Current Issue, Vol. 34 No. 2

Reappropriation, Reparative Creativity, and Feeling Yellow in Generic Ensemble Company’s The Mikado: Reclaimed

by kt shorb
The Journal of American Drama and Theatre
Volume 34, Number 2 (Spring 2022)
ISNN 2376-4236
©2022 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center

A disembodied voice announces, “Places for T.L.M.,” prompting the two women holding fans to usher a man between them. The three unfurl their battered fans and begin waving them in rictus as the voice says, “Standby for telecast transmission in 5…4…3…” A jaunty introduction cues the three to bob up and down with the beat, while the two other ensemble members lie across their bunks desultorily fanning themselves. They sing, “Three little maids from school are we / Pert as a school-girl well can be…”[1] They bob and giggle behind their fans. They shuffle around the small stage in single-file, bowing and cow-towing. The music ends and the disembodied voice says, “Cut.” The ensemble members rub the forced smiles off their faces, and the man who evidently subbed in for a missing woman ensemble member nods approvingly to himself (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1. Q-mates perform “Three Little Maids.” Photo by Kannou Aiana via Blue Inferno Creative.

The Mikado: Reclaimed (Reclaimed)[2] uses the 1885 W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan operetta The Mikado: Or the Town of Titipu as source material to criticize anti-Asian racism inherent in both the text and present day yellowface productions. Set in a near future ravaged by a global viral pandemic, Reclaimed depicts life in an internment camp for people of Asian descent who have been deemed “carriers” of the virus. “Q-mates (short for ‘quarantine inmates’)” are forced to perform song and dance numbers portraying “happy camp life” in the national livecast, “Virus Times Live!” Produced by the Austin-based Generic Ensemble Company (GenEnCo) in partnership with The VORTEX, Reclaimed was directed by me and devised by a mostly-Asian American ensemble.

Four years after closing this show, the so-called “Chinese Virus” of COVID–19 quarantines millions across the world, as anti-Asian violence escalates alongside protest against state-sanctioned anti-Black violence after the murder of George Floyd. In 2016, we could not have consciously anticipated COVID–19 and its accompanying scapegoating of Asian bodies as carriers of disease. Yet, unconsciously, we did. Through the creative devising process, collaborators not only divined elements of the future but also developed a community of resistive care that concatenated a COVID–19 futurity with a carceral past. To invite this community of resistive care, we enacted reappropriation through strategies of reparative creativity, seduction of stereotype, and feeling yellow.

In this practice-as-research article, I provide the background to the impetus of Reclaimed followed by a synopsis of the show. Citing literature by Asian Americanist performance scholars, I show how our creative process interwove critical race theory with aesthetic considerations, leading to a project-specific process I call “reappropriation.” Finally, I reflect on how our process provided an opportunity for racial healing amongst the collaborators.

Background and Genesis

The Mikado has been produced in yellowface nearly every year since it debuted in 1885. A satire about British aristocracy set in a perceived-exotic locale, a “Japan” where flirting is illegal, the plot of Mikado is a ridiculous farce. Few elements signal a “real” Japan, like the “Mikado,” a rarely-used moniker for the Japanese Emperor.[3] Most character and place names are derisive, nonsensical words such as “Yum-Yum,” “Nanki-poo,” and “Titipu.”

As an Asian American performing artist racially traumatized by Mikado since being exposed to it in college, I expressed my opposition to it in every place I lived over the span of two decades—garnering little notice or support. The Asian American community response to the Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan Society’s Mikado in 2014 sparked perhaps the first mainstream awareness of yellowface in this operetta as anti-Asian racism. When the production published publicity stills of white actors in yellowface, many local Asian American theatre artists expressed their long-held outrage. This led to Asian American-centered social media campaigns that spread to coverage by mainstream outlets such as the Seattle Times and NBC News. The yellowface Seattle production still opened, but many were put on notice. When New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players (NYGASP) announced Mikado in 2015 with a yellowface production image, Japanese American playwright Leah Nanako Winkler sounded the call to respond.[4] I was part of a national groundswell of Asian Americans responding to Winkler’s call on Twitter that led to a postponement and re-imagining of the show in partnership with Asian American artists. In a moment of frustration and sheer bravado, I announced on Twitter that GenEnCo could do The Mikado in a thoughtful, anti-racist way. Our task was set.

