Orientalism & The Mikado

EVEN MORE RECENT UPDATE: Brad Erickson, Executive Director of Theatre Bay Area, wrote an excellent follow-up article after watching Lamplighters' The New Mikado. I just happened to be in the audience with him on the same day, and I echo his sentiments in the article.

MORE RECENT UPDATE: Lamplighters has announced that its production of The Mikado will be recontextualized in Italy. This decision does not come without its naysayers, but I feel it is a creative solution that is worth a try.

UPDATE: Lamplighters has shared an apology and their plans to produce a significantly revised version of The Mikado. I'm looking forward to what this yields.

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Ferocious Lotus Theatre Company has recently shared an open letter about an upcoming production of The Mikado at Lamplighters Music Theatre. You can read and sign the letter here. The following is something I posted on Facebook, detailing my thoughts on orientalism in the Gilbert & Sullivan work.

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My two cents (or three, or four): Gilbert & Sullivan's score for The Mikado has its moments of brilliance. I can hear why people love the music, because it indeed soars at times, titillates at others. But all that lovely music cannot mask the orientalism of the work - the portrayal of Japan as other, or "queer and quaint" as the lyrics themselves attest. And perhaps in 1885, Japanese-ness was other, new, novel to Great Britain. But more than a century later, in today's America, I don't think it makes much sense to continue grasping onto the show without questioning its construction and sentiments.

Producers of the work often argue that The Mikado is not about the Japanese; it is a satire about the British. But that's exactly the problem. By claiming The Mikado is not about the Japanese, they may as well be saying "Your culture is just the set dressing for our story." On our stages and screens, Asian cultures are often relegated to the background or not considered with sensitivity at all. Yellow-face is still performed without a second thought.

But regardless of how one chooses to set or direct the piece, you can't look at the TEXT of The Mikado and say it's NOT about the Japanese - or at least about a 19th-century (read: outdated) perception of the Japanese. The opening lyrics of the work are "If you want to know who we are / we are gentlemen of Japan" (Now imagine a group of white men dressed in kimonos singing it loudly and proudly). You can't take a line like "You forget that in Japan girls do not arrive at years of discretion until they are fifty" and say that it is not making an oft stereotypical observation about Japanese (and other Asian) women. You can't hear names like "Yum-Yum," "Nanki-Poo" and "Peep-Bo" and pretend like they aren't meant to mimic and mock Asian names, even if they are based in English phrases of the day.

  Press Photo from Lamplighters' 2008 production of  The Mikado .

Press Photo from Lamplighters' 2008 production of The Mikado.

Another argument for the work is that Japanese people aren't offended by it. Indeed, a group of Japanese actors once even performed the piece in the UK. While that makes for an interesting and complicated tangent, it is not germaine to a discussion about The Mikado's history of racial re/presentation in the USA. Yes, perhaps a Japanese person might attend a production of The Mikado and think it's silly and not that big of a deal. But that same production for many Asian Americans is loaded with a history of being pushed into an "other" by our society.

After some back-and-forth with Ferocious Lotus, Lamplighters has now announced that they are re-setting the show in England. As a lover of dramaturgy, I can't see how this will work. I can't see how they will ignore ALL references to Japan - whether textually or musically - without severely splicing up the show. The very title "The Mikado" is an archaic term used by the British to refer to the Japanese Emperor. This choice of re-setting leaves me curious.

I would be interested to see how audiences react to a Mikado that has been "de-Japanified." Would they find it just as charming, masterful, delightful? Or could it be that the very thing audiences cling to so fiercely about The Mikado is its "queer and quaint" orientalism?

Posted on March 29, 2016 .