Written by Kat C. Zhou ’17
Beware this is a long post! See section headers to find specific content.
This has been a whirlwind process, one that has even hit national news! I wanted to use this blog post to share some of my thoughts on what the show does, and what it might continue to think about for the future. I hope also to include voices (reactions from both longtime G&S fans and students on campus) besides my own in this post.
I spent time looking through the Crimson archives to see if I could find information on previous HRG&SP production of The Mikado. I believe that there have been 12 production of The Mikado in HRG&SP history, and as far as I can see, this is the first non-yellowface production (loosely categorizing the anime Mikado of 1997 as a form of yellowface), making the fall 2016 production of The Mikado a historically unprecedented one!
It is a paradox (a paradox!) to live in the present, surrounded by reminders of history, knowing that the present is constantly slipping away into the past. What might it mean to forget and to remember? This is a central question that has haunted me throughout the entire production process of The Mikado, and it is a question to continue to grapple with even after we have opened, even years from now.
I am a resident of Mather house, named for Increase Mather, the infamous religious leader, Harvard president and Salem Witch Trial leader. I am happy to see the faculty deans Christie McDonald and Michael Rosengarten facing this question by initiating a research project into the history of Mather. Coincidentally, Richard S. Tong ’19, a history concentrator, Mather house resident, HRG&SP board member, and Mikado cast member has been involved in this project. As students of this school, where the culture is always to be way too busy, we often have to “wear many hats,” having to navigate the collapse of professional and personal relationships. But the vectors of identity are complicated too, and their intersections can sometimes be confusing.
While I’d always known the history of Mather to be strange to think about, it wasn’t until Ashley Zhou ’17, a WGS concentrator and Community Outreach Organizer for The Mikado, pointed out to me that even Agassiz House, the home of HRG&SP for 60 years, has its own “sordid” history. She has researched Louis Agassiz’s scientific racism much better than I, so I encourage you to read her newsletter on the subject, and if you have time, I encourage you to check the archives of her newsletter for more of her research and perspective.
In speaking to some of the alumni prior to the opening of The Mikado, some confessed that in the years since their own Mikado’s, they have started feeling “deeply weird” about those productions, and I couldn’t put my own feelings about the show and its history better than “deeply weird.” Fortunately, I’ve had a long time to grapple with these feelings, and so after such a long process and particularly long tech week, opening the show was a relief.
TRANSCRIPT OF OPENING NIGHT CURTAIN SPEECH:
Hello friends! I’m Kat, the current president of the Harvard-Radcliffe Gilbert & Sullivan Players, and I’m thrilled to welcome you to The Mikado; or, The Town of Titipu in the historic Agassiz Theater. As I mention in my program note, standing in historic spaces can be a complicated endeavor, as it is with this show, which has been challenging to the identities of many Asian American students on campus, including myself.
The existence of the show necessitates our engagement with both its problematic history and its geopolitical context. Of course, this is an extraordinarily difficult and complex task. To remember history is to remember empires built on tea, spices, silk, and opium, in exchange for human lives. It is to remember the complicated trajectory of world history and what it means to us today. Though many of these events occurred after Gilbert’s lifetime, it is still important to consider them as we contextualize the show in our own time. Making sense of the pain and brutality of our forebears is no easy task, but it is important to remember to be kinder to each other to begin the process of healing.
As an Asian American woman, I stand before you here on the stage in an effort to insert myself into the history of this show’s production, to change its narrative and attempt to take some ownership over its continued production. I feel a kind of vulnerability standing here and opening myself and this production to audience scrutiny after I have poured so much of myself into it, and I ask all of you to remember that the cast, staff, and orchestra may feel the same. But there is also a kind of vulnerability and even bravery for those of you who are new to our organization and to G&S to come into this theater today and give us a chance, though the show may have high stakes for you.
We hope that all of you may have a chance to have your voices heard, and so we have invite you to make use of the notecards on the second floor hallway as a place to share your thoughts and stories. In addition to the perspectives inside this theater, we ask you to keep in mind those outside of the theater, and by listening, hope to understand.
Finally, I want to note that the source material is a satire that renders its own characters ridiculous. We hope that our restaging of the show recontextualizes this satire so that it renders the original show’s appropriation of Japanese culture ridiculous, rather than Japaneseness itself, while preserving the quirks and misadventures that are central to the G&S canon. Whether this be your first G&S show, or your 20th, I invite you to laugh along at Gilbert’s topsy-turvy humor! After the show, please join us in the Horner Room for an opening night reception. Now please rise for God Save The Queen.
REACTIONS & OTHER VOICES:
While I have put a lot of myself into the show and often found myself to be the spokesperson for HRG&SP and The Mikado, I want to take this opportunity to acknowledge other perspectives. This is not (and indeed can not) be an all-inclusive list, but I hope to give at least some space to new voices/ideas here. I am so touched by the patrons and students who took the time to send me their thoughts on the production, and wanted to include a selection of their thoughts.
