By Brad Erickson
In the overheated political atmosphere of this election season, certain words have morphed from virtues to vices. They've been transformed from compliments into epithets hurled by one side and the other. Among them are once respectable notions like "dialogue" and "compromise." Ardent partisans, true believers in a cause, often paint any discussion with the other camp as a traitorous retreat from principle. We've seen this in Congress, in City Hall, on the campaign trail. And we've seen it in our field.
We live–and make theatre–in a time when issues, long buried, have sprung vigorously to life. We've seen this especially in the arena of equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI). Patience has run out. For many, incremental change isn't good enough or quick enough. The demands of "justice now!" thrill some and catch others by surprise. Considering themselves good people, many are perplexed, hurt, insulted when they are cast as being insensitive or worse. The challengers are just as mystified that injustice is not obvious–particularly after it's been plainly identified–and can only conclude that anyone standing in the way of reform must be motivated by prejudice or at least a callous desire to hold onto their own privilege. In this atmosphere, dialogue and constructive compromise is not only difficult, it is considered capitulation.
Here in the Bay Area we have seen an inspiring exception to this trend.
Early in the spring, conversations began to circulate around a local upcoming production of The Mikado by Lamplighters Music Theatre. In the past few years the Gilbert and Sullivan favorite has become a touchstone for protest and controversy. A Seattle production in 2014 inflamed and bitterly divided the city's artistic community, drawing attention from the national press. A 2015 New York City presentation of the show was pulled after heated complaints forced the G&S society there to cancel the run. Here in the Bay Area, the issues were the same as Seattle and New York. The operetta, set in a fantastical Japan, encompasses dozens of characters, all of them Asian, most of whom, if not all, are traditionally played by Caucasian actor-singers dressed and made-up in extravagant "Oriental" style. Once considered simply an old chestnut from the Victorian era, now the show to many could only be seen as being inherently racist, rife with Orientalism, and promoting a flagrant use of yellow-face. It was, some said, irredeemable, and should be retired from the canon, never to be done again.
That was one side. Another saw the show as full of sharp humor that pilloried not one particular culture, but universal foibles. They considered the work a classic full of beautiful music, rooted in its time but with deep and lasting meaning and relevance.
With positions like these, it would be difficult to imagine real dialogue. But that is exactly what transpired. Here in the Bay Area, the critics of the piece sat down with the producers of the show and both groups laid out their perspectives. They spoke their truths. The conversations were hard but candid and respectful. I know because I was there for that first meeting in my office with Lily Tung Crystal of Ferocious Lotus, an Asian American theatre company dedicated to showcasing the diverse realities of our world, and Sarah Vardigans of Lamplighters.
What ensued was a continuing discussion, involving many more in the community, with back-and-forths that were heartfelt and passionate. The dialogue could have devolved into mere name-calling (and to be honest, feelings were sometimes hurt when particularly pointed thoughts were expressed). The larger arts community was brought into the conversation at a convening hosted by Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. There a vigorous exchange was facilitated by Marc Bamuthi Joseph and relayed across the country on HowlRound. Being in dialogue wasn't easy. For anyone. But remarkably, both sides and their allies and folks in between stayed in the game. They talked. They listened. They heard one another. And change happened.
This summer, Lamplighters Music Theatre, a company that has an international reputation and has been dedicated to presenting Gilbert and Sullivan classics for 64 years, produced a reimagined version of the classic, "The New Mikado," as they dubbed it. They set the action not in Japan but in a mythical Renaissance Italy. They utilized Asian-American dramaturgs to root out Orientalism and offensive humor. What they presented was not just a scrubbed up piece that could welcome everyone, but a new and gorgeous work of art.
After seeing the show, Mina Morita, a Ferocious Lotus company member, posted this on Facebook:
"Lily Tung Crystal, Phil Wong, and I saw Lamplighters Music Theatre's The New Mikado Saturday, and it was full of heart, grace, artistry, and made my soul sing. As Lily says, 'They did such wonderful work with the libretto, making only minor changes, staying true to the script, while opening it up to a wider, more diverse audience. It was clever and hilarious, and the music and singing were great.' Please support this important step towards inclusion while pushing for artistic innovation.... Congratulations, Leontyne Mbele-Mbong, Sarah Vardigans and Ellen Brooks and the entire cast, crew and creative team (Miriam R. Lewis for fabulous costumes)! And thank you immensely for being in conversation with us these past few months."
The courage and perseverance of Bay Area theatre makers that brought to life The New Mikado upends the current paradigm of hopeless division. Our theatre artists have shown that difficult discussions and the willingness to compromise doesn't have to result in some washed-out middle. They have demonstrated that dynamic tension and openness to change can spur a vibrant creativity powerful enough to move thousands and just possibly preserve a classic for another hundred years.
Brad Erickson is executive director of Theatre Bay Area.