Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

Race Factors in Yanking of 'Mikado'

Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

Race Factors in Yanking of 'Mikado'

Article excerpt

For 40 years, the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players (NYGASP) has been quietly going about its business, doing faithful reproductions of the 19th-century operettas created by the writer and composer of its title.

With no permanent home, and, like most small theater companies, perpetually struggling with financing, it nonetheless has presented short runs of meticulously staged shows, accompanied by a large orchestra.

Each season, it schedules at least one of the Big Three -- "HMS Pinafore," "The Pirates of Penzance" or "The Mikado" -- the most popular of Gilbert and Sullivan's works, and the ones most likely to fill the house.

The company's commitment to tradition, cherished by Gilbert and Sullivan aficionados, was suddenly disrupted last month, when NYGASP was yanked into the modern-world issues of racial identity and pride. Protests bubbled up on the Internet that the company's upcoming production of "The Mikado," scheduled as a holiday-season event, was racist.

The company subsequently canceled the presentation, replacing it with "Pirates," which will run at NYU's Skirball Center from Dec. 26 to Jan. 2.

"NYGASP never intended to give offense," said executive director David Wannen in a statement.

Not that anyone thought it did. What happened was a head-on collision of clashing agendas.

"The Mikado," written in 1885, was intended to satirize English Victorian society by placing its foibles in an exotic, comic-opera Japan, where people had fanciful names like Nanki-Poo and Yum-Yum.

It might have played with stereotypes, but it was not, in 19th- century terms, disrespectful toward Japan.

The protest against the NYGASP production centered not so much on the material as on the presentation, with a cast of largely white actors, wearing yellowface makeup. Why not hire under-employed Asian- American performers?

Offense resulting from the use of yellowface is understandable. …

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