So sue me, I like The Mikado. But then I’ve only seen it once, a long time ago, and it was Jonathan Miller’s famous English National Opera production, which the New York Times rather gracelessly but accurately termed “De-Japanned.” In Miller’s conception, the show’s whimsical names—Nanki-poo, Ko-Ko—were retained, but the action was set at a Jazz Age English hotel, in the style of a vintage early-sound film musical, and both the cast and the scenic design were resolutely white. I happened to see it in an L.A. Opera production, with Dudley Moore as Ko-Ko, in the Art Deco vintage-movie-palace environs of the Wiltern Theatre—in short, just about as far from Orientalism* as The Mikado can get.
Would I feel differently about Gilbert & Sullivan’s frothy, tuneful satire if I’d seen it performed “traditionally”—i.e., with white actors in wigs and kimonos and yellowish makeup? I can’t congratulate myself too soundly, as I’ve seen my share of white actors in The King and I, including in the high school versions in which both my wife and I appeared, none of which has dimmed my appreciation for the show (though I must admit that, for whatever reason, the sumptuous current Broadway revival made me question that show’s fundamentally colonialist worldview anew; it may simply be my heightened sensitivity to these issues, but I don’t feel that director Bart Sher managed to finesse and contextualize the show’s exoticism as well as he did in his expert South Pacific). And I’ve certainly seen and enjoyed several shows over the years—Kismet, The Capeman, Porgy and Bess, The Good Person of Szechwan, Aladdin, to name a few—that many would consider examples of the “bad” kind of cultural appropriation, roughly defined as the practice of white Western authors and interpreters creating or adapting material that purports to represent what are, in the West at least, minority cultures.
The white-vs.-minority point is a key distinction there, because in the debates that have raged in recent weeks about New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players’ cancelled production of The Mikado and its contested use of yellowface, there’s been a lot of both confusion, both ingenuous and dis-, about what might constitute “good” and “bad” kinds of appropriation (in the form many off-point hypotheticals like, “So they can’t do Sound of Music in Japan?”), and a lot of misunderstanding—again, some of it well-meaning, some of it outright trollish—about what activists, in this case Asian-Americans and their allies, are objecting to and would like to see done in response.
The issue has been litigated pretty thoroughly in the press, on HowlRound, in a widely read op-ed by my colleague Diep Tran, and on every Facebook page in the vicinity of anyone involved in the theatre. I’m not sure how much I really have to add. But, at the risk of white-splaining—a risk I suppose I take every time I sit down to write—I’ve got a little list:
1. Appropriation is no evil in itself. No art or culture springs from nothing, let alone a single author. All food and fashion and folkways, language and religion and music, borrow, build on, sample, reference, or reinterpret other cultural products from far and near, old and new, in an endless and evolving patchwork. In this sense, “appropriation” is little more than a synonym for inspiration or influence. And this is especially true of an intensely collaborative, intrinsically mediated art form like the theatre, in which actors put on borrowed clothes and act out other people’s scripts on sets constructed of familiar materials. There is nothing new under the sun, or the stage lights.
2. There is no pure or “authentic” culture. Like race, culture is a social construct made of preexisting materials; also like race, cultural identity is not an irreducible essence but a social, and in many important instances political, reality. All claims of authenticity are necessarily relative, contingent, and subjective, not absolute.
3. That said, injustice and imbalance matter. There’s no precise scale by which we can measure privilege and greivance. But the stew that produces races and cultures isn’t brewed up benignly and disinterestedly in a lab; it is born of conquests, wars, mass emigrations, miscegenation, industrial and social upheavals—the forces of history, in short, whose byproducts all too regularly include injustice and inequality. We are neither unique in this, nor are we an exception. It bears repeating that in our culture, and in our field, women, people of color, people with disabilities, the poor, and sexual minorities have historically been and often still are excluded and misrepresented, or selectively employed to play roles or do work created and overseen by white, male, non-disabled, cis-gendered authors and producers. This imbalance is why, for instance, white actors playing mock-Asians in The Mikado strikes us, quite rightly, as insensitive, while black and brown actors playing America’s founding fathers (and mothers) in Hamilton represents a path-breaking innovation. It is not just a truism, it’s also true that there’s no such thing as reverse racism; certainly bigotry and prejudice exist among groups at all levels, but racism is not an emotion but a system, a structure we’re all tangled in, and until white is no longer on top, there is no “reverse” gear on this vehicle.
