Mikado sparks racism debate
NZ Opera’s performance of The Mikado has reignited debate over whether the comedy classic is racist toward Asian people.
The Gilbert and Sullivan production, which is on at the Isaac Theatre Royal in Christchurch March 7 till 11, is a biting satire on British culture staged in the fictional Japanese town of Titipu. For years, actors dressed in yellowface and shuffled around stage singing in high nasal tones with their eyes taped back.
James Wenley, a drama teacher at the University of Auckland, raised concerns about the show’s underlying racism in a blog post for Theatre Scenes. ‘‘NZ Opera are staging Gilbert and Sullivan’s 1885 The Mikado without acknowledging the operetta’s history of Orientalism and yellowface,’’ he said.
Actors in the Auckland performance did not paint their faces yellow, however they did dress up in Japanese costumes and make fun of Japanese pop culture trends such as Hello Kitty.
‘‘What I have seen disturbs me,’’ said Wenley. ‘‘The Mikado is being sold as a cringey and kitschy appropriation of an Oriental other.’’
James Roque, a member of the group Proudly Asian Theatre, said he was torn over whether to see the show.
‘‘I’m in a bit of a dilemma, I want to see it [to get the full picture] but don’t want to support something that might be racist,’’ he said.
There’s been increased debate about whether it’s still appropriate to perform The Mikado .A New York production was cancelled in 2015 amid criticism over the portrayal of Japanese stereotypes. It went ahead in 2016 after an extensive rewrite to make the script less offensive. A San Francisco group recently staged it in Renaissance Italy instead.
Debate over The Mikado feeds into wider concerns about Asian representation in theatre and film. Hollywood has faced condemnation for what critics said was the whitewashing of Asian characters in popular movies, such as Scarlett Johansson taking the lead in Ghost in the Shell, and Tilda Swinton’s performance as the Ancient One in Doctor Strange.
Charlotte Rosier, head of marketing and communications for NZ Opera, said The Mikado was obviously set in a fantastical world. ‘‘It is clear throughout the libretto that the audience is not watching real Japanese people,’’ she said. Rosier said ethnicity did not play a part in casting, ‘‘and in every case our policy is to cast the best singers for the role’’.
Kiyomi Bingley from the NZ Japan Society said she wasn’t personally offended by the show. ‘‘It’s very popular, and yes there are stereotypes in the show, but as long as the audience don’t believe them, then I think it’s fine.’’
Opera singer Helen Medlyn in character on stage as Katisha in Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Mikado.