Thinking about the Mikado: A public vow to rewrite this show in one year

TL;DR – The Mikado is racist. I am writing my own version of the show that jettisons the unstated racism and sexism, and makes them an overt part of the show. I vow to complete the writing of this in one year.

After reading about yet another staging of The Mikado that planned to put people in yellowface, and also reading yet another defense of The Mikado as not really racist, but just a ‘produce of it’s time’ I realized that the thing to do is not to complain about what other people are doing, but realize that I have all the tools and talent I need to make a better version of this show.

Do as my heroes would do, understand the work that needs to be recreated, understand the new thing I’m making, and looking forward to a lot of hard work! This is what this post is all about!

  • Amy Poehler is my Spirit Animal (at least one of them)
  • The Mikado: Racism, sexism, and classism in a story that needs none of these things
  • The Mikado, as it is currently written and typically staged, is also racist
  • Opportunity is another way of saying hard work (But Hard Work is fun!)

Amy Poehler is my Spirit Animal (at least one of them)

Great people do things before they’re ready. They do things before they know they can do it. Doing what you’re afraid of, getting out of your comfort zone, taking risks like that – that’s what life is. You might be really good. You might find out something about yourself that’s really special and if you’re not good, who cares? You tried something. Now you know something about yourself.”

― Amy Poehler

“I want to be around people that do things. I don’t want to be around people anymore that judge or talk about what people do. I want to be around people that dream and support and do things.”
― Amy Poehler

I have a lot of heroes in media. One of my biggest is Amy Poehler. I love the work she does. I love her spirit. I think she’s someone I could be friends with, and joke around with.

And I think she’s someone who, more often than not, makes things, and makes things happen. Without her, there’s no Upright Citizens Brigade. Without the UCB, improv comedy as we know it doesn’t exist or explode in the way that it does. She goes out, and she does things.

She’s also unafraid of her own politics, of having a point of view, and of being a humanist in the best possible way.

If she can do that, I can do that. I have the drive and the will to do the things I set out to do.

Which is why I’ve decided to write a non-racist version of The Mikado, and finish it by next year.

What is the Mikado? And why would a person want to write a non-racist version of this thing? I’m glad you asked!


The Mikado: Racism, sexism, and classism in a story that needs none of these things

I first encountered The Mikado when I was in college. Back in the day, Gilbert and Sullivan were a combination of popular art, new wave music, and more. It’s hard to hear it now, given how classic, quaint, and comic their music sounds. But when they created their comic operas, it was as if Monty Python and The Postal Service had teamed up to make strange, beautiful, funny music and stories set in strange places.

Their stories all had a certain sameness to them, in a good way. There is a British colony in a far off land. There is classism that needs to be skewered and parodied. There’s a love story. There are silly songs, that are sometimes just silly and sometimes filled with wit.

There is also a deeply embedded sense of what it means to be a citizen of the British Empire. And, at the time, that means imperialism, sexism, and racism.

Which brings us to The Mikado. It’s an outlier among the other comic operas of Gilbert and Sullivan.

So, what is The Mikado? From Wikipedia

The Mikado; or, The Town of Titipu is a comic opera in two acts, with music by Arthur Sullivan and libretto by W. S. Gilbert (Gilbert & Sullivan) It opened on 14 March 1885, in London, where it ran at the Savoy Theatre for 672 performances, which was the second longest run for any work of musical theatre and one of the longest runs of any theatre piece up to that time. Before the end of 1885, it was estimated that, in Europe and America, at least 150 companies were producing the opera.

The Mikado remains the most frequently performed Savoy Opera, and it is especially popular with amateur and school productions. The work has been translated into numerous languages and is one of the most frequently played musical theatre pieces in history. Setting the opera in Japan, an exotic locale far away from Britain, allowed Gilbert to satirise British politics and institutions more freely by disguising them as Japanese. Gilbert used foreign or fictional locales in several operas, including The MikadoPrincess IdaThe GondoliersUtopia, Limited and The Grand Duke, to soften the impact of his pointed satire of British institutions.”

The Mikado, as it is currently written and typically staged, is also racist

Every other foreign land that existed in the Gilbert & Sullivan cannon was set with people who were, ostensibly, English. Thus, the foreign lands served as pseudo-colonies, and allowed Gilbert & Sullivan to engage in social satire of British politics and class. However, especially in the case of The Mikado, values of racism, imperialism, and sexism were present as a way to appeal to the sensibilities of British citizens. They were, in affect, the ‘four quadrant films’ of the times. This meant, to appeal to British sensibilities, that some of the humor was racist and sexist at heart.

