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News > Culture

Final Curtain for 'Racist' Gilbert and Sullivan Opera?

  • A poster from a Lyceum theater production of

    A poster from a Lyceum theater production of "The Mikado." | Photo: Wiki Commons

Published 18 September 2015

The question under debate is should we pull the plug on old artworks because they represent values or representations from a different time that would be offensive today?

The New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players on Thursday called curtains on their Broadway production of “The Mikado,” after their production was slammed by several blogs and many theatergoers as racist.

New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players announces that the production of The Mikado, planned for December 26, 2015- January...

Posted by New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players on  Thursday, 17 September 2015

The news is causing much introspection in the theater world and fierce online debate.

Many classic books, films and theater works, written or produced in different times, would be called racist today. One example is Gilbert & Sullivan’s 1885 light opera “The Mikado,” which satirizes the Victorian British establishment by cloaking the setting in a highly racist depiction of Japan.

This latest controversy over the work, which had provoked similar outrage the year before when it was due to be performed in Seattle, is prompting many to say time should be up for this piece unless it can be overhauled to take into account the diversity of modern society.

Leah Winkler, writing on her blog explains why the production provoked such a guttural response in her: “Just to be clear. This isn’t a complaint. This isn’t whining. This isn’t even anger … this is an embarrassment.”

Broadway actor Erin Quill pointed out to Playbill that Gilbert "wanted the representation of Japanese people to be respectful and elegant." She told the respected Broadway publication via email that "We, the Asian Americans, do not want to 'take away' your precious Mikado - we want you to do better. We want you to stop constantly mocking us and telling us by your actions and deeds that Yellowface remains part of your theatrical lexicon. We want you to make any production of it, smarter, less full of stereotypes - more full of the respect G&S were trying for."

Detractors argue that, aside from a bizarre character list, which reads like a child putting vowels together for the first time — Nanki-Poo, Yum-Yum, Ko-Ko, Pooh-Bah, Pish-Tush, Go-To, Yum-Yum, Pitti-Sing and Peep-Bo — the issue most have with the operetta is the “yellowface” most actors — because the theater world is still largely white — don in order to play the parts with sufficient silliness to carry off the modern inappropriateness of it all.

One Twitter user summed up the hypocrisy of allowing yellowface in 2015, when the anti-racism debate has come a long way for other races and ethnicities perfectly:

Some Gilbert and Sullivan fans responded to the NYGASP Facebook post with horror, representing the viewpoint that in spite of its racism, "Mikado” is a valid work of art that should be performed:

“People are too easily offended. The Mikado is a brilliant piece of theater/satire. I feel sorry for future generations if this is the way we are heading.”

“It's Gilbert and Sullivan people, it's parody! The Mikado is one of the greatest light operas ever written. Does the Met always cast Asian singers for Madame Butterfly?”

“This is pathetic. I cannot believe that you, the company that I have entrusted to carry on the tradition of presenting the wonderful operettas of my beloved Gilbert & Sullivan ... are actually willing to censor the shows! I really AM offended that you would pull the production of The Mikado. Artists don't conform or change their art to please critics, and these historic shows require no changes.”

Photo: Leah Winkler

Many others supported NYGASP’s decision:

“Kudos on a good decision. I think that you can mount an interpretation for modern audiences, which has already been done over the years in several innovative ways, which minimizes the race and culturally specific elements of the show, which are certainly good racist fun for the 19th century but not so much now. I am not sure you understand that the huge protest you were about to get was not about Mikado, but it was about yellowface, which most people of all races refuse to tolerate. When you have grown up as Asian American and have endured mocking gestures, and being called funny-fake asian names, you are not going to enjoy a production that basically does the same thing and has a great literary BS justification for it.”

“This show always made me cringe. Good riddance. A powerful step forward for all minorities.”

“It's not a matter of casting Asians, it's a matter of Yellowface and racism. Other groups have been able to perform The Mikado successfully but without the racism.”

“Good riddance to such a backwards production. To those of you who think this is the PC police on patrol need to realize that the play has also been edited so as not to use the word "nigger" from the original script. If history is insensitive, we cannot be selectively insensitive.”

Others were plain outraged at the insensitivity of NYGASP:

“So, let me get this straight. You've been thinking about putting on The Mikado for a while – at least five months. You got together a committee to talk about it, including the Board of Directors. You had some of the ostensibly best minds of your organization bent to this play, AND YET nobody did any research into how other groups have put this play on, OR the backlash that said productions created? Nobody saw this coming and said ‘Hey guys, we may want to take a second to step back and look at how this could come across to people?’”

“That shows a staggering lack of foresight or common sense on your part. You have much bigger issues to work on than just a lack of strategy.”

The art world must bring diversity into its discussions, argues Actors Equity President Kate Shindle:

Questions left over from this debate, however, will be how all historic works are treated by art creators, audiences and the media. The argument about “The Mikado” should not be “whitewashed” to downplay the embarrassment and shame many feel watching a play that may have once been relevant and cutting-edge satire, which to modern eyes seems out-of-touch and offensive. This is not about political correctness, writes Winkler, it’s about updating our repertoire. At very least, Winkler argues, “demand a conversation.”

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