Why The Mikado is Still Problematic
Cultural Appropriation 101
In response to the protest and aftermath of the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players’ now canceled production of The Mikado, this series addresses the racist performance and casting practices of Yellowface in the American Theatre. This series was curated by Jacqueline E. Lawton for HowlRound.
I don’t have the answer for what to do with The Mikado. I’ve never seen it live. I’ve only seen production photos, YouTube clips, and listened to recordings. I believe in an artist’s right to make the work that they want. But I also believe in making informed and thorough choices at a time when reckless racism is rampant in this country.
I also believe in retiring nostalgic cultural relics to the annals of history (like the Confederate Flag).
Maybe there aren’t enough triggers out there for people to understand why there’s so much anger and outrage from the Asian American and Pacific Islander community around The Mikado, because the response-at-large from Gilbert and Sullivan defenders has been that we just need to “lighten up.” So I’m hoping to help by giving some context and showing some pictures. This article may feel like Cultural Appropriation 101 for a lot of my colleagues, but I think it’s important to go back to basics.
White people have been making and profiting off stories about the ethnic experience for a long time while creating real life policies that actively exclude them from the social fabric of this country.
The truth is, no one can make anyone do anything. As long as there’s a privileged person who feels immune and entitled to produce The Mikado or any other kind of work that marginalizes others, those works will live on until the social climate changes.
For the record, I don’t think that hiring Asian people makes The Mikado OK. In my opinion, the show was born out of a fetishistic impulse that reduces the Japanese culture to an object of curiosity, and I don’t think that can be validated or corrected by “appropriate casting” without serious reconstructive dramaturgy.
In 1885, entrepreneur Tannaker Buhicrosan (who was said to be born of a Dutch father and a Japanese mother, and whose wife was Japanese) helped create a manufactured village in Knightsbridge, London, to “exhibit Japanese people and their amusements, among which may be mentioned theatrical shows and wrestling matches.” (New York Times, 1885).
These Japanese men and women were on display for two years. Like a theme park. Or maybe a zoo. It’s hard to tell because I couldn’t find any accounts from the Japanese participants, only the English visitors, who undoubtedly found it pleasant and delightful. Around the same time, W.S. Gilbert had already started The Mikado, and attended this exhibit as part of his research. These two major events were part of the growing interest in Eastern cultures from Victorian England.
Six months after the musical performed in London, The Mikado came to New York in 1885. During the late 19th century, this was some of the ongoing sentiment towards Asians—the Chinese in particular—in America.
But even with all this rampant racism, The Mikado seemed to still be pretty successful—it ran for two hundred and fifty shows in New York, and had five company national tours. Apparently it’s possible to detest a demographic of people and still fetishize them for profit.
America has a problematic history of Hollywood and the Arts & Entertainment industry making money and doing this:
…while historically treating actual Japanese (and other Asian) Americans like this (yes, even Dr. Seuss):
Cultural appropriation in the 21st century looks something like this:
Which sucks because stuff like this is still happening:
Yes. It is indeed possible to detest a demographic of people and still fetishize them for profit.
I know that companies like NYGASP want to honor Gilbert and Sullivan and The Mikado, because in their minds, they think it’s this:
But, what they can’t help making is this:
Because even though it’s “just a joke,” white America is still doing this:
For those who argue that “it’s just a play” and that the APA community should “get over it,” I want to offer this excerpt from Lindy West’s article on hipster racism:
Here's the thing about jokes. They only work when they're aiming up… People in positions of power simply cannot make jokes at the expense of the powerless. That's why, at a company party, you never have a roast where the CEO is roasting the janitor ("Isn't it funny how Steve can barely feed his family? This guy knows what I'm talking about!" [points to other janitor]).
It’s why no one seems to have a problem with this show:
Why isn’t Hamilton an example of cultural appropriation? Alexander Hamilton wasn’t Puerto Rican. Thomas Jefferson wasn’t black. They certainly didn’t rap. Doesn’t this show have people of color hijacking the white American narrative?
Not really. Because at the end of the day, even though on stage we see this guy:
…no one will ever question the reputation and accuracy of this guy:
There’s an overwhelming amount of visible history on his side, so he’s pretty safe. High school kids across the country will still learn about him and all the great stuff he did.
It matters who has the power to make the story—notice I said “make,” not “tell.” It matters whose story is being made. White people have been making and profiting off stories about the ethnic experience for a long time while creating real life policies that actively exclude them from the social fabric of this country. Having those minorities parrot those stories back does not authenticate them. Black people doing blackface does not make blackface ideologically OK. Asians doing The Mikado does not make The Mikado ideologically OK.
Even though I would never do The Mikado, I’m not saying you can’t do it. I’m just saying you need to know what you’re doing when you’re doing it. Idle curiosity can be destructive in the hands of empowered people. Each person has a different degree of social ability—some are far more influential than others—so please consider use your agency and influence when you make your work.
The Mikado is not OK, but Hamilton is. Doing The Mikado will do a lot of hurt to the perception of an entire culture of people because in real life, they’ve been historically denied social agency. Alexander Hamilton, on the other hand, will probably be on the ten-dollar bill for a long, long time.