GenEnCo’s Reclaimed occurs in a larger context of multiple Asian American and Japanese treatments of Mikado. Doriz Baizley and Ken Narasaki’s 2007 The Mikado Project portrays an Asian American theatre company struggling through financial ruin by mounting a production of Mikado.[5] This play and the subsequent independent film based on it depict ambivalent Asian American actors critiquing the Orientalism of the original while embracing its musical elements and performing emotional and political acrobatics to justify the performance.[6] The Mikado Project manages to critique the racialized harm of yellowface as well as “camp plays” set during WWII Japanese American incarceration. The film starred Asian American veterans of stage and screen, including Erin Quill, who was also part of the Twitter groundswell around NYGASP in 2015. Quill has cultivated a “no-nonsense” persona leveling ongoing critiques of racism in New York theatre on her blog, fairyprincessdiaries.[7] Under the direction of Rick Shiomi in Minneapolis, Theatre Mu collaborated with Skylark Opera and set their Mikado in Edwardian England.[8] Shiomi’s 2013 production kept the broad narrative strokes as-is with significant cultural-political interventions. References to Japan were either excised or in a form of humorous wordplay; names and terms were changed to reflect early twentieth-century English mores. Perhaps most significantly, Shiomi cast Asian Americans in these English roles, thereby upending some historical baggage of yellowface. Meanwhile, The Chichibu Mikado (2006), directed by Kyoko Fujishiro and translated by Toru Sasakibara, was sung entirely in Japanese by a Japanese cast.[9] When the rural city Chichibu gained international fame as “The Town of Titipu” following the production, the residents of the city chose to believe it was based on their own town because Chichibu could also be transliterated to “Titibu,” although there is no concrete evidence that Gilbert and Sullivan had made such a connection. Re-contextualizing the plot through Japanese modern sensibilities mapped on Japanese proto-professional actor bodies speaking in Japanese, this version conveyed a means by which Japanese citizens could gain access to cosmopolitan trappings of Britain and other western contexts. These productions engaged in widely varying degrees of critique and deconstruction through adaptation.

Our Reclaimed depicts the typical “day in the life” of quarantine inmates (or, Q-mates) incarcerated during a global pandemic. We follow the story of a Q-mate repeatedly summoned by a bell to change into a Lolicon outfit to perform non-consensual sex acts off-stage (JooHee) while she falls in love with another Q-mate (Rachel, Fig. 2). We witness denied physical autonomy by glowing red “chips” embedded in Q-mates’ arms that can shock and control them. Meanwhile, a surveillance state manifests in self-silenced soundscapes. Q-mates rarely speak, and when they do, it is in whispered Korean or Tagalog. When one Q-mate (Leng) speaks about freedom in English, her chip shocks everyone and then summarily impels her off-stage where her execution is broadcast for the entire cell-block to witness via video feed. Despite the draconian context, Q-mates enact the extraordinary, joyous, and mundane. Between bouts of boredom, they sing songs for one another to pass the time (“The Criminal Cried”) or to convey warnings or woe (“As Someday It May Happen,” “Here’s a How-de-do”) while periodically singing numbers for “Virus Times Live!” (“Miya Sama,” “Three Little Maids”). JooHee and Rachel join in an ad-hoc commitment ceremony (“On a Tree by a River”), which prompts a jealous Q-mate (Annie) to betray their affair to the authorities (“Alone and Yet Alive…Hearts Do Not Break”). When JooHee is summoned to perform sexual favors again, she refuses, leading instead to Rachel’s chip-shock removal and a subsequent beating, broadcast live. Rachel is released back to the cell-block, only to die in JooHee’s arms. During JooHee’s lament (“The Sun Whose Rays,” Fig. 3), the Q-mates in the entire cell-block signal to one another a refusal to continue the oppressive status quo. When the Q-mates are prompted to deliver another livecast, they abstain from song and instead reveal Rachel’s bloodied body. The show ends with a blackout and a “shock” sound, implying that everyone dies.