From Ashley Zhou ’17:
Not only is it not useful for Asian Americans, and now I extend my scope to include all those who identify as Asian American, to close those histories—violent histories, no doubt, but our histories—to examination, but I might even go so far as to argue that categorically opposing the resurfacing of works of art with racist origins replicates hegemonic systems designed to erase histories of Asian American exclusion in order to placate present-day Asian Americans and induct them into the logic of the model minority.
From a protestor who asked to remain anonymous, speaking as an individual not as a representative of the protest:
[The trailer for the 2012 production] really left me speechless. I was deeply hurt, offended, and enraged by the yellowface I saw, especially seeing people I knew and trusted play those roles… In my anger and hurt I didn’t stop to ask seriously how this production differed from the 2012 version.
Now that I have seen the play, I suddenly realize how little I appreciated your and G&S’s attempts to grapple with the difficult legacy of the Mikado… For some reason I had come into the theater expecting to see yellowface in principle, if not by definition. What I saw instead was something that has room to grow, but is trying sincerely to grapple with its history…
There is more progress I would like to see – I hope to see more Asians in the cast in the future, and additionally hope to see a more head-on acknowledgement of the racist history of the play in the setting and casting of characters, instead of more oblique references to that history (the latter is a question of specific artistic choices, the former a more critical need for future productions).
They also expressed a hope that “the conversation continues being thoughtful in institutional memory after you leave,” and expressed a desire for “finding ways to further uplift Asian voices, bodies, presence, and power in the arts sphere and theater specifically on campus,” noting that “I will continue to speak up for these changes in the future. But what I saw last night was a serious attempt to improve.”
They told me “Thank you for the effort you and G&S have put in to this point to try to make it better,” and to that I have to respond, thank YOU for coming and engaging with an open and critical mind. This is only the beginning of the conversation, and I hope it continues productively.
From alumna Merry White, who played Peep-Bo in the 1959 production and is now a professor of anthropology:
When I was a G&S performer, in my undergraduate years in the late 50s and early 60s, I was very politically involved – but less in “identity politics” and more in labor politics, civil rights and nuclear proliferation issues. Those of course have their own “identities” embedded in them – gender for example…
As I said in my last message, I’m almost overqualified to give a critical read of the situation in which you found yourself: anthropologist, Japan specialist, performer, Oxford Victorian Literature “reader”, and teaching this very issue at Boston University – the issue of identity, ownership and transgressions. In my undergraduate and graduate years at Harvard, there was plenty of prejudice, plenty of disadvantage and lots of semi-buried assaults on identity: I witnessed and experienced them.
I came to the show quite anxious that the Mikado be the one I loved and still remember. It wasn’t the one I remember. My reactions are not “love” but rather appreciation for what you were trying to do. You kept God Save the Queen though it represented to some Imperialism, racism and exploitation. I grew up singing God Save the Queen: my father was born in London and raised in Canada and to him it represented resistance to the issues of racism etc. in America. You kept some of the Victorian political satire, though our Director, Julius Novick, steeped our cast in that to the point where Japonoiserie fell away altogether – it is NOT about Japan at all – it’s English political issues they satirize. As you know from the MFA “scandal” of kimono-wearing in front of the Gauguin painting… these things are complicated. And multi-layered…
It is so much more complicated than what has been written so far… I will write something more, when I have time, as it is a wonderful case study for anthropologists… And now I must prepare to teach the afternoon class – modern Japanese society… not about this at all.
From a long-time patron at the Milk & Cookies Matinee:
Parents have a version of this conversation all the time. In our everyday family life (and particularly in this political season) we have been talking about how our words and actions, intended or not, affect others. I was grateful to put that very current conversation in a bigger historical context. Also to discuss that people grow and learn to behave better but so do cultures. To leave the building thinking big thoughts AND humming a catchy tune is what theater is all about!
From another patron:
My first reaction [to updating the operetta] was negative. I have been attending HRGSP performances since the early 1960’s and have seen many Mikados. I expected to see a standard mounting in what your historian calls ‘yellowface’…
Having arrived very early… I had time to reflect on the updating. The more I thought the more it seems the right thing to do – not only from the point of view of Asians but also from my own point of view. You see, I am a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, having been born shortly before Hitler’s accession to the chancellorship. Within a couple of years of the beginning of the Nazi era my father succeeded in obtaining permission to emigrate to the US, and brought not only his immediate family but also all his siblings and his elderly mother. Thus we escaped the holocaust.
But as far as the production is concerned – I began to think about other theater, some of which is overtly antisemitic. I think of Merchant of Venice which portrays the merchant Shylock as a thoroughly disreputable individual and gives him the classical antisemitic characteristics. Then there are the passion plays that are mounted all over Europe to this day, portraying Jews as the agents of Pontius Pilate’s decision to condemn Christ. For millennia this has been the excuse for referring to Jews as Christ-killers, resulting in untold persecutions and pogroms. Thus the power of theater.
