British Columbia

Culturally sensitive version of The Mikado leaves 'crude Japanese stereotypes' behind

The comic operas of Gilbert and Sullivan are widely viewed as influential classics, but they're also controversial and rife with cultural stereotypes that were common in the 19th century.

'It’s uncomfortable to see a lot of Caucasian performers in Japanese makeup'

Classic productions, such as this 1950 rendition of 'The Mikado,' included representations of harmful Japanese stereotypes acted by Caucasian players in traditional Japanese makeup and dress. (Geoff Charles, Creative Commons)

The Victoria Gilbert and Sullivan Society (VGSS) is hoping that its modernized version of The Mikado will avoid cultural controversies similar to those faced by previous productions of the British comic operetta.

The Mikado productions commonly include actors in Japanese kimonos and Kabuki-style makeup that have stirred controversy, especially in recent years.

"To most of us today, it's uncomfortable to see a lot of Caucasian performers in Japanese makeup and quite frequently indulging in some very crude Japanese stereotypes on stage," said Heather-Elayne Day, director of the upcoming VGSS production.

The original production of Gilbert and Sullivan's 'The Mikado' was performed at London's Savoy Theatre in 1885. (The Savoy Theatre)

'Nanki-Poo' and 'Yum-Yum' remain

The VGSS is the first to licence a version of the play that includes the addition of a modern prologue. That prologue was developed by the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players in consultation with the Asian American arts community, after that theatre group cancelled its 2015 production of The Mikado amid concerns about racism and stereotypes.

Despite its racist past, Day said the piece is worth sharing with modern-day theatre goers.

"It is Sir Arthur Sullivan's best music, out of all the operettas he wrote. I think that's one of the things that keeps it alive and kind of keeps people coming back to this piece," said Day, who hopes casting diverse actors will help overcome some of the problematic themes.

She said Gilbert's version was easy to reimagine and modernize by simply doing away with Japanese costumes and makeup.

Heather-Elayne Day is the director of Victoria’s Gilbert and Sullivan Society's updated version of 'The Mikado.' (Heather-Elayne Day)

The new version changes the setting of the play from an imaginary Japanese village of "Titipu" to Victorian England.

However, it keeps the original character names such as Pish-Tush, Nanki-Poo and Yum-Yum, imagined by Gilbert in the 1890s. 

Day said the "silly Asian sounding syllables that [Gilbert] strung together to create character names," remain, but are justified through the dialogue by referencing the "yummy" voice of a distinctive soprano and the vain and somewhat dimwitted tenor who is a bit of a "nincompoop."

Day said the additional prologue was well-received by audiences in New York when it was performed there in 2016.

Instead of being set in Japan, the new scene sets the play in the London office of playwright W. S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan as they rummage through Japanese artifacts.

"There have been instances in the past where productions of The Mikado have not been attended by Asian Canadians, for instance, because they felt it was inappropriate or it made them uncomfortable to bring their children. I really want this to be accessible for everyone," Day told Jason D'Souza, host of CBC's All Points West.

"We obviously want our on-stage cast to be a reflection of the diversity of the community here and also of the community in London at the time, which was quite diverse," Day said.

With files from CBC Radio One's All Points West