"The Mikado" in rehab

Guest director Zachary Mallory and dramaturg Kat Zhou ’17 talk about race, research and responsibility in presenting Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Mikado.

By Isa Flores-Jones ‘19

Kat Zhou, ‘17 fits a circular piece of blue plastic onto the black muzzle of a spotlight. A moment later, blue beams down onto stage. She surveys her work critically.

“How’s it looking down there?” she calls to director Zachary Mallory.

“Great from where I’m at!”       

Mallory holds a laptop in one hand, a phone in another and, if he had a third, it would hold the coffee balanced between his knees. Mallory, a graduate of the Boston Conservatory, is making his directorial debut with the Harvard-Radcliffe Gilbert & Sullivan Player’s production of The Mikado running Oct. 28-Nov. 6 at Agassiz Theater. Zhou and Mallory have worked to adapt what is considered one of the most controversial of the G&S operettas. Mikado, like most G&S operettas, presents a story of love, loss and political satire. But Mikado, unlike other G&S shows, has historically cast white performers in yellowface and has used caricature and racial slurs to depict Japanese characters. 

Zhou and Mallory are well aware of the controversy – indeed, of a scheduled protest on Oct. 28 – and have embraced the opportunity to support a series of discussions about the arts, racism and history. To that end, the G&S Players have invited students to attend an open dress rehearsal and talk back 6 p.m. Wednesday Oct. 26 at Agassiz Theatre. In alliance with the Task Force on Asian and Pacific American Studies, the G&S Players will also host a second talkback this week: Yellowface and Experience in Asian American Theater, moderated by Vivian Huang, a Harvard College Fellow jointly appointed in Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality, and Theater, Dance and Media, at 6 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 27 at Ticknor Lounge in Boylston Hall.

Mallory and Zhou, who have not used yellowface in this production, spoke with me about the research, responsibilities and uncertainties, involved in developing their production of The Mikado. An edited version of our exchanges follows.

What are your official roles?
Zhou: So my primary role in the production is as a light technician. I do all of the light design. But I took on an additional advisory role with this piece, working as a dramaturg to update the script. Emma Adler ’16, a Gilbert and Sullivan board member, and I undertook an extensive review of the script and lyrics to remove racist content. But before any of those changes were made, I tried to understand the cultural context of The Mikado.

Mallory: Right. And what you have to understand about The Mikado is that it is not a history about Japan. It’s not Japan’s history. Gilbert and Sullivan didn’t do their research.  It’s a history of the British Empire, using Japan as a kind of lens. My role as a director was really listening to the people around me. Kat has been an amazing help. As a director that, going into this, didn’t know much about this issue, I would say that taking the listening role has really changed the piece. I have never felt that it’s the director’s job to be in absolute command. The job is to let the people around you do what they do best. Whenever there was an issue, it was discussed.

How are you restaging this piece?
Zhou: As a dramaturg, I went over the script and took out the blatantly racist language. And there’s a lot of it. And really, a lot of subtle language that had to be changed.

Mallory: I was really inspired by a production of Rigoletto set in Las Vegas. It’s not actually with the Mafia, but there are a lot of shady characters. And you know, it completely works with the script, with the story of The Mikado. And there are overlaps. Because the Mafia owns all of these hotels, has all of these businesses, and the Mikado has complete control over all of his characters. So we had the Mikado as this Mafia boss, the real center of the hotel, the racialized, problematic figure, who essentially is forcing everyone else to perform.

Zhou: And, the important thing is, it is performing. We were fascinated with this idea of performativity, of people taking on identities that aren’t their own. In the original production, it was white actors performing this idea of Japanese culture, you know, and it was really important that we not remove it from this highly racialized context because that’s what The Mikado is.

What is your response to the controversy surrounding the show?
Zhou: There are people who say we shouldn’t do this piece. But in not doing this piece, it would be saying we can’t confront these issues. We think it’s important to enter into this dialogue. It’s important not to ignore the past, to examine, bring it into the present. As an undergraduate theater organization, we have a real ability to create a fresh take on The Mikado, an unusual take that other Gilbert and Sullivan organizations might not be able to give. We respect the original work and everything that makes it great, and we’re keeping all of that, the visuals, the comic timing and most of all the music. We don’t want to perform the same thing over and over again. There is real validity in feelings of nostalgia, but we have to ask what’s being compromised by that nostalgia.

Mallory: I come from an operatic background, which is also seen as a dying art. To keep things new, it’s important to take in new directions. We haven’t gotten rid of The Mikado altogether, just rehabilitated it.