Consequently I agree with and support your decision to revise the play in the way you have done so that the music and humor can be rescued and the offensive part removed.
THANK YOU AND ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS:
In addition to sharing thoughts of those outside the creative process of the production, I also want to take time to acknowledge the multiplicity of voices that go into any theatrical production. Although art-making can often be a work of ego, collaboration is key in theater. Thus, the theatrical process becomes the perfect metaphor for our goal of including more voices and perspectives.
In particular, I feel that the creative efforts led by stage director Zachary Mallory have recently gone unrecognized while I have spoken for the show. Zachary Mallory took on an immensely challenging show with unending enthusiasm, energy, and love. An immensely funny performer, he challenged the cast to bring out the hilarity of the script, and even make further modifications and improvements. With only a couple weeks to the show’s opening and a hole in the cast, he took on the additional duty of filling a cast role as Katisha. During tech week, he’s endured my secret light designer diva personality, running onstage and off to fulfill both his role as cast member and director. It has truly been an honor and a privilege to collaborate with him, and I feel I have learned so much from his emotional strength and his artistic perspective.
Music director Sydney Mukasa ’18 has put no less thought into this production, and I was delighted to read his program note, which explains how the musical elements of Sullivan’s composition contribute both to the satirical humor of the original show, in addition to our current production. As music director, he has the difficult job of working with both cast and orchestra, a huge number of people to direct, and his calm demeanor has helped me weather these past few weeks.
A huge thank you also to the producers of the show, Michaela J. Kane ’18, Alexander J. Raun ’17, and Peryn E. A. Reeves-Darby ’18, who have gotten through the difficult task of producing a show, particularly one that faced unexpected production-side setbacks, in addition to the added responsibility of producing this particularly controversial G&S show. Throughout a stressful time, they have retained a constant positivity and humor, and despite their own sleep-deprivation, still made time to care for all members of the production.
An enormous thank you to Ashley Zhou ’17 for taking charge of aspects of the production that are outside of HRG&SP’s expertise. We wanted to find ways to reach out to the community, but our ability to do so was limited by our lack of expertise and our previous lack of involvement in campus organizations that actively engage with the kind of discourse The Mikado engenders. The conception of proactive community outreach for G&S was created, curated, and planned by Ashley. She did amazing work to engage the community on difficult issues, and her research has greatly added to our production and our own body of knowledge. When we were wrapped up trying to put the show up, she wrote hundreds of individualized emails, organized events, and engaged people from a wide variety of backgrounds. I have learned so much from her highly knowledgeable perspective. I am honored to call her my colleague and collaborator, but I am also intensely grateful for her friendship and support throughout this process. Her contributions have been integral to this production.
My gratitude also goes to Professor Vivian Huang, Professor Josephine Lee, and Sean Graney, who graciously gave their advice when, feeling panicked about the lack of clear or “right” answers and my own ignorance, sought out “trusted adults,” a habit held over from childhood. Professor Vivian Huang, whose Asian American Theater and Performance course I am enrolled in, has greatly contributed to my direct and indirect engagement with the racial discourse related to The Mikado. In addition, I am incredibly grateful to her kindness and support during the past few weeks.
Despite probably being consulted on almost every single recent production of The Mikado, Professor Josephine Lee was incredibly gracious in giving her time to help Ashley and me think about this production. She provided a lot of valuable advice and perspective that definitely helped frame my understanding of the show. Furthermore, her book The Japan of Pure Invention was the main source for my research of the show, and was crucial to contextualizing our production of The Mikado.
Sean Graney, who directed the acclaimed The Hypocrites’ production of The Mikado at the OBERON, very kindly provided me with dramaturgical help. In particular, the very clever line, “And for my love I should croak-o” is attributed to him and his team. As a member of a student organization, I am so grateful that he took the time to engage with our production.
I wish to extend my thanks to Liz Dean, Tom Morgan, and Joe Short, employees of the Office for the Arts at Harvard whose help was crucial in this production. While we are always grateful for their advice and their help, with the additional tasks of this production in particular, they were indispensable to the success of the show. The beautiful set, designed by Elizabeth Pattyn, would not exist in its full glory without their work. In addition, thank you to Jack Megan and Dana Knox of the OFA for helping us handle our opening night when we felt completely out of our depth as students on how to handle a protest.
Finally, thank you to my parents, who were unwavering in their support despite being on the opposite end of the country. Thank you even for emigrating from China and starting an inexorable chain of events that landed me here at this prestigious university, grappling with the ways my own identity was complicated by their immigration. I am grateful for the opportunity to be challenged and learn and grow.
There are too many others who have helped both the production as a whole and me as an individual. The cast, staff, and orchestra have been inspiring in their dedication and kindness, and I both applaud and thank them. And thank you to everyone who has engaged with this production in some way. As I mentioned before, this production was, more than others, an incredibly collaborative process. Thank you all for joining in it.