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A group of Asian American students is planning to protest the Harvard-Radcliffe Gilbert and Sullivan Players’ upcoming production of “The Mikado” for how it handles the racial stereotypes that characterize traditional performances of the opera.
Organized by George S. Qiao ’18, the group of students had publicized their protest over various email lists, describing what they consider inadequate attempts to remove the Japanese stereotypes and appropriation of Japanese culture that remained latent in the adapted production’s storyline. But later Qiao said that he thought the tone of his initial concerns was unfair to the Players.
“I fully believe that members of the Gilbert and Sullivan Players put their blood, sweat, and tears into trying to improve this staging of the production,” Qiao said. “However, I believe that there is still insufficient critical engagement [with] this play’s history of Japanese cultural misrepresentation.”
Penned in 1884, “The Mikado” is a comical opera, set in the fictional Japanese town of Titipu and meant to satirically mask criticism of British political culture and bureaucracy with grossly exaggerated “Asian” names and stereotypical cultural caricatures.
In recent years, productions of the opera across the country have been dogged with controversy over the script’s treatment of Asian culture. Hoping to avoid these issues in their own production, the board of the Gilbert and Sullivan Players made some changes to the setting and script of the opera, characterizing their rendition as a “reimagining” of the original production.
“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,” Kathleen C. Zhou ’17, the president of the Players, wrote in an op-ed for The Crimson Tuesday. “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.”
The setting of their show is no longer the 19th century town of Titipu, and instead is now 20th century “Las Vegas themed Oriental hotel.” And, the opening number “Gentlemen of Japan” has been rewritten as “Gentlemen of the Strip.”
At the same time, some controversial parts of the original script have still made their way into the Players’ adaptation, including the song “Mi-Ya Sa-Ma.”
Zhou said in an interview that in rethinking the comical opera’s script, the complete omission of all of the original production’s issues was “an erasure in itself in that it does not acknowledge how problematic the show has been to [Asians].”
Instead, the Players decided to keep some aspects to “expose the absurdity of the traditional show.”
“Part of what makes this show’s ignorance so apparent is how ridiculous it is,” Zhou added.
Qiao, however, said that he felt the version of the play he saw Wednesday evening “avoided racial issues altogether,” pointing to the fact that he did not recall hearing the word “Japan” once during the entire production.
“It’s not necessarily bad, but I believe that any attempt at reinterpreting “The Mikado” has to critically engage with race,” he said. “And this production does not critically engage with race.”
He added he thought certain productions of “The Mikado” have successfully managed to deal with the opera’s controversial history, naming “The Mikado: Reclaimed” as an example.
“While I recognize that this is very difficult to do, especially as a student-run company, I don’t think it’s impossible,” Qiao said.
—Staff writer Derek G. Xiao can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @derekgxiao.
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