Lodestone Theatre's first musical production revamps 1885's controversial opera, The Mikado, and celebrates Asian American theatre with dose of politics and sweet harmony.
Spring is festival season here in Los Angeles, especially for fans of Asian and Asian American cinema. But rare is the new festival that combines innovative programming with a love for contemporary world cinema.
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Lodestone Theatre’s first musical production revamps 1885's controversial opera, The Mikado, and celebrates Asian American theatre with dose of politics and sweet harmony.
For decades, Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado, has prompted one response from Asian Americans: Oh hell no. That's because the comedic opera's yellow faced, ching-chonging Britons never seemed quite funny to an Asian American audience, already struggling to gain respect in a largely white-washed world. Since The Mikado's 1885 premiere, Asian American theatre companies have refused to perform it, until now.
Lodestone theatre's latest production, The Mikado Project, opening April 14 at the GTC Burbank, features an all Asian American cast, performing the Gilbert and Sullivan opera for the first time. But in this updated version, a fictional Asian American theatre company grapples with the racism associated with the original production's ridiculous baby names and illogical portrayal of Japanese politics. (Gilbert and Sullivan's Japan is a place where beheading rules, even for the "offense" of public flirtation).
What ensues is a Mikado no G&S purist could have ever imagined. Melodic operatic ballads are traded in for hip hop and dance influenced beats, and the original village of Titipu for a modern corporate Japan where the real enemies are Abercrombie Aryans and TV casters that pretend to be colorblind.
"Gilbert and Sullivan fanatics are probably going to be having seizures in the audience because it is so not Gilbert and Sullivan in some parts," says playwright Doris Baizley, who co-wrote the script with actor turned playwright Ken Narasaki. "In this production, they take on the stereotypes and satirize them."
Ironically, The Mikado similarly began as a subversive play, freely satirizing the British government under a safety veil of Japanese exoticism. However as the years passed, future productions strayed far from its original politics and became side shows where Japanese culture emerged as an almost alien hodgepodge of everything Asian or Middle Eastern -- from hands in sleeves to magic carpets.
The Lodestone production strives to take the show back to its roots, says Mikado Project director Chil Kong. Except the man is no longer the British government, but much larger contemporary issues like racism, conventionalism, and above all, sexism.
To reverse the submissive "little school girls" of Gilbert and Sullivan's opera, The Mikado Project offers a pair of outspoken female characters, who fight back with a dash of S&M and a good dose of feminism. While the Mikado might get the last word in the original, it's the ladies that seize the reigns of power this time around.
"We're not here to placate to the masses; we're here to change people's minds," says Kong.
"If people don't know Lodestone, and they come to this production, and they get surprised then, yes!" Kong further enthuses. "If they go out, thinking, 'What the hell just happened,' honestly, same thing. Yeessss!"
Indeed revisiting the once forbidden Mikado seems to be prompting new discoveries and debate, even before opening night.
Nestled in the GTC's cushioned lobby benches, Kong and cast member Feodor Chin (Jace) muse over the racist implications of the original after a dress rehearsal. Kong cringes as he recalls his first introduction to The Mikado: watching a Gilbert and Sullivan troupe perform "ching chong songs" so offensive that he had to kick himself to stop himself from leaving.
"It's fascinating to hear about that, and to this day, they're still done like that," responds Chin, who saw a 1982 BBC production of The Mikado, just a week ago. "Something like Porgy and Bess, you would never have white people in black face and it would never ever, ever happen."
"No, because they would burn your theater down," jokes Kong. "But no, no, it's all right the Orientals won't care. But honestly, a good percentage of them don't care. It's us who feel like they have to prove themselves in America as Americans, who it does sting. Will we ever be able to stand up against a group that does white in yellow face makeup of The Mikado?"
"Probably not for years to come," Kong admits. "But we're doing our version and we're the first Asian American group to do it."
But in spite of the political debate (and yelling) that The Mikado Project inspires onstage, and potentially, off stage, there's something endearingly sweet about the show: particularly, its resonance with the everyday realities of Asian American theatre companies. In The Mikado Project, the fictional company comes face to face with threats of bad funding and impossible deadlines -- circumstances which Kong quickly admits to experiencing during his eight year run as one of the Lodestone Theatre creative directors.
In fact, on the very day of The Mikado Project's first full blown dress rehearsal, writer Baizley seems as stressed as the fictional director "Lance." An unusually short four month period to rehearse the musical and take it to stage has left her and her co-writer worrying whether or not certain elements work just days before opening night.
Midway through our interview, Baizley mysteriously rushes out, only to return with a cigarette in hand. "It's work medicine for some reason," she justifies. "Other times I find it totally repulsive."
These blurred lines between fact and fiction arise mainly because Narasaki loosely based The Mikado Project on years of experience with an Asian American Theater company in the 1980's. These stories then evolved to fit with the concerns and experiences of Lodestone's younger cast. Narasaki says wanted to create a valentine for Asian American theatre by writing this musical.
Indeed, in spite of all the drama that gets thrown around on stage by The Project's fictional cast, the second act reaches a harmonious end. The characters stop bickering, realizing that the only way to fight the money, the racism and the politics is by doing it together, as clichéd as it sounds. In fact, there is so much love wafting in the air at this point that two of Gilbert and Sullivan's original tunes are even sung verbatim. It's a moment where the writers remind us just why these struggling artists keep on going: the art itself, minus all the crap.
"You just really have to love what you do because it's so hard," admits Narasaki, who speaks from years of experience in Asian American theatre. "It's so arduous and the payoff is so meager. Everyone I know that's sort of devoted their lives to Asian American theatre, they're kind of heroes to me. They should be celebrated."
Performances for The Mikado Project runs April 14 – May 20. For more information, call the Lodestone Theatre Ensemble hotline at (323) 993-7245 or visit www.lodestonetheatre.org.
Date Posted: 4/13/2007