I spent all day absorbing what people said about New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players’s now cancelled performance of The Mikado at NYU’s Skirball Center. I read blog posts, groaned at comment threads, and rolled my eyes when the Artistic Director of NYGASP posted that defensive statement on the organization’s homepage. But no matter how much I parse the points of view and attempt to see the other side of the argument, all of the justifications for mostly white performers donning yellowface or some kind of Japanese drag boil down to this:
It is more important for white people to be allowed to tell poo jokes in kimonos than it is for the American theatre to acknowledge my most basic humanity.
Maybe you’re thinking: that’s not what this all says! This is about preserving an enduring work of art, heeding a company’s mission statement, and the way a repertory company functions. If that’s the case, then let me break this poo down for you:
1. If you’re telling me the only way to preserve an enduring work of art is by performing it in a way that is racist and outdated, then you’re telling me that white supremacy is so central to the work that it’s not an enduring piece of art. Enduring art can be revisited and reconceived to speak to people of a different time and in a different context than the ones in which it was created — you know, it can endure. Frankly, I don’t believe white supremacy is so central to the works of Gilbert and Sullivan or to The Mikado specifically that it’s reworking would mean nothing of value would be left in the show. It could be produced in a way that speaks to the broader audience of people that make up New York theatregoers. The most important thing to preserve in The Mikado is not the fact that it was conceived from ideas of white supremacy in a time and place of unchallenged white supremacy. The important things to preserve are catchy tunes and some poo jokes.
2. If you’re telling me that the mission statement of NYGASP only allows it to produce The Mikado in an “authentic” way that supports white supremacy, then you’re telling me that the mission of NYGASP is white supremacy. What I generally consider to be authentic to Gilbert and Sullivan operettas are the aforementioned catchy tunes, lots of witty jokes (about poo and other subjects), and a poo ton of people onstage. I watch Pirates of Penzance and think, “I love that Modern Major-General song. Also, swashbuckling is cool.” I don’t usually think, “Oh, good: this reaffirms my feelings that white people are the master race!” I have serious doubts that the true mission of NYGASP is white supremacy and that anyone wants me to leave their productions thinking it is.
3. If you’re telling me that putting up The Mikado in yellowface or using other aesthetic methods of cultural appropriation (costumes, wigs, and so on) are the only ways NYGASP can put it up due to the mechanisms inherent to running and casting from a repertory company, then you’re telling me that the mechanisms of this repertory company are white supremacist mechanisms. It’s a company of almost all white people, and…
You know, I actually don’t know where I can go with this in a funny way that broadens perspectives. If you fill an entire company with mostly white people, say you can only cast from those people, and say you can only cast non-white roles with white people, because you can only cast from those people, because you’ve filled an entire company with mostly white people, that actually IS textbook white supremacy. I mean, we know Asian people can sing, because Lea Salonga, Jose Llana, and K-pop. And we know black people can sing, because R&B, Kathleen Battle, and Gospel Choirs. And we know Latinos can sing because Enrique, Shakira, and the entire country of Cuba. Plus, you made up those rules, so you can unmake them by just deciding something like, “Hey, social justice is important to me. I’m going to use less white supremacy in my rule making.” If NYGASP nevertheless chooses to favor white people that overwhelmingly, then that is white supremacy.
See where I’m going with this? If you’re telling me the core value to protect in The Mikado is its outdated use of white supremacy in performance, by a company whose mission is to preserve the authenticity of white supremacy, that’s central mechanisms are a mostly white repertory company assembled through practices of white supremacy, then you are flat out telling me that you’re racist. That NYGASP is racist. That Gilbert and Sullivan are racist. You’re saying there’s no possible way to perform The Mikado except by being a racist.
And this clinging to white supremacy means you think I am less human than you, because I’m not white.
Frankly, I don’t believe that’s true. Contemporary theatre makers are a clever, remarkable group who could find a way to have their poo joke and eat it, too. (Gross.) Many artists have already tried. Many other artists and audiences believe those attempts to be successes.
If you don’t think they were successes, and you either don’t want to figure out non-racist ways of doing The Mikado that would be successful, OR you don’t think it’s possible to perform The Mikado without being racist but you want to do it anyway, then you’re racist. Stop pretending you’re not. You’re racist. You. Are. Racist.
And so, thankfully, I no longer have to tumble around in my head all of the reasoning that leads you to believe that white people telling poo jokes in kimonos is more important than my basic humanity. Because it’s not, and you’re dumb. You’re a dumb racist who wants to put on racist shows with racist motivations. Making sense of your logic based in fear, stubbornness, and deluded self-righteousness would require more mental gymnastics than trying to figure out why my cat used to sleep with her nose in my ear.
So unless you want to come sit at the grown up table of not dumb people whose thoughts are more interesting than those that lead a cat to sticking her nose in my ear, unless you want to sit and figure out a way to preserve the values that actually are enduring in Gilbert’s and Sullivan’s and others’ classic works …