Written by Ashley Zhou ’17 and Kat C. Zhou ’17

We distributed this document at the box office during the run of the show. Some of the responses to the FAQ have been revised slightly in order to clarify and enrich my original answers, which were written in haste before opening. 

A Brief Historical Note

The history of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado, as with so many beloved Victorian cultural artifacts, is a history of imperialism: Western imperial powers’ thirst for dominance in an economic system they saw as a zero-sum game, the ever-growing urgency to find more trading partners, the dehumanization of non-white peoples as justification for conquest couched in paternalistic rhetoric of civilizing missions and Christianization. Of Commodore Matthew Perry docking gunboats in Tokyo Bay and calling the result of his actions, even to this day, an “opening,” as if to read choice into Japan’s forced entry into Western-controlled systems of trade and to turn away from the violence of that historical moment. Of the political upheaval of the Meiji Restoration, a direct response to this act of U.S. imperialism, and the economic consequences of the new government on Japanese people, many of whom emigrated, in the first large-scale Japanese migration to the U.S., to find opportunities on the West Coast or in Hawai’i, itself under the rule of white settler colonists.

Rather than turning away from the countless violences committed under imperialism, recognizing the origins of this operetta as made possible by that violence helps us to engage critically with the source material and to remember that the fantasies of Japan and of Japanese people that Gilbert and Sullivan dreamed up for The Mikado held, and continues to hold, considerable influence not only over the perception of Japanese but also all Asian and Asian American bodies. Premiering just three years after the passage of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act in the U.S. amidst boiling anti-Asian sentiment, the operetta served as a comedic critique of Victorian society in England but also confirmed and reified stereotypes the West had created about the Asian woman as submissive, docile, and hypersexualized, and the Asian man as alternately bloodthirsty or emasculated. The force of these stereotypes continues to reverberate in popular culture and cultural productions even today.

But it is precisely the pain of imperialism, which daily presses so close for many people of color in the twenty-first century, that necessitates examinations of works like The Mikado in the present day. How do we use our contemporary understandings of race to problematize the original operetta and to inform new productions? How will creating spaces for conversations around The Mikado and similar shows help us learn more about what it means to be a gendered, racialized, classed, and sexually-valenced person in the world today?

—Ashley Zhou ’17

FAQ’s:

What is HRG&SP? 

The Harvard-Radcliffe Gilbert and Sullivan Players is an independent, non-profit undergraduate organization which has dedicated itself to performing Gilbert & Sullivan operettas since 1956. It does not receive grants or funding from the university for its shows, generating its revenue through patron donations and ticket sales. We perform two shows from the G&S canon every year at the Agassiz Theater in Radcliffe Yard. The Board of Directors is a group of about fifteen undergraduates who preserve the continuity of the organization from year to year. The Board chooses the shows, selects the directors, provides producers, and plans events for the audience and the company. The company’s membership varies from semester to semester, but we typically expect about 70 people involved every semester  in the cast, staff, and orchestra.

How does HRG&SP choose their shows? What’s this about a four-year cycle? 

HRG&SP chooses its shows for the upcoming academic year every January. The board of directors (a group of 10-15 undergraduates) gathers to discuss the show selection, and votes on the season. In general, we perform the “big three” shows (Pirates of Penzance, H.M.S. Pinafore, and The Mikado) in the fall on a four year cycle, and the rest of the shows fall in approximately a six year cycle. However, this cycle is a guideline, rather than an absolute stricture. 

What is yellowface?

Yellowface is the act of a non-Asian actor racially impersonating an Asian character, oftentimes using particular makeup or wardrobe choices, although not always. Yellowface is also closely associated with white washing, the casting of white actors in roles intended for Asian bodies.

Does this production use yellowface?

The production does not use yellowface in its wardrobe or makeup choices. However, we acknowledge a potential for a variety of interpretation of our staging. For example, the racial impersonation coerced by the Mikado, meant to be a criticism of the violence that accompanies racial impersonation, certainly has some element ambiguity to it, especially accounting for differences in the definitions of yellowface.

Why did you reset the operetta to 1960s Las Vegas?