Figure 2. Lovers’ kiss. Photo by Kannou Aiana via Blue Inferno Creative.

 

Figure 3. Lamentation of a lover’s death. Photo by Kannou Aiana via Blue Inferno Creative.

Reparative Creativity, Feeling Yellow, and Reappropriation

As Dorinne Kondo argues in Worldmaking, theatre artists, through performative acts, unmake and remake race.[10] Kondo calls such processes “reparative creativity,” saying they “[offer] a way to remake worlds counter to the affective violence of minoritarian life” while also imagining something else.[11] Creative projects allow us to examine pain and transform it into different—though related—new artifacts. She further describes how reparative creativity can revisit “histories of affective violence” that can address the complexities of facing that violence.[12] Through theatre, theatre artists of color create new meanings of race and its representations with and in response to audiences of color. Devising Reclaimed, then, was a process by which both historical and contemporary notions of race were made and unmade.[13] In both the rehearsal room and onstage we have the capacity to name and rectify the affective and physical violence inflicted upon our bodies and communities.

Coming together to confront yellowface as Asian Americans who have experienced its violence forms a central part of what Donatella Galella calls “feeling yellow.”[14] Galella uses Sara Ahmed’s discourse on happiness to highlight how encounters with yellowface create dichotomies where those in power find entertainment and joy, while those “feeling yellow” have to either feign joy or hide a combination of rage, disappointment, and alienation. Galella identifies two ways that feeling yellow sparks utopic hope. One is through the “impishly gleeful” process of “making another person feel awful for their enjoyment of and complicity with racist musicals… This act redistributes pain more equitably.”[15] The other is through acts of solidarity and collectivity: “By feeling together, Asian Americans can foster solidarity and use their affect to move others just as they are moved.”[16] As an imagined, strategic, and politicized community, Asian Americans must overcome historical divisions of national origin and immigration status; such opportunities for coalition are empowering if rare.

Here I note a significant paradox: Reclaimed undoes racial violence through reparative creativity while the narrative of the piece ends with all the characters dead. This collective death was chosen by the ensemble deliberately to address issues of (il)legibility of Asian Americans and anti-Asian racism in the context of Austin, Texas in 2016. The piece confronted the invisibilized racial harm enacted upon bodies of Asian descent in the form of yellowface. In laying bare the hidden, Reclaimed unmade the violence of this erasure. Depicting resistance to carceral violence narratively onstage also cultivated a culture of care in the rehearsal room. In addition, while the specific stereotypes contained in Mikado were aimed at what Josephine Lee calls a Japan of “pure invention,” the production employed a majority non-Japanese ensemble of Asian Americans who had differing stakes in “Japanese-ness” but similar stakes in generalized Orientalism.[17] Though we could not articulate it at the time, the collaborative team for Reclaimed sought a space of healing and repair that could connect ensemble members’ experience of harm with the audience.

If Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado is a prime example of appropriation, Mikado: Reclaimed is that of reappropriation. Reappropriation, broadly, is a process whereby a community whose cultural legacy has been defaced through harmful misinterpretation takes an object of that misinterpretation and transmutes it into something that furthers an identitarian strategic project. Lee takes up reappropriation in her treatments of works by David Henry Hwang and Philip Kan Gotanda where she notes the allure in the “excessiveness of the stereotype.”[18] She contends that reappropriation has the power to dissect stereotypes and its racialized histories, showing that it can have “the potential for its disruption.”[19] She goes further to illustrate that undoing the stereotype is not simple or easy, but the inherent theatrical power in the stereotype can serve as a potential tool for liberation.

For the collaborators of Reclaimed and its audiences, reappropriation was a means of taking Orientalizing and white supremacist texts and transforming them. It was not reclamation. Reappropriation requires a breaking down of a text into components that still contain discernable referents to the original but re-create meanings different from—if not counter to—the text from which it draws. Keeping a musical number but setting it with different staging, design, and arrangement can not only excavate different implications from the original, but also reveal the political and cultural subject positions of those performing the reappropriation. Indirectness is key to how reappropriation works. To simply refute each element in the original would have repeated the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta in relief, not transform it.