A key concept to understand is the idea of Comedy of Status. In Comedy of Status, a loss of status for a character results in a humorous scenario. For example, if you take a man, and put him a dress, most Western audiences will laugh at the premise. In the United States, this is because women have a lower status than men. Race was another example of a status loss that a white male could experience. The classic example would be performers who are in ‘blackface,’ to portray racist stereotypes of black people in the United States. Today, for the most part, this type of humor due to loss of status is frowned upon, although some people will still engage in it. Loss of class status will also typically lead to humorous scenarios. An example would be the program “Undercover Boss.” In most situations, The Boss is a CEO or other executive, who is asked to take on a lower status job in the company, unbeknownst to his lower status colleagues. Humor typically arises when the Boss is unable to fulfill the duties of the lower status employees. When the status loss is later revealed to the lower status colleagues, the most typical reaction is heartwarming. When the status of the lower status employees is raised, at the moment the Boss and employees are on equal footing, the result isn’t humor, it’s typically melodrama. In all of the scenarios, the simple fact that either scenario is considered humorous is an indicator that the groups in question have a lowered status.

The Mikado is an example of an older work that, even in the time, engaged in all three types of status loss in order to derive humor. Of the three, the only loss of status that was fully intentional was class. The main character of the work, Nanki-Poo, is a prince who has reduced his status. Most of the political humor has to do with ridiculous nature of the ruling class, and the loss (or elevation) of status. In the case of Ko-Ko, part of the ridiculousness of his situation is that he’s but a ‘mere tailor’ that has ben put in charge of the village as its Lord High Executioner. However, the other two types of status loss go unquestioned. While the Japan of the Mikado is an orientalized fiction, the original production took great pains to make sure that the dress, scenery, and affectations present represented an ‘authentic’ version of Japan. This meant that, ostensibly, the men and women in the play were given ‘yellow-face’ make-up, in order to orientalize their features in a typically stereotypical manner that would result in a metatexual loss of status. In addition, the ‘authentic’ costumes of the Mikado meant that the men in the production also loss status, since the costumes looked like dresses. These two elements meant that the 19th century audience would have metahumor to laugh at. This trend has continued into the present.

The Metacomedy of the Mikado is that (1) That performers are all white, but given yellowed make-up and other stereotypical ‘oriental’ features, thus creating a loss of status for the cast. In addition, (2) the men in the cast are typically dressed in exaggerated versions of ancient Japanese clothing; this often registers as dresses, and thus feminine. This is another loss of status. The only directly addressed loss of status is the class status that forms the backbone of the production.

Among politically aware Asian-Americans and other people of color, the topic of The Mikado as a racist production is non-controversial. Among some theater goers and mainstream culture critics, this idea has been controversial. Typically, the defense of The Mikado is that the production is intended as a fantasy portrayal of Japan. Yet, the original production (and many subsequent productions) emphasize the ‘authentic’ nature of the costumes, props, and overall setting. The realization that the production is racist began to take more mainstream acceptance in 2014. Controversy in Seattle over the staging of The Mikado resulted in the cancelation of the production by the Seattle Repertory Theater in 2014. In July 2014, culture critic Jeff Yang wrote on that yellow face productions of The Mikado needed to end.

In 2015, controversy erupted over the show when The New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players decided to stage a typical, yellow-face adaptation of “The Mikado.” The term ‘yellow-face’ when reported on by mainstream media sources was often put into quotes, to offset it from the common language of the articles. White people, who may have been confused by the idea that The Mikado is racist, have recently come to understand this perspective. When confronted by the reality of the production, they can’t deny it. As Lawrence Downes wrote in his article “‘The Mikado’ is Beheaded in New York” …

“… Restaging doesn’t necessarily solve the problem of “The Mikado,” which has racism baked into it. You can take out the kimonos and topknots, or stage it exclusively with performers of Japanese ancestry, but you’re still stuck with songs like the one about the “little list” of people who should have their heads cut off, including “the banjo serenader and the others of his race,” where “banjo” is a modern attempt to avoid William Gilbert’s original use of the N-word.

I asked my daughter, a thoughtful theater-lover, about this today. She emailed back: “The Mikado is pretty much racist. As fun as it is, it should only be done by directors who can work around that problem.”

She added: “This is the 21st century, Asian actors and singers exist, yellowface is just as stupid and wrong as blackface. Theater is such a mutable medium, directors who act like they can’t change things like this are usually just lazy or uncreative. I’m not sure how I would get around it, though. If you don’t know anything about G&S and Victorian England, it’s probably hard to find it funny at all.”

This recognition now goes beyond the Asian-American community. The controversy over the show eventually led to the end of the production in New York. Inherently, though, while vocal audiences recognize the racism of The Mikado, theatrical professionals don’t seem to understand it. If they did, they wouldn’t try to stage ‘traditional’ versions of the production in the first place.

This creates opportunity. if white intellectuals can’t imagine what to do with The Mikado, and theatrical professionals don’t have the creativity to go beyond the material as it is, could someone else figure out how to do the show, without the racism and sexism?

Opportunity is another way of saying hard work (But Hard Work is fun!)

The opportunity here is tremendous. The music of the original show was cutting edge at the time. The show itself was an attempt to critique British classism, by applying that lens to a far away land. And I’ve got an idea for how to tell this story.

On September 18, 2015, I made a vow to create a version of The Mikado that isn’t racist. My goal is to do this within one year.

I think it’s going to be a lot of fun getting to one year from now.


Also published on Medium.