Many productions of this show remove the Japanese setting entirely and reset in a European setting, say England or Italy, and while these settings “remove” the racialized context of an Asian setting, without other changes, it can seem like they are ignoring the racial history of the show. We wanted to recontextualize the origins of the show in Japonisme and commodity racism with a more contemporary example of an “Oriental” themed hotel (which still exist today in Las Vegas!) It offers us a way to examine and teach about the racial origins of the show in a new way, since postwar fascination with Japanese objects mimics the Japonisme of Gilbert’s era.

In addition, the performativity associated with Las Vegas resonated well with the performativity we wanted to highlight in our own production, particularly as it relates to the performance of race and gender. As the light designer, I tried to emulate “show” lights, particularly featuring marquee lights around a false proscenium I made specially for this show. The idea of performativity is especially present in “Three Little Maids,” where we can see the maids performing under the gaze of hotel guests, which perhaps metatheatrically emulates the voyeurism inherent to theatrical performance.

Why did you keep the original names?

The idea is that this is part of the violence done on the staff of the hotel by the Mikado’s constructed racial fantasy. The staff members all have real names, but they are not allowed to use them, which highlights the absurdity and violence of this erasure of identity.

Why is Miya Sama still featured in the show?

I myself struggled with what to do with the song, since it is actually a genuinely Japanese song, though of course it’s been appropriated.

I thought that it wouldn’t be appropriate to simply erase the song from the show, given that the goal is to not erase the “Japanese”-ness of the show but to confront it. So the decision was made to restage it as a moment of coerced cultural appropriation/racial impersonation to highlight the ways in which the original show can be considered to do violence towards some people’s identities. It’s a moment for the cast even to audibly say things like “Why are we doing this?” or “this is racist,” which I think voices some of the concerns of people who think the show shouldn’t be performed anymore.

Why weren’t more Asian American actors cast?

We acknowledge the unfortunate lack of Asian American actors in the cast. We offered a role to everyone who auditioned, but know that there is a wider issue of diversity in the Harvard theater community. We also acknowledge that we could have made stronger efforts to reach out specifically to Asian American groups on campus during the audition process.

However, we also want to point out that having a cast of people of Asian descent does not “absolve” the show of its issues, and we would certainly be concerned that an all-Asian cast would lend a sense of “complicity” to a complicated production.

What outreach efforts has G&S promoted to engage with the Asian American community?

Last semester, the G&S board held a town hall event, inviting Asian American students to voice their concerns, give feedback, and provide a forum for conversation. After that meeting, Ashley Zhou took charge of community engagement and all that it entailed, creating a model of proactive community outreach for G&S, an organization that doesn’t usually engage with issues of race. This has entailed writing a biweekly newsletter called Dis-Oriented; organizing events such as a screening of The Mikado Project, a teach-in with Professor Vivian Huang on yellowface and theater, and an open rehearsal and talk-back; and planning and moderating the various talk-backs that will take place after certain performances of The Mikado this and next weekend. We initially hoped to partner with the Asian American Women’s Association at Harvard to co-sponsor these outreach events, and although they declined, they have continued to help us publicize our efforts.

Why did you decide to put on The Mikado?

Although financial reasons have been cited as part of the rationale behind putting on The Mikado, the primary motivation behind this decision was a desire to engage with this historically racist and problematic source text, especially as an Asian American woman for whom the representations of Asian bodies in the traditional staging hits hard. Above all, there was a choice made not to turn away from the history of anti-Asian racism, relying instead on our more nuanced understandings of race, gender, and sexuality in the twenty-first century to inform the bringing of this production into the modern world.

Why did you cast a male actor as Katisha?

We had originally cast a female actress, but unfortunately she had to drop the show with only a couple weeks to opening. In the limited remaining time, we had to have the director Zachary Mallory step into the role. We want to emphasize that the character is not that of a trans woman, but rather a female character played in drag. While it was not our intention to present a negative portrayal of a trans character, we understand that the confluence of the character traits of Katisha and the male actor embodying her raises questions about trans representation. Zachary has definitely heard potential concerns on his performance of the character, and has made efforts to modify his performance as much as possible.

—Kat Zhou ’17

One thought on “Mikado 2016 Historical Note & FAQ

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