The Mikado: A Most Amusing…Minstrel-Show?

So I went to see The Mikado, by Gilbert and Sullivan, tonight.  I was of mixed feelings about the whole affair.  It was amusing enough and the singing was alright (although certain roles left something to be desired — I had the distinct feeling one of the actors was trying to do his best interpretation of Scooby-Doo as an opera singer).  Others were quite good, especially the unscrupulous character whose “shtick” was being an official who held a number of positions — attorney general, prime solicitor, chief justice, home secretary, chancellor of the exchequer, and so forth — and who often used these positions to a…synergy…not often found in government.

At the same time, the choreography left much to be desired, and the articulation of the chorus made much of the singing a mash of undistinguished words.  I laughed not a few times when a particularly inept chorus member bumped into someone or handled a set piece badly in between scenes.  But hey, it was a university production at a university not known for its opera programs or music department.  I’m not going to be too picky.

But there was something I didn’t like…below the jump.

What bothered me most was basically, uh, the Mikado itself.  I get that Gilbert and Sullivan were trying to get away with poking fun at British governmental problems by painting the story in a far-away land.  But…the thought occurred to me as I watched that I was, in essence, watching a minstrel show.

I mean, in the entire production, there were…two…actors who appeared to have even a trace of “Asian” ancestry, and I know enough to know that even if they were “Asian,” the chances that the actors were actually Japanese was slim at best.  And every single white actor had their faces painted white, EXCEPT the actors who were actually of Asian heritage — it was almost as if they wanted to disguise the whiteness of the cast (ironically enough, in white) while doing all they could to parade the fact that there were Real! Asians! in the cast.

And so I couldn’t help but compare it all to performers in blackface mocking African-American stereotypes.  Because, in a sense, the Mikado was yellowface — white performers putting on an “Asian” act, appropriating a whole culture.  And while the usage was often meant to mock, not Asians, but Britons, it still didn’t feel right — for one thing, inscribing all the WORST aspects of your culture onto a foreign culture doesn’t do the Other any favors.

Also, there was this number.  Feminists, have at it:

Braid Your Raven Hair.

2 comments on “The Mikado: A Most Amusing…Minstrel-Show?

  1. I was wondering why you were going to see this. The problem with using another country as the setting is that at the time G&S were writing, basically any culture outside of England (and I do mean England specifically) would have been seen as inferior. The humor is derived from the fact that the British government is acting like the government of some foreign (inferior) place. Still, they could have used, say, France, and it wouldn’t have had the same sort of uncomfortable racial undertones.

    This is Adam, btw. I made a blog so I could interact with you and Sarah. Who knows how much I will actually use it.

    • tolkienista says:

      Yeah, it was date night, something to do, right? I didn’t know much about the Mikado when I told the group that I would go, and I sort of assume as default that cultural products of the 1800s will offend me in a number of ways and have a number of problems of race, gender, sexuality, etc. Still, I wasn’t quite prepared for how uncomfortable it would be.

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