Some Students Protest ‘The Mikado,’ Sparking Dialogue Around Race

UPDATED: Nov. 2, 2016, at 11:05 p.m.

About 10 people gathered outside Agassiz Theater Friday evening to protest the opening night of the Harvard-Radcliffe Gilbert and Sullivan Players’ “The Mikado,” a production some students say espouses inappropriate depictions of Japanese culture.

The comedic opera, written in 1884, satirizes British political culture and bureaucracy. In past renditions of the play performed around the world, non-Asian actors have portrayed Japanese characters, and critics have charged the play perpetuates exaggerated stereotypes of Japanese culture and people.

Harvard’s Gilbert and Sullivan Players’ rendition of “The Mikado” claims to grapple with controversial histories of western attitudes towards Japan. Their rendition takes place in a Las Vegas hotel as opposed to the fictional Japanese town of Titipu, and members of the theater troupe have sponsored teach-ins and town hall forums to talk about racism in theater ahead of opening night.

George S. Qiao ’18 said although he recognized the group’s efforts to engage with the history of the production, he felt that they did not go far enough, arguing the show engages with Japanese history in an offensive manner.

Last week, Qiao called on the group to cancel “The Mikado,” penning a three-page document outlining his criticisms. In an interview Friday, he apologized, saying that “many of the initial statements I wrote were a bit too aggressive, a bit too emotional, feelings were hurt.”

All other protesters present at the show’s start time declined to comment.

The Gilbert and Sullivan Players, while welcoming students’ right to protest, have defended the show. The group’s president, Kathleen C. Zhou ’17, has argued that changing the production’s setting from a fictional Japanese town to a Las Vegas hotel better helped to “expose and critique the commodity racism and racial impersonation.”

Zhou also spoke at an Undergraduate Council meeting Sunday to defend “The Mikado.”

“We understand that the nature of this production is problematic and we have done some things to address that and we understand that we have not completely sanitized ‘The Mikado’ in any way,” said Trevor A. Mullin ’17, a Gilbert and Sullivan Players’ board member who helped produce the show.

Vivian L. Huang, a College fellow in Women and Gender Studies and Theatre, Dance, and Media who has taught about the intersection of performance art and race, gender, and ethnicity , attended “The Mikado” on its opening night Friday to “engage with the conversation its inspired” and to support some students of hers who were involved. She wrote in an email Sunday that she sympathized with student protesters, but that boycott was not necessarily the only or most effective form of protest.

“I can understand and support the impulse and act of protesting ‘The Mikado,’ especially when protesting invites dialogue and an expanded understanding of what's at stake in theater and performance where bodies are under explicit scrutiny,” she wrote.

Additionally, she wrote that “there are and historically have been other ways to stage resistance as well. It seems to me that the rhetoric of performance can be helpful here in interpreting boycott and rehearsal both as potential forms of political protest.”

Huang helped facilitate a teach-in with the Gilbert and Sullivan Players last week about “yellowface” in theater, and added that she plans to teach a course on the relationship between live performance and protest next semester. Ashley Zhou ’17, a Crimson design chair, organized the teach-in.

Huang added that she thought “there is no question” that the original Gilbert and Sullivan show draws upon “Orientalist ideology.”

Hana Seita ’19, president of the Harvard Japan Society, said she personally felt “very offended, but not surprised” that a show she characterized as biased against Asian and Asian American students had been produced. Seita, who said she spoke only for herself, did not see “The Mikado,” and said she does not plan to in the future.

But Seita added she thought protests may generate unnecessary anger, and instead said she hoped “The Mikado” would start dialogue around issues of discrimination against Asians and Asian Americans.

Harvard-Radcliffe Gilbert and Sullivan players last staged the show in the fall of 2012. In defending the show this year, Mullin encouraged people to “look at our version in 2016, and look at the steps we’ve taken to address the racial issues in contrast to the 2012 production, which was very rife with things that I personally find offensive in terms of race.”

This article has been revised to reflect the following clarifications and correction:

CORRECTION: Nov. 1, 2016

A previous version of this article incorrectly quoted postdoctoral fellow Vivian L. Huang as saying the campus production draws upon “Orientalist ideology.” In fact, she was referring to the original production.

CLARIFICATIONS: Nov. 1, 2016

A previous version of this article implied that Huang organized teach-ins ahead of the campus production of "The Mikado." In fact, she spoke at the teach-ins.

A previous version of this article also incorrectly implied that Britain had colonized Japan.

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