When Gilbert and Sullivan opened their musical The Mikado at the Savoy Theatre in London in 1885, the first lines were sung by a chorus of kimono clad men. “If you want to know who we are, We are gentlemen of Japan.”
When the Lamplighters Music Theatre opened their production at the Lesher Center for the Arts a few days ago, the chorus sang something a little different, “If you want to know who we are. We are gentlemen of Milan."
So how did the story end up in Italy. We’ll explain that in a minute, but it’s not what the Lamplighters first had in mind.
They planned for a traditional Japanese Mikado, but with some Asian American actors, to avoid the controversies over yellowface that had plagued productions in Seattle and New York. ("Yellowface" is the Asian version of blackface, where white actors play Asian Americans with yellow makeup and eyeliner to make the eyes more slanted.)
So last winter, Lamplighters’ Managing Director Sarah Vardigans set a meeting with Lily Tung Crystal, a leading Bay Area Asian American theater artist. But Vardigans says it didn’t go well.
“We had a difficult meeting with Lily,” Vardigans said in a recent interview. “She was very clear that the Asian Community would not support our production if we could not commit to one hundred percent Asian casting.
That was a deal breaker for Vardigans. “For a Gilbert and Sullivan company to commit to 100 percent Asian casting,” Vardigans said, “when we typically have ten percent Asian casting is just not practical.”
Crystal, who runs Ferocious Lotus Theater company, was unhappy at the compromise Vardigans offered, that the white actors wouldn’t wear yellowface makeup. “We had an issue with that," Crystal said recently. “Because we would argue that having Caucasian actors play Asian roles constitutes yellowface."
“We don’t do black minstrel shows and blackface, because that’s not accepted anymore,” Crystal added. “So the question is: why, when it comes to the Asian community, it’s still okay for a Caucasian actor to play an Asian role.”
The fact is, yellowface and blackface are common on stages and movie screens around the world. The classic yellowface example from the past are the thousands of amateur and professional production of The Mikado. In the movies, Micky Rooney's farcical portrayal of Mr Yoniushi in the film version of Breakfast at Tiffany’s has embarassed generations of Asian Americans. And just last year, the white Emma Stone played an Asian American named Alison Ng in Cameron Crowe’s movie Aloha, which also garnered criticism.
As for blackface, the American Ballet Theatre, the home of African-American dancer Misty Copeland, put dark brown makeup on the Brazilian dancer Marcelo Gomes last year, for a production of Othello, Shakespeare’s black hero. And white performers played Otello in blackface as recently as 2013 at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, though the company abandoned the practice in its 2015 revival.
“It really is a history of erasure. It’s ways in which to control bodies of color,” says A-lan Holt, a playwright and associate director at Stanford’s Institute for Diversity in the Arts. “And control them in terms of economics because you want to take ideas from communities of color, but not pay folks.”
So it’s worth noting when a major arts group puts Asian Americans in charge both on and off the stage.
Next month, San Francisco Opera is premiering Dream of the Red Chamber, based on the classic 18th century Chinese novel. Bright Sheng wrote the music, playwright David Henry Hwang the libretto, and Stan Lai directs. All three are Chinese American (Lai is based in Taiwan). And Hwang’s contract stipulates that the show feature Asians in all the singing roles.
But Gregory Henkel, managing director/artistic, who oversees casting for SF Opera, says Dream of the Red Chamber is a special case. “We found the singers first, and then the composer wrote for them.” And that’s because Henkel argues casting opera is much tougher than film or plays. Opera singers are like Olympic athletes, he says, who have to “sail over a large orchestra and fill a very large space,” 3200 seats in the case of San Francisco War Memorial Opera House. “Which is something not very many people in the world have the ability to do.”
Henkel says SF Opera practices a version of colorblind casting (common in many American theater companies), “hiring the greatest singers available.”
So on the SF Opera stage, the African American soprano Leontyne Price has played both Verdi’s African princess Aida, and Cio Cio San, the Japanese heroine of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly. In 2010, the African American bass-baritone Eric Owens created the role of the white General Leslie Groves in the world premiere John Adams’ docu-opera Doctor Atomic. White tenors, not in blackface, have played the title role in the company’s most recent productions of Otello.
So against that background, how did The Lamplighters work things out in their Mikado?
They reset it in Renaissance Italy, in Milan, not Japan, so the rhymes all work, and the show seemed as silly and as charming as any Gilbert and Sullivan lover might ask. “We were pressured to do it," Vardigans says, “but ultimately we’ve all come around to being very excited about it, and in today’s cultural environment, it’s not right to do something that is offensive to any part of our community.”
Vardigans says a number of Gilbert and Sullivan companies from around the country are coming to town to see how well Lamplighters has resolved the controversy, though now, only a few small roles are played by Asians Americans.
Which is why theater activist Mina Morita, artistic director at Crowded Fire Theater Company, says she’s most excited about new plays that truly mirror America’s diversity.
“Because we’re tired of playing the sexy vixens, the maids, the wise mom, the ninja, the samurai. We’re ready for more complex roles.”
And any time there’s a show about somebody else’s culture, Morita says, the producers need to find people from that culture to help create it.