Putting on older theater productions can be a dilemma for those who want to preserve the art in its original form. Some production groups may decide to reinvent pieces that could be seen as problematic in modern times. An operetta currently being performed in Springfield by local actors has sparked controversy for what many consider to be racist qualities.
The Mikado’s music is undeniably western. Many actors perform it with British accents. It's a musical comedy that pokes fun at life and politics in England. But the look of this operetta is Japanese, stereotypically and fantastically so.
"It was staged in 1885, '86, close to the same time as 'Madame Butterfly' where you have this interest in Orientalism ... What Gilbert and Sullivan did is combine all kinds of different Asian cultures and presented it as this exoticized version of Japan,” said University of Illinois Springfield sociology professor Shoon Lio. According to Lio, The Mikado traditionally uses actors in "yellowface.” "That is you have white actors wearing makeup to portray themselves as Asian,” Lio explained. He followed that up with: “Would The Hoogland or any of these other production companies stage minstrel shows?"
The current production at the Hoogland Center for the Arts in Springfield performs The Mikado the traditional way – with white performers in costume and makeup to appear Asian. Gus Gordon heads the Hoogland. He says the stunning music makes The Mikado a production many community theaters, even high schools, turn to repeatedly. It's a classic in the western musical theater canon. "Gilbert and Sullivan's kind of a brand name, that people who don't even know what it is have heard before ... In The Mikado's case, it was written in 1885 and it still has staying power,” said Gordon. The question of whether or not that power is a good thing is one that's caused friction in the theater world.
A production of The Mikado put on in Seattle this summer attracted protestors who picketed with signs saying things like, “My culture is not a costume.” A columnist for The Seattle Times wrote that the production was a racial caricature, and a dialogue about race broke out across the country. "My daughter actually learned about the situation in Seattle and said, 'Hey do you know that this is going on?' And - we're changing as a society,” said Gordon. He says he had never realized the musical could be considered racist until after he scheduled the show.
David Marcus is a theater company owner in Brooklyn. He wrote a piece about the controversy for a conservative web magazine. The article was titled, ‘In Defense of Old Racist Art.’ Marcus says The Mikado is racist by today’s standards, but warns, “Let's be careful before we start throwing out the western canon, because the entire western canon is full of racism, and sexism, and classism. So if we're going to start saying we're not doing plays or we're not reading books anymore because of these elements, then we're not going to be left with a whole lot." Marcus says in his mind, reinventing The Mikado to appease those who are offended by it is borderline censorship. In Minneapolis, that's exactly the route director Rick Shimoi took.
"I was not going to have it set in Japan. I wanted to remove as many of those Asian references or contextual things as possible. I did that by resetting it in Edwardian England,” said Shiomi. He served as artistic director for an Asian-American theater company based in Minneapolis where his version of The Mikado was staged. "I just hope that it becomes a kind of alternative way of performing this piece. And what happened in Seattle is a reflection of the Asian-American communities being tired of having this kind of stereotyping being performed as a kind of joke ... It's, to me, an opportunity to make a change that we can all enjoy,” Shiomi said. He wasn't the first director to put on a revised Mikado either. For decades there have been different versions, like The Hot Mikado which featured jazz music and was performed by black actors.
Knowing what he knows now, The Hoogland's Gus Gordon says he may have done some things differently with The Mikado in Springfield. Still, he contends, “The way this is being presented is, I think respectfully and beautifully and done with a lot of good intention, these are very talented performers and musicians putting their hearts into a work to bring a lot of people pleasure. You know, maybe it's something people need to see to make their own decision." While some may automatically dismiss this rendering of The Mikado as racist, others are able to enjoy the classic operetta as-is. Regardless, the show will go on through this weekend.
Thanks to University of Illinois Springfield Professor Peter Shapinksy for providing background for this story.