. At the time, it was funny, now it is a bit of a ‘groaner.’) We, the Asian Americans, do not want to ‘take away’ your precious Mikado – we want you to do better. We want you to stop constantly mocking us and telling us by your actions and deeds that Yellowface remains part of your theatrical lexicon. We want you to make any production of it, smarter, less full of stereotypes – more full of the respect G&S were trying for.

I think these words offer an incredible gesture of grace towards Gilbert and Sullivan’s intentions, with a reasonable request for a shift in the way that a piece like The Mikado is handled today. I hope that people are listening.

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3 Responses to Forgotten Musicals Friday: THE MIKADO

  1. Dave Starke says:

    David, I remember it being a big thing back in Hiddingh days when we practised what was called colourblind casting which saw mixed race performances of Chekhov (for example). So, I get the point that we need to rework insensitive cultural stereotyping, but this article also seems to imply that “caucasians” shouldn’t act as asian characters. I think that is ridiculous.

  2. Dear Dave, How do you “Act Asian?” …how do you “Act Black?”

  3. David Fick says:

    Dave, although the two are related, there are some differences between so-called colourblind casting, which is a process of restorative justice that counters historical, ingrained and/or residual practices that prevent(ed) people of colour from playing roles that were and sometimes still are traditionally played by white actors as a result of systemic oppression, and the issue of performing race or ethnicity, which is tied up in even more complicated representational politics, to which “littlechristmaslee” refers in a short, but effectively phrased question.

    Yes, sometimes one is synonymous with the other and there is a time an place for everything, dependent on context and intention, but when white theatre-makers and theatre-goers protest the idea that they should not be (author)ity in the representation of other races and ethnicities – and I’d say that this is at the core of 99.5% of the thousand or so responses I’ve read to this particular situation with THE MIKADO in the past week – then I think it’s safe to say there’s a problem with the conversation.

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