We began the project by watching a recording of a yellowface production of The Mikado.[20] It left the cast angry. We fluctuated between revisiting the original and sharing childhood experiences of racial formation, not being taken seriously, and failed attempts at assimilation. From the super “woke” person who knew critical race theory to the “model minority” who announced that she “never encountered racism, just ignorance,” everyone expressed a sense of otherness they have felt in their lives. In order to mitigate the potential for re-traumatization, we devised a check-in/check-out process whereby collaborators could name what they wanted to “bring in from the world” or “leave in the rehearsal room.” We were committed to examining the pain as a means of healing.

The actors’ initial anger brought on by having seen the original led to the ideas of overt resistance through visceral offense—eating Asian foods with strong smells such as durian or natto, enacting slasher fantasies on white effigies, and so on. We wanted to be, as Eve Oishi has called it, “Bad Asians.”[21] Our aversion, combined with knowledge of how Mikado is a part of popular culture, helped us narrow down the song list. While learning songs, we conducted parallel research. The “Muslim ban” had only been mentioned by one Republican candidate in passing during the 2016 primary campaign, and it frightened all of us, not just the sole Arab American member of the ensemble. It prompted us to examine images of Syrian refugees. These images felt familiar, echoing the detainment of people seeking asylum in border states. As Asian Americans confronting heightened yet casual racism in the form of yellowface, we were also keenly aware of how such representational violence could easily slip into yellow peril and detaining over 100,000 people of Japanese descent as potential enemy combatants. We realized that an internment camp was the requisite setting for our production. As the setting and tone became clearer, we began to imagine how we might find ourselves incarcerated again. Using the knowledge of a biologist in the cast, we created a detailed backstory around potential viral outbreaks that many scientists (rightly) considered inevitable.

We then returned to the original operetta to poach as many elements as we could while homing in on what we wanted to say. Each actor chose a character they would emulate in devising their own character. We began criticizing subtler aspects of Mikado, such as the sexually-exploitative relationship between Yum-Yum and Ko-Ko and the casual treatment of death. One element specific to GenEnCo we deliberately included was a normalizing (but certainly not normative) existence of queer romance, sex, and friendship. GenEnCo was founded specifically to show bodies, aesthetics, and stories onstage that I—as a queer, non-binary, mixed-race Asian American—found to be everyday and “generic.” Our mission has always been to center queer people of color in our theatrical storytelling. I take inspiration from José Esteban Muñoz’s words that “[q]ueerness is not yet here. Queerness is an ideality.”[22] And that “[b]rownness is already here. Brownness is vast, present, and vital.”[23]

We did however make one major textual revision that mobilized reappropriation to transform meanings in the original. Most productions of Mikado update the lyrics in “As Someday It May Happen” to reflect the undesirable subjects in the zeitgeist. In Reclaimed, these revisions provide plot context, diegetic rules, and analysis of how anti-Asian racism manifests and provides an example of reparative creativity:

There’s the Centers for Disease Control who sounded the alarm
The epidemiologists, I’ve got them on the list!
And the “cheap and chippy” chippers who installed these in our arms,
Nanotechnologists, they never would be missed!
Then the bigot who denounces with enthusiastic tone,
Every race but his, and all religions but his own;
And the Poo-Bah of the Quarantine, the boss man of “The Cage,”
Who takes a shine to pretty girls who are less than half his age
And the lovers of Chinoiserie, the Asian fetishists,
I don’t think they’d be missed, I’m sure they’d not be missed![24]

As we continued to create material, I asked the actors to explore mimicking white people performing yellowface. The actors were understandably disgusted at first. The disgust turned into ridicule, to rupture, then to catharsis. Through repetition of the original material, we somehow found a way to parse the past from the present, as if we were reverse engineering the racial trauma the original operetta symbolized. Rehearsing the classic earworm “Three Little Maids” was particularly informative. The song about three women “who, all unwary/ come from a ladies’ seminary” and who are “filled to the brim with girlish glee” is often performed with shuffling feet and giggles behind hands.[25] I associated this song with a falling-out with a white college friend. At first, as we rehearsed the piece, I was transported to my own past and the end of that friendship and the violent incidents around it. Due to the passing of time, I was able to manage potential emotional triggers. Partly to ground myself in the present, and partly in solidarity, I committed myself to learning all three sung parts with the actors. The repetition was at first very painful. Moving forward, however, my experience of the past began to shift. The pain became more manageable. Traumas slowly healed as the experiences of racial violence were merged with and overwritten by moments of being together as a community. We figured out a way to sing that very hurtful song while feeling yellow.

