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The Mikado—Past & Present

By Kathleen C. Zhou, Contributing Writer

In the fall of 2015, the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players cancelled their production of “The Mikado,” a satire of British bureaucracy set in a fictional Japanese town of Titipu, after the production’s promotional postcards—featuring an almost entirely white cast dressed in kimonos and sporting kabuki makeup—caused a public outcry. Clearly, their appeal to “historical accuracy” did not justify their blatant yellowface. Yet “The Mikado; or, The Town of Titipu” is one of the most beloved works in the Gilbert and Sullivan canon and has an enormous cultural legacy. The board of the Harvard-Radcliffe Gilbert & Sullivan Players, whose mission is to produce the full canon of Gilbert and Sullivan’s shows, faced a dilemma this past January: Strike “The Mikado” from our season, and ignore one of the most problematic but well-known G&S shows, or try to confront it by reimagining it and subverting authorial intent.

We decided on the latter option, choosing not to categorically ignore the problematic existence and history of the show, but to use that history and the Asian American scholarship on “The Mikado” to critically engage with the text and stage an intervention informed by academic sources and by the lived experiences of Asian American cast and crew members, including myself.

Such twistings and reimagining of classical works are fairly common; think modern productions of Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice,” for example. Our reframing of “The Mikado” has been particularly inspired by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ play, “An Octoroon, which has been praised for its examination and deconstruction of portrayals of race in the 1859 play “The Octoroon.”

In researching the racial history of “The Mikado,” I found a wealth of information in Josephine Lee’s book “The Japan of Pure Invention,” which notes that the show was written during mid-19th century Western fascination with Japanese cultural objects. It perpetrated what postcolonial scholar Anne McClintock termed “commodity racism,” replacing Japanese people with Japanese objects, decreasing responsibility for cultural authenticity, and constructing a racial fantasy to stand in for the real Japan.

The show evolved new shades of nuance with major geopolitical changes in the era of “yellow peril” as Japan became a world power. Its commodity racism took on political significance in the context of “coolie” labor in the US, which Lee suggests accounts for a shift in interest to Japanese culture from once-popular Chinese culture after China diminished in global status (though the two cultures are often confused in “The Mikado”).

Nevertheless, the history of “The Mikado” is not merely a binary tale of oriental and occidental. In the United States, the racial dynamics of productions were further complicated by the intersection of yellowface and blackface. Yellowface for black actors provided the dubious freedom to play roles that, while stereotypes themselves, diverged from the stereotypes black actors were ordinarily forced to embody.

I hope that our production begins to address the show’s history and offers a focal point for discourse on problems of Asian American representation. While contributing to this conversation can include the creation of an entirely separate space in order to tell one’s story, as an Asian American at this historically (and currently) predominantly white institution, I have found that it can often be more difficult to take back agency and ownership in spaces that have not traditionally belonged to people who look like me. Although both methods are equally important, I, and other production staff, have chosen to work within our framework as a Gilbert and Sullivan society.

Our version of “The Mikado” transforms Titipu, into a 1960s Las Vegas themed Oriental hotel. The owner of the hotel is a Mafia don swept up in the American postwar fascination with Japanese culture. The racial fantasy central to Gilbert’s original “Mikado” is imposed violently on the don’s staff—western characters who perform elements of “Japanese-ness” (e.g. singing “Mi-ya Sa-ma,” an imperial Japanese military song appropriated by Gilbert and Sullivan) in his presence. Thus, we have taken the show’s original concept—western actors playing Japanese—and reified it in the staff members of the Hotel Mikado, in an effort to expose and critique the commodity racism and racial impersonation in Gilbert’s original “Mikado.”

In addition to the conceptual changes, I have worked in dramaturgical changes for the text, with advice from Professor Josephine Lee and Sean Graney, who recently directed an acclaimed version of “The Mikado” at the Oberon. We have rewritten the “Gentlemen of Japan” opening number as “Gentlemen of the Strip,” but retained the text to “Mi-Ya Sa-Ma,” one of the only authentically Japanese elements of the show, and restaged this moment to highlight the violence of racial impersonation. As with all HRG&SP shows, the roles were cast without specific races in mind for individual roles, though we attempted to keep diversity in mind.

Unsurprisingly, the discourse surrounding race (and its representation), culture (and its appropriation), and theater is incredibly complex. Even with our changes, the show remains problematic, and we invite all to engage with its history and contemporary implications during our various events. We hope that both Gilbert & Sullivan fans and outspoken critics of “The Mikado” will find our version to be an interesting and thoughtful contribution to a larger discussion, as well as an exemplar of the comic spirit of the canon.

Just four years ago, HRG&SP put on a production of “The Mikado” with a production aesthetic almost identical to that of NYG&SP. Though it was before my time at Harvard, I cringe when I scroll through the production photos, knowing that, at the time, hardly anyone gave the yellowface a second thought. But these photos also serve as a reminder of my own experience as an Asian American that I wish to confront, not to ignore. Just last month, a stranger shouted “ching ching pong” at me as I walked into Widener. I was too stunned to respond. Now, I feel ready to respond, and I am excited to share the work of our cast, staff, and orchestra with the wider community.

Kathleen C. Zhou ’17 is a mathematics concentrator living in Mather House and the president of the Harvard-Radcliffe Gilbert and Sullivan Players.

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