4. Employment doesn’t always equal representation. On the surface, there seems to be a logical contradiction in protests of shows like The Mikado or Miss Saigon, or, to use another example, Othello, as the critique often seems to read as, “These shows are offensive and the roles are stereotypes—and they should only be cast with the appropriate people of color.” But these are two slightly different arguments, or different stages in a larger progression. The basic point is that whatever problems such white-authored texts may have in the area of racial stereotyping, they will be immeasurably exacerbated by blackface or yellowface; at the very least, actors of color may have the chance to humanize or complicate these roles, if only by their very presence. The key word there is “chance,” as in the opportunity to work; with the paucity of roles and material created by people of color, actors of color still face an age-old dilemma: Dignify a questionable role, or turn it down and not only lose a job, but risk it being cast and portrayed with less nuance? One solution, of course, is for there to be more work created by people of more diverse backgrounds, which slowly but surely is happening.
5. Ethnic solidarity trumps “pure” authenticity. This is a little thorny, but it must be said that in the American theatre, the convention that has evolved regarding the casting of certain non-white roles is that Asian Americans of any national origin are deemed acceptable to play an Asian of any other national origin, just as Latino Americans of any national origin can play a Latino of any other national origin (this is also true of Arab Americans, who are in turn perhaps too casually interchanged with South Asians and Persians). This is a casting convention that is especially controversial in other parts of the world, as when the American film Memoirs of a Geisha cast Chinese actresses in key lead roles. And it is all too easy to point to this as a seemingly racist double standard—what, so you’re saying that any Asian will do? The key qualifier in the previous sentences was “American”: Art created by and for contemporary Americans ultimately exists in and reflects the here and now (which is why it’s entirely reasonable, when reviving a dated work, to consider whether adjustments are in order). And in the contemporary, still majority-white U.S., ethnic minorities of color whose ancestry shares rough geographical, racial, or linguistic similarities are typically sorted together, not just in the racist they-all-look-alike-to-us sense, but in the we’re-stronger-together-than-apart sense, too.
6. This is still theatre, the land of make-believe. In an ideal world, as Diep Tran pointed out in a post a few years ago, anyone would be able to play any role in anything; there would be no limits to our theatrical imaginations. One of the stronger arguments for an exception to the principle that white people should never touch roles of color is when it’s done in an educational context. An African-American director recently told me, for instance, about the empathic and cultural value she’s seen in having students of all backgrounds work on the plays, and speak the speeches, of August Wilson. But that’s a far cry from a world in which, say, white actors should have equal opportunities to play those roles professionally, especially in markets full of qualified black actors; it’s also a step removed from arguments about who should have the chance to play roles of color in white-authored works.
We are not in that ideal world—far from it—but theatre should proudly insist on the freedom to imagine it, to gesture in its direction and mark the distance from it, while remaining alert to the fact that that creative freedom has historically flowed one way: toward white authors being able to tell any story, white actors to play any role. If we can live in a world where both Branden Jacobs-Jenkins and the Wooster Group can use blackface, provocatively and advisedly; where Lin-Manuel Miranda can matter-of-factly play Alexander Hamilton, and Caryl Churchill can just as matter-of-factly cast a white man as a black servant; where both Mary Zimmerman and Ping Chong can adapt Asian classics to Western stages alongside Shakespeare and the Greeks—this is a utopia I will fight for, not a further Balkanization of identities and interest groups, or a new set of elitist rules dictating which people can tell which stories. The road to that utopia will be paved with bold experiments, not righteous sermons—but I’m also hoping to see it crowded with fresh pilgrims, many of them previously confined to sidestreets and alleys, who by joining the theatre’s Main Street can make it truer, wider, richer.
*This line originally read “as far from slant-eyed Orientalism as The Mikado can get.”