Mikado sparks racism de­bate

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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.

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