Homestead High School is embarking on the challenging journey of producing Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado, a famous operetta from 1885. It has been our goal to bring a diverse and well rounded historical overview of Musical Theatre history through the productions of the musicals. Our seniors this year will have graduated with musical knowledge of three musical power houses, Gilbert and Sullivan, Rodgers and Hammerstein and Lerner and Loewe, as well as the modern musical Pippin.
When we did Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance the students of the fine arts department not only had a great time, but they were challenged like never before. If you ask those students now, they will tell you Pirates was hands down their favorite musical at HHS. We know that is what will happen with The Mikado.
In Seattle, a new production of The Mikado by the local Gilbert & Sullivan Society has sparked a heated debate about race and political correctness. The Seattle Times columnist Sharon Pian Chan contends that this operetta classic is “Yellowface, in your face.” For her, an Asian-American woman, it’s derogatory to see caricatures of Japanese people played by Whites and Latinos. She claims it is the same as reviving the frowned upon “black face” tradition of African-American minstrels (“The Mikado is the same shtick, different race. A black wig and white face powder stand in for shoeshine. Bowing and shuffling replaces tap dancing. Fans flutter where banjos would be strummed.”)
Whenever people from minority groups express offense at the way majority group members depict them in theatrical or sports events they are regularly told that such depictions (1) are affectionate portrayals of the group being depicted, (2) are meant to honor the group being depicted, and (3) that their feelings of offense are simply overreactions on their part and they need to “get over” such feelings.
The simple fact is that these performances come from an era of blatant prejudice, Social Darwinism, and strong feelings of White superiority, which created some very oppressive actioins against these groups.
For this reason, we here at Homestead High School decided way back in June when we announced the musical, to set it in a fantasy land and not Japan. Like many people do with a Shakespearean play, we have decided to create our own Mikado in a fantasy world with the research and inspiration being that of Cosplay. Our set design is a town square where we’ve taken our favorite elements of many cultures (Greek columns, Venetian bridges, Chinese temples, Russian windows and more.)
For our costumes, we’ve come up with cosplay as our inspiration. Much of the cosplay is coming from Anime (which finds it’s inspiration from western culture), but we are also pulling from Disney characters and super heroes. Cosplay is something many kids in the US do, dressing up as their favorite superhero, disney character or cartoon character in general.
The Mikado is not about any real Japan, it’s a satire on 19th-Century British society, dressed up in a fictionalized exotic locale to “gild the philosophic pill,” as Gilbert put it in another of his operettas.
Banning, censoring or bowdlerizing art is a grim pastime. “Presentism”–the idea that all older works of art and literature must conform to today’s sensibilities and sensitivities or be subject to censorship–is a present-day curse. It would deprive us of great works of art like Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly” and “Turandot,” sparkling music, humor and wordplay like Gilbert and Sullivan’s, and even works that actually plead for inter-ethnic understanding, such as Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn” or Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific.”
Such censorship can backfire. In 1907, Japanese Prince Fushimi visited Britain. The Lord Chamberlain banned performances of “The Mikado” in London to avoid offending the Prince. The Prince was offended, all right–he wanted very much to see the show, and was very upset that he could not. The Daily Mail dispatched a native Japanese newspaper critic to a provincial performance, far from the Prince. Mr. K. Sugimura wrote: “I came to Sheffield expecting to discover real insults to my countrymen. I find bright music and much fun, but I could not find the insults.”
But, we at Homestead understand that a high school does not need to push the politically charged air around The Mikado, hence why we are setting it in our own world, free of Japan. We are in no way trying to be racist and only wish for the students to have a fun and educational experience with the musical. We hope you join us in February to see what we have created.