My Saturday List would normally consist of a light-hearted collection of observations about musical theatre, but after reading some of the reprehensible responses to the fiasco surrounding the The New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players’ cancelled production of The Mikado, I felt that I had to address these in some way. One could select ten similar responses to these on almost any social media platform that engages with musical theatre or opera, but I thought it useful to respond to a set of responses in one place: the Gilbert and Sullivan Society of Facebook, a public group on Facebook where people volunteer their opinions in an open forum. In fact, these responses are all to be found in a single thread, started by group member Anthony Garcia, who describes the entire affair as a ‘how-de-do’, a phrase taken from one of the songs in The Mikado.
Right. A deep breath. And here we go.1. One belief, held by many and put forward in this thread by Mathias Kayser, is that The Mikado is a parody of Britain in the 19th century, therefore casting white actors is not problematic. It’s true that Gilbert and Sullivan were presenting a satire of the politics and institutions of Victorian England. But here’s the thing: we are not living in Victorian England or one of its colonies. The society that is being put under the spotlight existed 130 years ago. The satirical aspects of The Mikado are largely no longer valid unless we assume that the British have remained stagnant as a society for that period of time. Britain’s “imperial century” is over. Many countries continue to deal with post-colonial trauma following the United Kingdom’s process of decolonisation and decline. The defense that The Mikado remains relevant as a satire is a pretense. The world in which The Mikado was written has been dismantled; the conventions around the casting of white actors in this comic opera should be too.
2. Cathy Bulfin offers the view that critics of productions that cast white actors in The Mikado ‘don’t get it at all’. What is it, exactly, that we don’t get? Racism perpetuated in the name of art? That white men have suppressed opportunities for people of colour in every industry over time, including the entertainment industry? That there is such a thing called restorative justice, which is a valid and necessary process? Because those are some of the things that Ms Bulfin and her peers seem to fail to understand.3. You get some folks who only read the headlines and who get lost in their own gut reaction. Like Robert Watson, who considers anyone who might take offence at the use of white actors to represent Japanese people in 2015 to be ‘blind inartistic trouble-makers’. He should consider the grace that actress and writer, Erin Quill, extends to Gilbert and Sullivan about the intentions of their piece before offering any sort of criticism of The Mikado. Only then does Quill say, ‘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.’ Somehow, Mr Watson and his ilk interpret this as persons suffering from ‘white guilt and bigoted Asians’ simply attempting to ‘wreck the whole story’ of The Mikado – an inconceivable point of view for any rational person.
4. Mr Watson voices another popular response to situations like these: ‘These are simply PC troublemakers who want to censor art.’ It is not the denotation of political correctness with which Mr Watson is concerned, namely ‘the avoidance of forms of expression or action that are perceived to exclude, marginalize, or insult groups of people who are socially disadvantaged or discriminated against’, but some connotation of the word whereby the noble intentions of political correctitude is stripped of its integrity. Is it really censorship to suggest that an established practice should be interrogated? And when did art become a free platform for bigotry?5. There is something wrong when white communities are denied access to a potential theatre production when roles representing members of any suppressed ethnicity cannot be played by white actors, is Ian Bond’s summary of the situation. His suggestion? That it is ‘time to start fighting back’ to preserve the tradition of yellowface performance in productions of The Mikado and of blackface performance in productions like Show Boat! The world of which Mr Bond dreams is one where white performers can dress up as Japanese people, Chinese people, African people, Indian people, Middle Eastern people or Native American people for the diversion of white audiences, no matter whether this compromises the dignity of the people being represented or not. The solution is very simple, though no doubt a difficult one for Mr Bond and his cohorts to hear: if the show cannot be cast appropriately, the show should not be produced. Somewhere, someone will value the great sacrifice made by white audiences in this regard.
6. Because it was done in the past, that makes it acceptable today. So thinks Mr Bond, and Helen Booker, who herself performed in blackface in Show Boat in 1985, agrees. ‘It wasn’t considered racist then,’ she protests, ‘and I can’t understand why it should be now.’ Just because something wasn’t considered racist doesn’t mean that it wasn’t. Injustices are always perpetuated and justified by those who reap the benefits.7. Mr Garcia returned to the thread he started to propose that avoiding the trappings of yellowface – buck teeth, slanted eyes and so on – fixes everything. The thing is, representation is about more than make-up, whether this may be full yellowface, some variation of Geisha makeup, or any variation of generic Orientalism. An assimilation of an entire culture has to take place.
8. Mr Bond returns to the fold to posit that because the satire is about the British, there are no Japanese stereotypes in The Mikado. I never knew that the use of baby-talk (Pitti-Sing, Yum-Yum Pooh-Bah, Pish-Tush, Nanki-Poo and Ko-Ko) as a substitution for Japanese names, the Westernised depiction of the Japanese Emperor or the invention of national traditions could be considered free of prejudice. There’s also something in the viewing of an entire culture – no matter how tasteful the intentions for its portrayal might be – as nothing more than a vehicle for exploring the concerns of another.
9. Offence is in the eye of the beholder, claims Sarah-Jane Hall, who says ‘there is a conscious choice on the part of the offended to feel that way’. It follows, then, that ‘the offended’ should have no opinion on the way they are portrayed in the arts or whether, indeed, they should have the first option to represent not themselves, but their cultural background. Worst of all, it means that being offended by an insulting depiction of your culture is an adopted posture, an academic position that has no basis in public historical practice or personal emotional resonance. What a degrading view to have of the genuine suffering of ‘the offended’, a mendacity constructed to preserve one’s own supposed superiority.10. The issue of race in productions like The Mikado is an American issue brought about by the American mindset. As far as AJ Ua Néill is concerned, ‘the rest of the world isn’t obsessed with race’. Well, if there are Americans who are working to counteract the effects of centuries of racism, they should be applauded. But they are not the only ones. People in countries around the world are engaging with these issues. Sometimes without elegance. Sometimes at the cost of human life. Sometimes taking small steps forward. Sometimes making huge strides that take them into the future. Perhaps it is time for Mr Ua Néill and his cronies to be present in the world in which we live, where – to cite just one example – economic wars fought over resources in central Africa have everything to do with serving the technological whims of people around the world. It must be comfortable to pretend that race is not an equation in contexts like these, but that’s yet another reality willfully ignored by those who benefit from, in this case, war caused by corporate competition. The issue of racial representation in the arts may seem like small fry in comparison, but the same attitudes inform both situations.
While this tenth item brings my Saturday List to a close, the thread from which these statements are taken continues to flourish and so does, one hopes, the discussions that push us forward in this renegotiation of generations of rehearsed practices that continue to flourish in contemporary performance practice. Feel free to join the discussion using the comments section below, or visit the the Gilbert and Sullivan Society of Facebook to enrich the discussion of these points there. This is one of those things about which we need to talk, so that tomorrow can be a better day.