I hear Tanya’s frustration and outrage very clearly, and I’ve considered her words for a while this morning.
Blackface/minstrelsy – the most popular form of entertainment one short century ago on the New York stage – was clearly constructed with one purpose in mind: to entertain white audiences by reinforcing that culture’s cherished and erroneous beliefs about the inferiority of another race.
But can we seriously begin to say the same about The Mikado?
Was anyone in the Savoyards’ weekend audiences truly dense enough to believe that what we saw and heard accurately depicted the voices, the accents, the musical system, the names, the civic government or the culture of Japan? Next question: Did anyone believe this to be the case when the work was first produced in the late 1800s?
There’s enough evidence to indicate that the clear answer to both questions is no – beginning, literally, with the original production’s first reviews in the London Times in 1885. To the contrary: It’s widely known now – and was widely known at its first production – that The Mikado was actually a not-that-thinly-veiled critique of British society and its Byzantine government. Not, in short, a sincere (or even insincere) depiction of Japanese people or history. Gilbert was clearly recognized as putting his own culture up for ridicule on the Savoy stage; not someone else’s.
I read Tanya as alleging wholesale cultural fraud in The Mikado. But for this charge to ring true, there has to be the intent to counterfeit, to pass off something that isn’t a true representation as one that is. Additionally, the audience under such circumstances largely wouldn’t realize it’s been defrauded.
Again, can this be the case here?
I can imagine a similar amount of hypothetical outrage being mustered at the Pythons for daring — daring! — to inaccurately depict women when they dress in drag. If we look at it, those charges don’t convince either.
Why? In both cases, the “impersonation” in question is clearly designed to fail – and not succeed. No one is fooled by Graham Chapman, Michael Palin or Terry Gilliam in a dress. Or, for that matter, by Jim Burnette’s ludicrous getup for Mikado. No one’s supposed to be.
In both cases, the companies fully intend to stage a wildly unsuccessful, totally inaccurate “representation” of Other. Is it, as Tanya asks, because they’re sexist or racist?
I think the answer is no, for this reason: Staging an intentionally poorly-made representation reveals — instead of conceals — just who the fool is in the inappropriate costume and hair. Since we haven't been fooled, clearly, it isn’t the "them" in the equation — the group being poorly represented. Instead, it’s "us" -- our own culture’s assumptions, expectations, foibles and representations, laid bare for examination and commentary.
Thanks to all for the thought-provoking remarks thus far.
@TheaterGoer: No, sound design is it's own category. What production would you have nominated for clear excellence in this field this year?
Apparently gspelvin's production info is so insider that it's not reflected either in the printed program or the company's webpage for the show. In both places, on the first line of the cast list, we read:
Since Aguiar's performances as Margaret and Ursula were indistinguishable one from the other, yes, it would be nice if had been deliberately planned that way.
It would be even nicer if the critics and the public knew when a company was deliberately fusing characters.
All three critics identified Aguiar with two handmaidens' characters. Which makes sense, since it's what we all were told at the time.
See you at the theater.
...except when it comes to actual productions of these works, it seems.
My knowledgeable friend dontstop would come closer to impressing us if (s)he could actually identify how often "Much Ado About Nothing" has been staged here in the past 15 years. Within, let's say, a 30-mile radius of Raleigh.
With so many productions of so obviously popular a play, I can sense they're crowding, even now, on the tip of dontstop's generous tongue.
After that, (s)he is only obliged to compare that number with the number of iterations of, say, "Twelfth Night," "Midsummer," and "Shrew."
Which, possibly, just might reinforce my original point.
What? Oh, no problem, dontstop. I'll hold
See you at the theater. ;)
Christina22 is correct. Sean Brosnahan did play a poignant Orpheus in the REP production of Metamorphoses. I regret the error.
Correcting an omission from my review of Makeda Thomas' dance work: Its title was Freshwater.
An update: This morning The New York Times has reported that Merce Cunningham had been working on new material for an upcoming performance, a site-specific "Event" created for Rockefeller Park in New York City. It will be performed this Saturday, August 1 at 6pm, and Sunday, August 2, at 2 and 6pm, as part of the River to River Festival. Admission is free.
Throughout his career, Cunningham's troupe has staged over 800 of these self-styled Events -- performances created for specific (and frequently non-theatrical) locations, combining new movement sequences with sections from the company repertoire.
"It's like a game," Cunningham said in a recent video interview. "I like to use as much of the possibilities of movement as we can."
Merce Cunningham Dance Company website:
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