The New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players (NYGASP) will introduce a new production of William S. Gilbert and Arthur S. Sullivan’s popular “The Mikado” at the end of the year, at the Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College, which aims to scrape away the accumulation of stereotypical “orientalism” that has offended thinking audiences for decades. To prepare its followers for this rethought “Mikado,” on November 3, at the Kaye, NYGASP assembled a knowledgeable panel of musical and theatrical, Asian-American and other movers and shakers to look at what aspects of traditional “Mikado” productions are disturbing and what this new production hopes to do about them, while preserving the work’s integrity. The title of the discussion was “‘The Mikado’ in the 21st Century.” Robert Lee, book-writer/lyricist and New York University Tisch School of the Arts Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program Associate Professor, moderated and among those featured were Gilbert & Sullivan performer and Professor of Philosophy Dr. Jonathan Jenkins Ichiwara, as keynote speaker, and Director David Auxier and Assistant Director Kelvin Moon Loh, who will be responsible for the new look for “Mikado.”
NYGASP Executive Director, producer, and singer David Wannen, welcoming us, explained that protests before a series of “Mikado” performances on tour led to their cancellation and inspired the forthcoming necessary changes, which included outreach to the Asian-American community for input and casting.
Moderator Lee introduced the forum by giving such salient examples of changes in attitude, and the need for them, as forced sex in the film “Pennies from Heaven;” the Orlando massacre and the Second Amendment, as seen, in a school assignment, from the viewpoint of a gun salesman; and Bill O’Reilly on Donald Trump and Asian-Americans. Lee pointed out that the protests that NYGASP experienced were not unique and that a production of “The Mikado” set in Las Vegas in the 1950s and—demonstrating that this was not purely as “Asian versus white” issue—an Asian-American company performing “Show Boat” also inspired protests. Saying that this “is a super-complicated issue,” he also raised such matters as “should ‘Mikado’ cease to be performed or is that censorship?;” presentations of “Mikado” can provide work opportunities for Asian-American performers; and British and American Asian communities have changed since “Mikado” was new in 1885 and, not solely Japanese, are not monolithic.
Dr. Ichikawa shared the background that shaped his perspective on the operetta “set in a mythical Japan.” He has performed in many G&S performances; he is fourth generation Japanese-American, his father was interned in California for a year and then fought in the American army in World War Two; and he has worked extensively in philosophy. He showed a 1940s New Yorker cartoon of “Mikado”-like figures with swastikas on their sleeves, captioned “If you want to know who we are/We are gentlemen of Japan,” the first two lines of “Mikado.” He enumerated stereotypes found in traditional “Mikado” productions—“infantilism,” “barbarism,” the “Dragon Lady,” and the “doll,” as well as piercing vocalism and the “slanting,” with tape, of performers’ eyes.—and called these “demeaning, insulting, and objectionable,” as well as insensitive and racist. He called these “yellow face” “caricatures and attitudes” as offensive as “black face.” He identified the matter at hand as “how to put on a sensitive production of ‘Mikado’ in the 21st century and avoid racism,” often not “intrinsic in the material,” while acknowledging the “barbarism” in the Mikado’s preference for violent executions. He asked, “Can racism be avoided without [doing] violence to the work itself?” and declared that claiming that “Mikado” parodies British, and not Japanese, society does not “insulate it from charges of racism.” He wondered if the main goal here were to avoid being protested or, pointing out that “racism is often subtle,” is it how racist does a production get to be. He noted pointedly that a member of a racial minority may readily recognize racism that a Caucasian person may not, because the minority person has to deal with racism every day.
Actor and “The Fairy Princess Diaries” blogger Erin Quill (“The King and I,” “Avenue Q”) expressed surprise that performances of the old NYGASP “Mikado” had been canceled, and mentioned that a racist character, “the ax coolie,” a child who let out a battle cry at each entrance, had been added to that production, which, with its leering and “excessive shuffling,” left her sad and enraged. She noted two positive aspects of the work itself: that Yum-Yum’s aria “The Sun Whose Rays” was the first song about Asian female empowerment, and the last until “Allegiance,” and that “you can speak truth to power” and be readily understood by the powerful. About the forthcoming “Mikado,” she urged, “We want it to be beautiful and respectful, something Asian-Americans can go to and take their children.” She said, be respectful, be mindful, diversify, and keep in mind that “more Asian-Americans on stage will mean more Asian-Americans in the audience.” NYGASP is the oldest Gilbert and Sullivan company in the United States and “you set the standard, other companies will follow.” She encouraged Asian-Americans to audition for NYGASP, not just for “Mikado,” but all repertory.
Actor Scott Watanabe (“Allegiance,” “Phantom of the Opera,” “Pacific Overtures”) asked, is “Mikado,” as presented by a repertory company, to be an Asian-Pacific production? and is “Mikado” a Japanese comedy or Victorian English? and aired the contradiction of wondering why no Asian performers on stage, while not wanting to appear in a problematic production.
Wannen said that he gets emails every day accusing him of racism and of “caving in to the PC barbarians.” He even got one protesting wryly that one can’t do “Pirates of Penzance” without casting it with real pirates.
David Auxier, responsible for the concept and staging, said that there are people who think that “Mikado” shouldn’t be performed; those who say it should be performed only by Asian/Pacific Americans, and those who feel the action should be taken out of Japan entirely. His instructions to performers, now that rehearsals have begun, include “don’t shuffle, don’t giggle, don’t hide behind your fan,” and pointed out that the Katisha, who is half-Irish and half-Asian, was accused of doing “yellow face” in the way she depicted her character.
Kelvin Moon Loh (“The King and I,” “Side Show,” “The SpongeBob Musical”) is new to NYGASP, and pointed out, “This is an experiment,” an effort to “open up an important dialogue,” and “create a kind of template” that other companies can look to. Paring away the stereotypes—the shuffling, the giggling, the “cheap laughs”—and going back to the text, doing “no violence toward ‘The Mikado,’” he found that “it’s very fresh.” Lee noted, “You’ve pushed for diversity in terms of casting,” and Loh said that not only diversity, but appropriateness for Gilbert & Sullivan, was taken into account.
Auxier said, “If you have the right concept, you can still say, ‘We are gentlemen of Japan,’” and revealed that a new prologue will show that the action takes place inside Gilbert’s mind, in his dream, a “dreamscape” that is Victorian, “skewering the English,” in an imaginary place based on Gilbert’s impressions of Japan.
Performances at the Kaye Playhouse, on 68th Street between Lexington and Park Avenues, take place on December 28 and 30 at 7:30 p.m., 29 at 3, 31 and January 7, 2017 at 2 and 7:30, January 5 and 6 at 7:30, and January 8 at 3. Visit www.nygasp.org
for tickets, from $25 to 95—$10 more for New Year’s Eve—and for further information.