Late Life Face-Lifts for Nanki-Poo and Yum-Yum

It would be hard to come up with a more extreme example of San Francisco political correctness run amok than The Lamplighters’ — the city’s venerable Gilbert & Sullivan company — recent production of The Mikado, which, under duress, switched the classic musical from a make-believe Japan to Renaissance Italy so as not to offend a few local scolds.

Alas, I was unable to get a ticket in time, but the review by Joshua Kosman in the San Francisco Chronicle was a rave, so it may well have been a terrific version, but only a version — not the real thing that has delighted playgoers since its 1895 debut. Until now, there’s been nary a peep of public protest, though a New York production recently knuckled under to pressure and canceled its Mikado and a Seattle production also came under attack.

Nobody that I’m aware of ever accused The Mikado of being offensive to Japanese culture, the country or its people. It’s not even about Japan. Gilbert & Sullivan wrote their greatest work to mock all political hypocrisy and bureaucracy. They set the plot in Japan rather than Britain to lend it an aesthetic distance, a mark of their artistry. If The Lamplighters were going to drag the show to another country, why Italy? I wonder how many Italians were in The Lamplighters’ compromised version — possible new grounds for a protest from Italian-Americans? The Mikado has been performed countless times in The Lamplighters’ 64-year history without objection. Suddenly it’s racist? I don’t think so.

Baker Peeples, longtime Lamplighters musical director, says, “We found out there is a lot of prejudice and racial overtones that are invisible to us.” Just what those are, neither he, nor the head of the protest group, Lily Tung Crystal, explained. Maybe because any alleged prejudice is indeed invisible. Perhaps Crystal & Co. are upset by the character’s comical names — Nanki-Poo, Pish-Tush, Ko-Ko and the deliciously named Yum-Yum. Those are hardly offensive, just funny mock names. If they trouble you, maybe you best avoid any comedies, let alone satires. Changing the names to un-amusing Italian names offends me — and all loyal Mikado fans. Are the show’s giggling three little maids from school targeting Japanese school girls? They are indeed — and giggling schoolgirls everywhere. How are Ko-Ko, Katisha and the Mikado himself racist? If Crystal has a little list of offenses, she didn’t reveal them.

Lamplighters managing director Sarah Vardigans met with Crystal, who refused to be placated by Vardigans’ major point — that The Mikado has nothing to do with Japan. The show is in no way disrespectful, let alone racist, but Crystal was unmoved. So Vardigans was forced to cave in and move the locale and characters to Renaissance Italy, explaining it was “an enormous opportunity to save this piece and not offend anybody.” Nice diplomatic move, but at what cost?

An Italian Mikado troubles me, but I don’t get a vote because I’m not Asian. Homogenizing, sanitizing or shutting down classic works of art because they don’t meet the standards of someone’s arbitrary idea of what is or is not racist is censorship by another name — and it’s especially disturbing when the work is innocent of any wrong-doing. Let people picket, protest or shun a production but not stamp it out for others who don’t agree and want to see it. Or let Ferocious Lotus produce its own ethnically pure version.

The Mikado is an almost perfect musical, and I’m particularly hot about The Lamplighters, of all treasured Bay Area groups, giving in to self-appointed social arbiters of what is permissible on stage. The Mikado was the first musical I ever saw, a terrific high school production, and I still recall the cast, one of whom, interestingly, was black, playing Nanki-Poo. The show turned me into a lifelong musicals freak, as I note in the introduction to my new book (Showstoppers!: The Surprising Backstage Stories of Broadway’s Most Remarkable Songs). How dare they mess with my beloved Mikado!

It’s OK (if too often unnecessary and just plain annoying) to meddle with a classic piece of theater, though usually it’s the work of a director who wants to show off or put his “stamp” on a great work, often to wind up wrecking it. There’s nothing wrong with doing a revised version of a theatrical favorite — a Nazi Richard III, say — but the rationale behind changing the nationality in The Mikado from Japan to Italy because it’s allegedly racist is so wrong-headed that Gilbert & Sullivan are not just rolling over in their graves but likely rolling their eyes at changing the country, characters and other details. Critic Joshua Kosman wasn’t bothered by it and said it didn’t matter, that the show is easily transported to Italy. Maybe, but it ain’t the show Gilbert & Sullivan wrote. Imagine re-setting Tosca in Tokyo.

One unamused Chronicle letter writer, Michael Bertinetti, steamed, “To save their gate, the harried [Lamplighters] impresarios folded under pressure from local thought police to twist an ironic Victorian spoof out of the shape its creators gave it.… An enraged Gilbert would have stood his ground and delivered a stinging send-up of those deadly boring souls who think no classic work of art — especially one that lampoons authority — should be left ‘unimproved.’”

The charge against The Mikado is that it is guilty of something called “orientalism,” which patronizes Eastern culture, but The Mikado seems innocent of any such crime. It patronizes nobody and makes fun of everybody, by inference. That’s called art. If anything, the show celebrates the Japanese. Few Western plays are set in Japan (and no musicals I know of), so why deprive us of one of the great theater pieces set there. Or is satire automatically out of bounds? Will a protest group next decide that The King and I is racist because it depicts a brutish Siamese ruler? (A Broadway revival of The Flower Drum Song was rewritten by David Henry Hwang to banish racial stereotypes, but Flower Drum Song isn’t really racist, just dated and maybe overly sentimental — in favor of the Chinese.