The resistive care that GenEnCo created through reappropriation served as a balm to the ensemble. In hindsight, although one of the ensemble members was a trained psychologist, I would have provided more formal and robust mental health resources to examine racial trauma. That said, Reclaimed is an example of how employing reparative creativity and feeling yellow enabled minoritized theatre makers to transform both the art and the communal experience of racial trauma.

 


kt shorb (they/them/their) is Assistant Professor of Acting and Directing at Allegheny College and the producing artistic director of the Generic Ensemble Company. Their current research focuses on anti-racist and anti-colonial rehearsal room practices and actor training. As a director, they focus on devised work by underrepresented communities and new play development as well as opera stage directing. kt is currently the Vice President for the Consortium of Asian American Theaters & Artists. They will be joining Macalester College this fall.


Deepest gratitude to Rick Shiomi who sent footage and score copies of his adaption of The Mikado. Many thanks to James McMaster, siri gurudev, Margaret Jumonville, Priya Raman, and Alexis Riley for giving me in-depth feedback on drafts of this article.


[1] Arthur Sullivan & W. S. Gilbert, The Mikado, Or, the Town of Titipu. (New York: G. Schirmer, 2002), 69.

[2] Generic Ensemble Company, “The Mikado: Reclaimed,” Vimeo, 1 May 2016, https://vimeo.com/160895296. This performance featured the following actor-devisers: JooHee Ahn, Annie Kim Hedrick, Jonathan G. Itchon, Laura Khalil, Abigail Lucas, Rachel Steed, and Leng Wong. Additional collaborators on the workshop version of the piece were: Kanoa Michél Bailey, kubby, and Saray de Jesus Rosales.

[3] Josephine Lee’s The Japan of Pure Invention provides an in-depth analysis of the myriad contexts of Mikado. Josephine D. Lee, The Japan of Pure Invention: Gilbert and Sullivan’s the Mikado (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010).

[4] Leah Nanako Winkler, “‘The Mikado’ in Yellowface Is Coming to The Skirball Center of the Performing Arts and We Should Talk About It,” Leah Nanako Winkler (blog), 15 September 2015, https://leahnanako.com/2015/09/15/the-mikado-in-yellowface-is-coming-to-the-skirball-center-of-the-performing-arts-and-we-should-talk-about-it/. See also: Victor Maog and Leah Nanako Winkler, “Leah Nanako Winkler, The Mikado, and This American Moment,” Howlround Theatre Commons (blog), 7 October 2015, https://howlround.com/leah-nanako-winkler-mikado-and-american-moment/.

[5] Doris Baizley and Ken Narasaki, The Mikado Project (New Play Exchange, 2007), accessed 2 February 2022.

[6] The Mikado Project, directed by Chil Kong, featuring Tamlyn Tomita, Allen C. Liu, Erin Quill, and Ryun Yu (New Cyberian, 2010), DVD.

[7] Quill, Erin. fairyprincessdiaries (blog), https://fairyprincessdiaries.com/.

[8] Diep Tran, “Building a Better ‘Mikado,’ Minus the Yellowface,” American Theatre, 21 June 2021, https://www.americantheatre.org/2016/04/20/building-a-better-mikado-minus-the-yellowface/; Rick Shiomi, “Director Removes Racism and Yellowface from Minneapolis Staging of ‘the Mikado,’” Star Tribune, 8 March 2019, https://www.startribune.com/director-removes-racism-and-yellowface-from-minneapolis-staging-of-the-mikado/506842272/.

[9] The Chichibu Mikado, directed by Kyoko Fujishiro, translated by Toru Sasakibara, International Gilbert & Sullivan Festival, Buxton, Derbyshire, England, 1 August 2006.

