Disclaimer: any and all anger in this post is not directed at my wonderful choir director. I love him to death, and I refuse to get mad at him for an issue that’s not really his.
Backstory: my church, every year, does a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, which has been a huge part of my life since I was in 2nd grade. I love the plays, and the music, and the experience… It’s a big production, and I love it. We were set on doing The Mikado this year, but it got scrapped just last week.
The reason? It’s too racist.
Now, I understand the grievance: it’s a play by two white British guys making fun, apparently, of Japanese nobility. Had this been reversed, my director pointed out to us, and a Japanese theatre group at the time had dressed as the Queen, and done a play mocking her, there would have been a war. A little hyperbolic, but it gets the point across. So it was scrapped, period. Never again will we do it.
It seems he did the right thing, removing the “obviously” racist play from our line-up, but it really made me upset. Not because I’m some asshole who loves to debase a culture and ethnicity because I’m a bigoted white guy (obligatory cishet white dude list of labels here…), but because it destroys the whole point of the play. The play was not designed to be this horrible mockery: it was designed to be SO over the top, because it’s satire of the British attitudes of the era: the obsession with Japan was in full swing at the time, and these early weeaboos of Britain really looked at the play and went “…Wait, we sound like we’re talking about this?”
The whole point of satire is to call attention to an issue through the use of comedy, and audience realisation. If both parts aren’t there, the concept doesn’t work. You need to have the comedy be good, but then make the audience realise what they’re actually listening to. The realisation should be a shocking one, a real “oh… Shit” moment in time, when the comedy calls attention to an issue you took simply for feel good comedy not moments before. That’s what The Mikado does, and what Tropic Thunder does, and what all these other great examples of period satire are supposed to do. Simply attacking it with a modern “RACIST!” lens doesn’t help anything.
I heard a lot of bashing of The Mikado: that it was comparable to a minstrel performance in blackface, to the use of the fake Japanese in the second act like saying the n-word, over and over and over again, or, apparently, slightly less offensive, like the use of “chink” in a theatrical setting (why was saying chink okay if the n-word was the n-word? I think you should damn well say it if you say both. Be that damaging motherfucker if you gave up like that). I think most of it is bullshit. If I was to create a play based around the stereotype of white southerners in the mid to late 1870’s, and had a character switch in and out of blackface for the play, that’d be played as a satire, to demonstrate the fluid bounds of what was “black” at the time. Yet people would SCREAM racism. My grandparents recently took me to Dean College to see a wonderful production of Cabaret, and the play done before it was Crimes of The Heart. They did it with two different casts, on two nights: one was all white, one was all black. The theatre department was scared to actually perform this play because the students chose to present it like that. That’s upsetting.
Final thoughts: the world no longer can tell what is satire, and what is teal life, where everything apparently hinges on privileges, and how that word is defined. Only people with the highest degree of this privilege can actually be a horrible person, everyone else is just reacting to this oppression. It’s impossible now to be called out for being an asshole, as someone is going to hop up and say “hey, wait a second, you’re actually the oppressor here, it’s totally all your fault, you can’t claim they it’s their fault, “anyone lesser than you cannot be at fault”. Satire is no longer politically acceptable, and that’s scary.
I don’t like writing about stuff like this. It makes me feel like someone is going to attack me because of the obvious crime “writing on stupidity while WHITE”. I wish I could feel better expressing confusion, dissatisfaction, and anger without it being “too racist” for apparently everyone else.
Shhhhhh. Quiet, someone, somewhere, is offended.
What a horrifying story. I think what has been missed is that the Mikado is not making fun of the Japanese - it’s making fun of Victorian British conceptions of the Japanese. And doing an extremely fine job of it.
In the day itself, of course, Gilbert put a huge amount of effort into getting the look of it in particular as accurate as he possibly could.
There’s a story I don’t recall the specifics of, but it involved a pre-eminent Japanese official (the Premier? the crown Prince? someone like that) visiting Britain. There was a showing of the Mikado going on at the time, and all the diplomats and such made sure to keep it out of his view, so as not to give offense. When it was nearing the end of his visit, though, he brought it up himself, and demanded to go see it. The diplomats fretted but there was nothing they could do to stop him.
Whereupon he laughed himself silly and declared it the very best part of his trip.
Racism is, of course, a very real thing, and one that should be fought. But it is possible to hypercorrect, to miss the point of what’s actually going on. This is not to say there’s no racism in the Mikado. There are a couple of incredibly racist lines, which are justifiably bowdlerized in all productions (and the one in the List song is worse than the one in the Mikado’s song). But it’s not racist against the Japanese.
Anyway, that’s a crying shame. On the other hand, points to your church for doing a Gilbert & Sullivan every year! ::hugs:: to you and good luck.