GenEnCo's The Mikado: Reclaimed
In this newly devised work, Asian-American artists grapple with the complicated legacy of Gilbert & Sullivan's opera
Some of you have had this experience: You walk into a room, and someone is telling a story about you. And not just a story about you, but one of your stories – a story that you dine out on, a story that comes a little bit at your own expense, but you tell it because it makes people laugh. Someone else is telling it and when they tell it, it can't be self-deprecating because it didn't happen to them, so it just makes you sound dumb. They're getting the details wrong (which also makes you sound dumber than you are), and why don't they have the story straight? Because it didn't happen to them. Your friend – the storyteller – probably has no malicious intent but has made you feel weird all the same, by showing you your own frailty, showing you how little control you have over your own narrative.
Now imagine that experience on a global scale. (Or maybe you don't have to imagine it because you live it.) You have a history that you're proud of, a culture you're proud of, but it's like you're playing the world's most condescending game of Telephone with everyone else. Your language and traditions are complex, difficult to comprehend and master, and get simplified so that others may more easily consume them. You are the means by which others can better see themselves because you are the other. You are a punch line. You are a metaphor for other people's problems or desires. You are fundamentally robbed of your own story.
The first time kt shorb saw The Mikado, she was in college: "We were doing Friday night movies, and one of my friends had gotten it, and we started playing it, and I just couldn't – I had to stop it like 20 minutes in. I'm Japanese-American, and it felt so offensive to me. And my friend, at the time was like, 'But, but it's Gilbert and Sullivan, and it's fun! And these are great songs!' And she couldn't understand why it was so difficult for me to watch it."
For those who aren't dues-playing members of the local G & S Society: The Mikado was the ninth of 14 operas that librettist W.S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan created in collaboration. Written in 1885, as Britain worked to wrest control from the Burmese government and reveled in the success of the last Opium War in China 20 years earlier, this comic opera came to fruition at the height of Orientalism and empire. (A popular attraction that year is often credited with inspiring the play's setting: a replica Japanese village built in Knightsbridge, London, where visitors could gawk at Japanese men and women screen-painting, serving tea, and putting on short plays.) The Mikado became extremely popular at the time and remains one of the most-oft produced and best-loved G & S works. Its popularity, however, has been deeply troubling to many theatre makers of Asian descent. The opera features made-up Japanese laws (meant to lampoon British laws and unrelated to actual Japanese culture) and characters with nonsense "Japanese" names such as Yum-Yum and Pish-Tush. Most damning: Although there are no white characters, for 130 years the status quo has been to have the play performed by white actors in yellowface.
More than a century of appropriation and exclusion later, Austin's Generic Ensemble Company (GenEnCo) is taking Gilbert and Sullivan's text and reforming it to serve the Asian-American community. The Mikado: Reclaimed, opening this week at the Vortex, is the second of what will likely be a trilogy of new play adaptations to speak to the immediate political moment and the needs of the Austin community. (The first was last year's Robin Hood: An Elegy, which used the titular figure from British folklore to address the devastating history of state-sanctioned racism that inspired the #BlackLivesMatter movement; the third, which will likely grapple with trans rights and gender expression, is still "super embryonic" now.) The Mikado: Reclaimed allows an almost entirely Asian-American cast the chance to grapple with the opera's complicated legacy by finding what in the story is salvageable and what of the music still can be beautiful.
"A lot of [the original text] is gone," says kt shorb, with a laugh. A graduate coordinator in UT Austin's Department of Art and Art History and GenEnCo producing artistic director, shorb is directing The Mikado: Reclaimed, which was devised by the ensemble. "There's a lot of music in [The Mikado] that is beautiful and well-crafted, but it was built on a foundation of bare-faced racism." For shorb, that ugliness doesn't necessarily mean we should turn away from difficult pieces of art: "I'm fascinated by problematic texts in general because I think that people internalize problematic texts whether we like it or not."
There is, though, a weirdness to adapting a work that purports to represent you but actually denies you the chance to tell your own story. Navigating that has required a long development process marked by weeks of discussion: "First we chose songs [from The Mikado] we were really drawn to, and then as we were learning these songs, we kept talking about what it means to be Asian-American and piecing together various overlapping experiences. And we were also looking at the ridiculous plot of The Mikado – I mean, it was designed to be completely ridiculous, and it completely is. In there, I was like, 'Oh, maybe this has something to do with internment,' and people were like, 'Oh, maybe!'"
One of the challenges of any adaptation is setting: Do you retain the original locale, or place the story in a different context? GenEnCo has set The Mikado: Reclaimed in a future internment camp, echoing both the shameful legacy of Japanese internment during World War II (recently on the national conscience thanks to Allegiance, the Broadway musical based on George Takei's childhood experiences in an internment camp) and the xenophobic rhetoric currently being shouted on the campaign trail. While internment wasn't intended to be part of The Mikado: Reclaimed when work on it began, shorb eventually found the subject matter too timely to pass over: "The whole idea of a Muslim ban – people say, 'Oh, Japanese internment, that'll never happen again.' But that's still legal. No one has overturned the Supreme Court's ruling that it is okay to round up people at random, say it's for national security, and keep them incarcerated for indefinite amounts of time. It still happens with undocumented families, to a certain extent with refugees, and also with these, quote-unquote, non-enemy combatants in Guantánamo Bay. The through-line is none of these people have been proven to be criminals. They have not gone through due process, have not been tried by a jury of their peers, and yet they are being treated 100 percent the way criminals are treated in our country. Just because we think we can learn from history doesn't mean we won't repeat it."
Part of the fun in watching an adaptation comes from seeing what stays and what's changed. But The Mikado: Reclaimed is about more than simple modernization or surface-level tweaks. GenEnCo has used the old play to build a new one that tackles a huge conundrum: how to engage with a work of art that contains genuine beauty if that same work actively hurts you and your community. The company hopes to open a dialogue with the rest of Austin. "Asian-Americans – I think we often struggle with a form of racism that a lot of people find to be milder," says shorb. "But meanwhile, we have emotional lives and experiences of otherness. Every single Asian-American in this cast has many experiences of people doubting their competency in English, their knowledge about the democratic process, or their skills as artists, because of how we're racialized. That's what we're trying to grapple with: how something so fun and light-hearted can still be a part of something that I think is fundamentally evil. We're exploring that. We're – all of us, to our own extents – falling in love with all of the songs. And meanwhile, we are telling a pretty challenging story."
The Mikado: Reclaimed runs Feb. 12-27, Thu.-Sun., 8pm, at the Vortex, 2307 Manor Rd. For more information, call 512/478-5282 or visit www.vortexrep.org.