Sayonara, Mikado!

Gilbert and Sullivan's most beloved, and until recently, most frequently produced comic operas (it introduced the word "pooh-bah" to the English language) has been beheaded as swiftly as if Lord High Executioner Ko-Ko himself were wielding the sword:

The New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players have canceled its winter production of "The Mikado," a Gilbert and Sullivan opera set in feudal Japan. The show, which faced backlash from the Asian-American theater community and bloggers over accusations of "yellowface," was set to open in December at New York University's Skirball Center for the Performing Arts.

"NYGASP never intended to give offense and the company regrets the missed opportunity to responsively adapt this December," executive director David Wannen wrote on Facebook. The show will be replaced by six performances of "The Pirates of Penzance."…

"The Mikado" was set to be performed by primarily Caucasian actors; most of the characters, who are generally Japanese courtiers and their servants, were to be dressed in costumes and wearing make up evocative of Japanese culture.

Blogger Leah Nanako Winkler, who received a flyer promoting "The Mikado" earlier this month, had called the production "an embarrassment" in a recent blog post, and asked readers to join her in contacting the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players to voice discontent.

"Are we going to settle and accept that having two Asian actors in this production of 'The Mikado,' isn't quite as egregious as none whatsoever and allow the yellowface set in the "fictional" land of Japan to be depicted in our expensive, wonderful city that we work hard to exist and be heard in every single day?" Winkler wrote.

The abrupt cancellation followed a similar controversy over a Mikado production by the Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan Players in 2014:

But in 21st-century Seattle, where Asian Americans are the second largest racial group (14%) and people of color make up 34% of the population, the show's producers are now under fire for selecting a play that critics say relies heavily on ethnic caricatures, and then casting all 40 Asian roles with White actors, with the exception of two Latino actors.

"It’s yellowface, in your face," wrote Seattle Times' Sharon Pian Chan, referring to the practice of Caucasian actors dressing in stereotypical Asian costumes and makeup with overwrought mannerisms.

“The caricature of Japanese people as strange and barbarous was used to justify the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II…'The Mikado' opens old wounds and resurrects pejorative stereotypes."

Of course, the whole point of The Mikado is casting Caucasian actors to play Japanese characters. That's because The Mikado isn't really about Japan at all. Like other Gilbert and Sullivan works, it's an elaborate satire of British institutions and British stuffy mores, with a sentimental love story thrown in. Putting portly, pompous Brits into kimonos and clogs is part of the comic fun–analogous to John Belush's hilarious samurai warrior on Saturday Night Live (of course, that character would probably be banned as well in today's ultra-politically correct culture). Gilbert and Sullivan were taking advantage of a passion for all things japonais that infected Westerners during the late 19th century.

Furthermore, the setting of The Mikado is feudal Japan. (In the opera's mythical town of Titipu, flirting is a capital offense.) Complaining that the opera perpetuates ugly ethnic stereotypes of contemporary Japanese-Americans is like complaining that a toga party perpetuates ugly ethnic stereotypes of Italian-Americans.

And playing the victimology card seems a stretch for Japanese-Americans, whose median household income is $78,500, compared with $53,046 for Americans as a whole. Hardly indicative of a "strugge to exist."

But I predict that the New York debacle is the last we'll see of planned Mikado productions. The Boston Museum of Fine Arts this past July staged a promotion of its Monet painting "La Japonaise," depicting the painter's blonde wife wearing a kimono, by inviting its visitors to pose for photos wearing a replica of that kimono–but felt obliged to halt the promotion in the wake of complaints about "cultural imperialism," "exotification of Asian individuals," and so forth.

We can't allow Caucasians to wear kimonos anymore.