I readily admit this is a thorny issue because it gets into the thicket of “non-traditional casting.” A more understandable complaint against The Mikado is that it often uses white actors in Japanese roles — a practice dubbed “yellow-face,” but black face was demeaning to blacks while whites who play Japanese characters in The Mikado aren’t stereotyping them, just playing them — a huge difference.

The Mikado makes fun of people, not a people. A recent article in Time, headlined “Jokesters Slap Back at the PC Police,” quotes comic Adam Corolla, who says, “There’s a lot of people out there whose job it is to be offended for other people.” Time adds, “‘I’m offended’ has become a mantra of the thin-skinned.… The bottom line is this: Comedy is meant to lampoon sacred cows. No one says you have to like the joke. Just don’t try to silence the jokester.”

To me, forcing a company to cancel or revise a great work amounts to cultural bullying, but Leah Garchik of the San Francisco Chronicle disagrees, e-mailing, “I think what the new version did is fine — why not play with a work of fiction? — and I’m sure not going to defend the classic if it offends anyone.” Victor Gee, an Asian friend, says he admires the artistry of the work but the way Asians are portrayed can make him squirm (he cites The King and I and Flower Drum Song). “This is my reaction, which someone might challenge intellectually,” Gee says, “but people who have never been mocked for their physical appearance have no idea how uncomfortable and helpless one can feel. I find it interesting that it’s mostly non-minority people telling us not to be so overly sensitive.” Again, I’d like to see the specific offenses in The Mikado that make it racist.

Sure, it would be great to cast every Mikado with only Japanese (or at least Asian) performers, but in practical terms that’s next to impossible in community theater. Most actors that audition are white, with a smattering of other races. As a co-writer of three musical revues, I’ve been involved in casting at several auditions, and you’re lucky to find enough good people of any color right for a show — so you take whatever you get from a pool of whoever shows up.

Tung Crystal’s group, an Asian/Asian-American theater company called Ferocious Lotus (the name sounds like they’re spoiling for a fight), was disturbed that The Lamplighters would even presume to produce The Mikado, no matter how sensitively. Does this mean that we will never be able to enjoy the original Mikado again unless it’s set anywhere but Japan and fully cast with Japanese actors? I’d love to see that, but even in Asian-rich San Francisco, it’s unlikely to happen soon.

Color-blind casting is now widely accepted, with black actors in traditional white roles, even in plays set in a white society during a specific non-racially diverse historical era. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. It can be a huge stretch that often distracts from the show (like a black “Mister Snow” in the 1992 Broadway revival of Carousel, set in a Maine fishing village in 1945) or it can make no difference (like a black actor cast in a major role in a revival of Major Barbara at the Shaw Festival in Ontario a few years ago). Ryan Kost points out in his Chronicle piece on the Mikado controversy that the Japanese heroine in Madame Butterfly is “usually played by a white woman in a way that barely draws a note of protest.” You might well argue that if blacks, Asians, and Hispanics can appear in traditionally white roles, why can’t whites occasionally play Asian or Hispanic characters?

The local issue was unfairly framed by Thomas Lee, an Asian-American Chronicle business columnist who, in a companion piece, made comparisons of The Mikado to obvious racist portrayals in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (Mickey Rooney as Holly Golightly’s embarrassing buck-toothed Japanese neighbor) and two thoroughly offensive Chinese characters in the film Thoroughly Modern Millie. Those vaudeville characterizations are miles away from the portrayal of comic but dignified (however satirical) Japanese characters in The Mikado. It destroys the whole anti-Mikado argument to link the three examples. One Chinese friend wrote that as a girl she always squirmed watching characters like Hop Sing on Bonanza and the Charlie Chan movies, where Chan was played by whites (though in the original 1929 Chan movie, he was portrayed by a Korean, E.L. Park), but both characters are light years from The Mikado, a world classic.

It turns out that this is part of a larger controversy in fiction over something called “cultural appropriation,” in which novelists have been condemned by members of minority groups for daring to write as characters of other ethnicities — William Styron, for instance, writing as the black activist Nat Turner. Opponents of cultural appropriation, such as an Australian writer of Sudanese and Egyptian heritage, Yasmin Abdel-Magied, protest the practice as “a celebration of the unfettered exploitation of the experiences of others, under the guise of fiction.”

Ryan Kost further points out in his Chronicle piece that The Mikado is not always easy to disentangle from its roots. Parts of Sullivan’s score… are built directly on the melodic modes of Japanese music. Individual lines and entire scenes are written with a Japanese setting in mind.” Even though Sir Arthur Sullivan’s score has a decidedly Eastern lilt, totally out of sync with an Italian setting and sensibility, the melodies are so irresistible and W.S. Gilbert’s brilliant lyrics and libretto so indestructible that they survived even this rocky and misbegotten journey from Titipu to Italy.

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