Editor’s note: With playwright and theater artist Rick Shiomi opening a new production of Gilbert & Sullivan’s “The Mikado” this week, we invited the Theater Mu co-founder to share his vision for addressing the 1885 work’s racial offenses.
“The Mikado,” a classic operetta by W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, has long been the bane of Asian-Americans.
Set in Japan, the 1885 story is based on a fictional society with the strict punishment of beheading for any kind of flirtation. It makes the Japanese appear as a bloodthirsty people and also contains many stereotypes of Asians as “exotic Orientals.” Even the names of the story’s young lovers, Nanki-Poo and Yum Yum, ridicule the Asian male and objectify the Asian female as some kind of treat.
Perhaps worst of all, productions of “The Mikado” generally perpetuate the practice of yellowface — that is, white actors playing Asian characters.
In her 2010 book “The Japan of Pure Invention: Gilbert and Sullivan’s ‘The Mikado,’ ” Prof. Josephine Lee of the University of Minnesota examines the operetta’s history, outlining how the work generates fantasies of “orientalism” with its highly fictionalized account of Japan. She also makes the case against yellowface, connecting it to the racist history of blackface minstrelsy. To me personally, “The Mikado” was one of the worst pieces in western theater that used Asian subjects.
So imagine my surprise when Skylark Opera proposed a 2013 co-production of “The Mikado” with Theater Mu, the Asian-American theater company I co-founded in Minnesota in 1992.
Once I recovered, however, I realized they would probably do a traditional version if Theater Mu declined the offer. So we accepted. To my delight, I discovered “The Mikado” recently had entered the public domain. It could be revised without copyright violation issues. I was free to create my own version of “The Mikado” for that 2013 co-production, resetting the operetta in Edwardian England. In one fell swoop, I wiped away the Asian stereotypes and yellowface.
Setting the operetta in England fit with one of the longstanding analyses of the piece: that Gilbert and Sullivan were out to write a musical satire of English government. Gilbert himself later said the operetta “was never a story about Japan, but about the failings of the British government.” With that in mind, I felt that returning the operetta to England was totally appropriate.
I changed the lovers’ names to Franki-Poo and Tum Tum (because she makes our hearts go “tum tum, tum tum”). I adjusted some of the dialogue and lyrics, such as those in the opening song: “If you want to know who we are, we’re the Gentlemen of England.” The names of other characters were changed, too. Pish-Tush became Chris Tush (short for Tushington). Katisha became Katy Shaw (Lady Katherine Shaw).
One name I didn’t have to change was Pooh Bah, a local official. He refers to some of his positions as the “Archbishop of Ti-Tea-Pu” and “Chancellor of the Exchequer,” which fit perfectly with the English setting.
And since Mu Performing Arts was co-producing the operetta with Skylark Opera, I went one step further in casting Asian-American actors for many of the lead roles, tweaking the nose of the operetta’s yellowface tradition — one small stone tossed against a hundred thousand past productions! The 2013 production proved a hit with critics and audiences. I was so thrilled I went ahead and had my version copyrighted.
Changing the G&S world
In 2017, I was approached by producer Stephen Hage at the Gilbert and Sullivan Very Light Opera Company in Minneapolis about directing my own version of “The Mikado” for their company. I readily accepted the offer, eager to see how my version would work with the company’s performing ensemble. I also hoped to offer Gilbert and Sullivan companies across the world (there are roughly 200 G&S companies in the United States alone) a way to produce this classic without all the negative stereotypes and yellowface.
It has been a wonderful experience, working both with the longstanding members of the company and the many young newcomers who are energizing the company. It’s great working with Randal Buikema as the music director and Penelope Freeh as the choreographer to shape a strong vocal world and dynamic movement-based approach to the operetta. We’ve incorporated cricket, field hockey and public houses as a way to place our production in the heart of British society.
And, of course, we’ve enjoyed taking some liberties with the dialogue and lyrics, introducing contemporary touches like DNA, iPhones and recent U.S. politics. I fully believe this could be a seminal production that allows performers and audiences alike to enjoy the operetta’s hilarious satirical comedy and engagingly clever songs.
Our production is part of the leading wave of change when it comes to staging “The Mikado.” Over the past five years or so, various protests by Asian-American artists and communities had real impact on Gilbert and Sullivan companies nationwide. In response to complaints from students and community members, the Gilbert and Sullivan Players in New York City canceled their traditional production in 2015. A year later, they did one with a prologue showing how Gilbert had a dream that became “The Mikado,” its Japanese setting the product of pure fantasy. In 2016, the Gilbert and Sullivan company in San Francisco reset their “Mikado” in Renaissance Italy. And the South Australia State Opera produced a Hello Kitty-style production with actors in bright western costumes. They may have opted to retain the work’s Japanese names and setting because, after all, Hello Kitty originated in Japan. Who says protests don’t create change!
So Gilbert and Sullivan companies around the country and the world are coming to grips with the problematic nature of this operetta. Our version offers them the opportunity to save the work’s wonderful art without offending whole communities.
Sure, some will question whether it’s appropriate to simply swap the Japanese setting for a British one. I would argue that “The Mikado” was written as a satire of British government in the first place, created by two prominent British artists who knew of which they commented upon — unlike, I dare to say, their knowledge of Japanese government and society. I believe “The Mikado” can find its niche among the many thousands of works about western society. But as one of the few western pieces about Japan, however, it began to shape the popular vision of that nation and its people. By extension, its stereotypes affected Asian-Americans in a negative way.
A 2014 production of “The Mikado” by the Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan Society stirred controversy on the West Coast. In a fascinating exchange on a local radio station, here’s what Seattle Times editorial columnist Sharon Pian Chan told KIRO host Dave Ross of the operetta’s racism: “And just because you don’t see it, it doesn’t mean it’s not there, either.”
Ross responded: “And just because you see it, doesn’t mean it’s there. … That’s the problem here.”
It all depends on whose ox is being gored. And that’s a complicated new reality for artists and audiences in today’s America. We seem to have reached an agreement concerning the unacceptability of blackface. With Asian Americans gaining greater presence and influence in the theater world, I hope yellowface is traversing the gray area into oblivion.
Rick Shiomi is a playwright/director and co-artistic director of Full Circle Theater. He was a co-founder and artistic director of Mu Performing Arts from 1993 to 2013. He received the McKnight Distinguished Artist Award in 2015, the Ivey Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2012 and the Sally Ordway Irvine Award for Vision in 2007.