Gilbert and Sullivan are Dead: On Cultural Appropriation, Whitewashing, and White Heartbreak

A lot of people don’t understand what the big deal is about performing ‘The Mikado’ in an historically accurate way (read: with white actors in Yellowface). There are two main schools of thought: The Completely Ignorant, and the Academically Ignorant. Now, no one has life lessons beamed straight into their brain – we’re all ignorant about things, at some point in our lives; some people, because of their culture or a personal preference, make it a point to stay ignorant.

For example, tying your shoes. Maybe you just stuck with Velcro all your life, and are starting to get made fun of – maybe you’re Amish or Quaker and only use buckles, because grommeting machines aren’t something you have just lying around (I just made that up). In other words, the amount of pressure to stay ignorant can vary. With that in-mind, let’s carry on.

The Completely Ignorant think ‘Appropriation’ is just a word made up to keep white people from having fun by expressing themselves how they always have before. These people see the condemnation of actions made with either malicious intent or out of learned habit, and think their heritage is being taken away from future generations. No one is injured by a word or a garment, everyone they can see is enjoying themselves – what’s the problem?

When I worked for a literary magazine, there was this really involving piece about a man who was his high school’s racist mascot 30 – 40 years ago. I wish I remembered the name of it, or if it ended up getting in. It was really well written, and it reminded me of the song, “I Sang Dixie“. The story touched on the dissonance felt by people whose worlds, whose prestige (albeit for the better) are being ripped away from them, and the legitimate (albeit less-sympathetic) heartbreak it causes.

Heroes are being rebranded as Perpetuators of Inequality and Injustice, and I believe that’s why we’re seeing so much acting out from these xenophobic ‘old white dudes’ – they’re afraid of being attacked as righteous anger is finally plain to see everywhere, instead of hidden away in private homes and certain parts of town. Now, it’s right on your Facebook feed every day, multiple times a day.

Appropriation is something people do because they have the privilege of pantomiming a culture without having to adopt those values and behaviors to survive. In other words, appropriation is the difference between Native American kids being forced to go to “white” schools and white kids running around the backyard using the hand bobbing over their mouths to make that “wah-wah-wah-wah” racist Indian sound.

Make The Mikado a Valley Girl Story, and it’s no longer appropriation, it’s an adaptation. If the story being about strict morals is SO important, then make it a 1950s conservative Catskills McCarthy-Era Blacklisting story – I digress, I’m no Dramaturge. But, seriously, WHY is doing an opera from 1885 so freaking important?

One commenter on the American Theatre Magazine Facebook post of the article ‘Keep Your Hands Off Of My Kimono, White People‘, brought up the importance of not whitewashing our history. Without relics like these being performed at least semi-regularly (and, of course, only in the hands of confirmed Gilbert and Sullivan Scholars), the Academically Ignorant insist the impact of racism towards people of color in Western Society will never resonate with white people. They can’t see it anymore, so it must not have existed in the first place, or at least not as bad as people make it out to seem.

I can’t completely disagree with this point; after all, having uncensored film of this travesty is important, for keeping the memory of our cultural trespasses alive. Until I was assigned August Wilson in theatre history, the word “Buck” meant nothing to me, in a racial context. The fact of these minstrel caricatures still being used in movies today (Hello, “White Girls”, “Big Momma’s House”…) without being recognized is definitely a legitimate fear – and that’s just one subgroup of POC.

If a clip is shown in an educational setting for the purposes of eliciting the shock and disgust of the students, in order to make them more aware, that’s good, because it is being used to expand social justice and awareness. If a Theatre Company chooses ‘The Mikado’ to fill their lineup, it’s completely insensitive and inappropriate, and no amount of hemming and hawing about production costs and ticket refunds is going to make it justifiable as a choice.

There is plenty of other material to perform in the public domain, not to mention the fact people workshop plays all the time – I just saw a children’s theatre production based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe last night, actually. If the kids can do it, you grown-ass motherfuckers can do it.

If there are white people who want to comment on historical white privilege, a good commentary on racism with an all-white cast (in my opinion) is the “1940’s Radio Hour” – it’s also a Musical, as well as a Christmas show. The casual racism in the advertising bits of the show speaks volumes about how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go.

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