Sonia Garieaeff as Catiscià and Samuel Rabinowitz as Coco in "The Mikado" at Lamplighters Music Theatre. (Photo by David Allen)
Sonia Garieaeff as Catiscià and Samuel Rabinowitz as Coco in “The Mikado” at Lamplighters Music Theatre. (Photo by David Allen)

Hollywood isn’t the only place where things like yellow face and whitewashing occur–the world of live theater isn’t immune to some racist bullshit either. And one work that’s proved to be controversial in recent years is Gilbert & Sullivan’s classic musical THE MIKADO.

Set in a fictionalized Japan, the show has traditionally been performed by white actors in yellow face and the play’s text itself is problematic (for ex, Titipu, Nanki-poo and Pish-Tush are just some of the names of the supposedly Japanese places and people in the play).

So when the Bay Area-based Lamplighters Music Theatre made plans to mount a new production of THE MIKADO–they ran into some opposition from Asian Americans. But unlike many others who’ve tried to ignore input the community, Lamplighters decided to listen and adjust accordingly–ultimately resulting in a version of the problematic musical that all sides could be happy with. American Theatre Magazine documents how one theater company did things right and how doing the right thing also had an unexpected side effect–it artistically revitalized the company:

On March 29, Lamplighters released a statement of apology that read, in part, “Lamplighters Music Theatre acknowledges that our past productions of The Mikado have been performed in traditional style, and have given offense to people in the Asian community. For this we sincerely apologize…. We are now working on an entirely new production concept, removing all references to Japan and developing a new title and a new setting.”

Within a week, the new concept was solidified. The setting was no longer England (or Japan). It was now going to be in Milan during the Renaissance. The theatre was going to use the set from their 2013 production of Princess Ida. And Brooks and Barbara Heroux (the theatre’s artistic director emeritus) have combed through the script, changing character names, modifying any reference to Japan, and removing anything that could be construed as an ethnic slur. For example, the character of the Mikado is now Il Ducato, emperor of Milan, and the line, “We are gentlemen of Japan” has become, “We are gentlemen of Milan.”

Though the process “was like turning the Queen Mary around,” Brooks confessed, she also said she has noticed a new energy at the theatre. “I think what this has done, particularly for Lamplighters, is open up a door to a whole other way of looking at [Gilbert and Sullivan’s] work,” she remarked. “Then what happens is you find other creative wellsprings. These new ideas are popping up right and left and there’s a kind of wonderful new energy behind it.” To her, it’s about time more artists felt free to reintrepret Gilbert and Sullivan. After all, “People do it to Shakespeare all the time; they turn him right on his ear,” she said.

Taking a suggestion from Ferocious Lotus (a Bay Area Asian American theatre), Lamplighters has hired a local Asian-American activist, Malcolm Gin (who is not affiliated with either theatres) to serve as a consultant and look over the revised Mikado script to make sure that all Orientalist indicators are excised. And though the lead actors are white, the production has been cast with nearly 50 percent people of color.

With their new version of The Mikado, Lamplighters has joined the ranks of companies such as Mu Performing Arts, Chicago’s the Hypocrites, and the VORTEX in Austin in reintrepreting the controversial musical for a more diverse contemporary audience. The Hypocrites’ version, for instance, was set at a modern carnival and removed all references to Japan, while the VORTEX’s Mikado: Reclaimed took a metatheatrical approach in which an all-Asian cast performing the operetta while imprisoned in an internment camp. It shows that G&S is as resilient as Shakespeare or any classic opera; setting it in a new place only enhances the piece’s universality.

To read the rest, go to the American Theatre: Building a Better ‘Mikado,’ Minus the Yellowface