[10] Dorrine K. Kondo, Worldmaking: Race, Performance, and the Work of Creativity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018), 25.

[11] Ibid., 212.

[12] Ibid., 212.

[13] A note about tense: to differentiate between production and process, I refer to the performance in present tense and the process in past tense.

[14] Donatella Galella, “Feeling Yellow: Responding to Contemporary Yellowface in Musical Performance,” Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism 32, no. 2 (2018): 67-77, http://doi.org/10.1353/dtc.2018.0005.

[15] Ibid., 74.

[16] Ibid., 73.

[17] Lee, The Japan of Pure Invention.

[18] Josephine Lee, Performing Asian America: Race and Ethnicity on the Contemporary Stage (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1997), 91.

[19] Ibid., 96.

[20] The Mikado, DVD, directed by Brian MacDonald (Canada: Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, 1999).

[21] Eve Oishi, “Bad Asians: New Media by Queer Asian American Artists,” Countervisions: Asian American Film Criticism, eds. Darrell Hamamoto and Sandra Liu (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2000), 221-241.

[22] José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (New York: New York University Press, 2009), 1.

[23] José Esteban Muñoz, The Sense of Brown (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2020), 121-122.

[24] The Mikado: Reclaimed.

[25] Sullivan and Gilbert, 69-73.


Guest Editor: Donatella Galella
Advisory Editor: David Savran
Founding Editors: Vera Mowry Roberts and Walter Meserve

Editorial Staff:

Co-Managing Editor: Emily Furlich
Co-Managing Editor: Dahye Lee

Guest Editorial Board:

Arnab Banerji
Lucy Mae San Pablo Burns
Broderick Chow
Chris A. Eng
Esther Kim Lee
Sean Metzger
Christine Mok
Stephen Sohn

Advisory Board:

Michael Y. Bennett
Kevin Byrne
Tracey Elaine Chessum
Bill Demastes
Stuart Hecht
Jorge Huerta
Amy E. Hughes
David Krasner
Esther Kim Lee
Kim Marra
Ariel Nereson
Beth Osborne
Jordan Schildcrout
Robert Vorlicky
Maurya Wickstrom
Stacy Wolf

Table of Contents:

  • “Introduction to Asian American Dramaturgies” by Donatella Galella
  • “Behind the Scenes of Asian American Theatre and Performance,” by Donatella Galella, Dorinne Kondo, Esther Kim Lee, Josephine Lee, Sean Metzger, and Karen Shimakawa
  • “On Young Jean Lee in Young Jean Lee’s We’re Gonna Die” by Christine Mok
  • “Representation from Cambodia to America: Musical Dramaturgies in Lauren Yee’s Cambodian Rock Band” by Jennifer Goodlander
  • “The Dramaturgical Sensibility of Lauren Yee’s The Great Leap and Cambodian Rock Band” by Kristin Leahey, with excerpts from an interview with Joseph Ngo
  • “Holding up a Lens to the Consortium of Asian American Theaters and Artists: A Photo Essay” by Roger Tang
  • “Theatre in Hawaiʻi: An ‘Illumination of the Fault Lines’ of Asian American Theatre” by Jenna Gerdsen
  • “Randul Duk Kim: A Sojourn in the Embodiment of Words” by Baron Kelly
  • “Reappropriation, Reparative Creativity, and Feeling Yellow in Generic Ensemble Company’s The Mikado: Reclaimed” by kt shorb
  • “Dance Planets” by Al Evangelista
  • “Dramaturgy of Deprivation (없다): An Invitation to Re-Imagine Ways We Depict Asian American and Adopted Narratives of Trauma” by Amy Mihyang Ginther
  • Clubhouse: Stories of Empowered Uncanny Anomalies” by Bindi Kang
  • “Off-Yellow Time vs. Off-White Space: Activist Asian American Dramaturgy in Higher Education” by Daphne P. Lei
  • “Asian American Dramaturgies in the Classroom: A Reflection” by Ariel Nereson

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jadt@gc.cuny.edu

Martin E. Segal Theatre Center:

Frank Hentschker, Executive Director
Marvin Carlson, Director of Publications
Yu Chien Lu, Administrative Producer

©2022 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center
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