Slipped Disc editorial
A production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado has been withdrawn in New York after activists demanded it should be played and sung by Asian performers, rather than non-Asians pretending to be Japanese.
The New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players (NYGASP) appear to have caved in at the first hint of protest, fearing to provoke a substantial minority group.
Both sides, it seems, have lost the plot.
Mikado is pure parody. It is a send-up of the British ruling classes in the late 19th century and has much to say about their successors today. Its Japanese setting is a theatrical gimmick, no more racially defining than the Cornish village in the Pirates of Penzance. Victorian audiences, for whom it as written, understood that it was aimed at their system of governance and their own acquiescence to it. No UK production that we have seen – most durably Jonathan Miller’s at ENO – raised a scintilla of suspicion that the absence of Asian actors was discriminatory or distortive.
Yet this is the mind-warping nonsense we read from those in New York who would forcibly recast it: White privilege is telling the stories of people of color and crowding out their actual, lived narratives. Even when those stories come from a place of prejudice, as with Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado, they can be told in ways that highlight the legacy of white supremacy and give voices to people of color.
There is no earthly reason for Mikado to be sung by ethnic Japanese any more than Cio-cio san, Suzuki and half the cast of Madam Butterfly should be restricted to singers of the same ethnicity. The New York cancellation of Mikado has nothing do to with the work itself. It is never a good sign when a company cancels a production under pressure. Both the outcry and the outcome reflect racial confusions in that city, at this time.
It may be that New York needs a new Mikado now more than ever before.
UPDATE: More reaction here.