There’s a scene in 42nd Street Moon’s production of Hot Mikado where Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner of the island of Titipu, looks at a letter in confusion, before uttering in frustration, “It’s in Japanese!”
“Oh,” he then pauses. “We’re Japanese,” he adds, as if just remembering.
The crowd chuckles, mostly because the cast, as director Jeffrey Polk puts it, is very “multicultural.” “The audience doesn’t even know how to respond to that because of the diversity in the crowd,” Polk says, referring to the cast.
Understanding the cultural sensitivities of Hot Mikado, which plays at Gateway Theatre through Oct. 13, requires going back in history. It starts in 1885, at London’s Savoy Theatre. Arthur Sullivan and W. S. Gilbert intended the first version, The Mikado, to be a comical opera based on a fictional Japanese island that served as a satirical symbol for British politics.
However, both the original production and subsequent ones of The Mikado ended up being quite racist, with white actors wearing yellowface (eye tape, makeup, etc.) or amalgamations of Orientalist costumes while playing Japanese caricatures. Rather recently, a 2015 production by the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players was cancelled after its use of yellowface made national news. Eventually, the controversy led to a reimagined version of The Mikado that aimed to reconcile with its racist history. Chinese-American Broadway actor Kelvin Moon Loh served as the assistant director of that version.
Another version of The Mikado — the one that 42nd Street Moon is playing — is Hot Mikado. Hot Mikado is David H. Bell and Rob Bowman’s 1986 adaptation of the 1939 Broadway musical of an extremely similar name, The Hot Mikado. Bell and Bowman were reportedly disappointed to find few traces of the original 1939 version, and thus wrote their own, with significant changes to the setting, music, and characters.
“They just pumped up the music a little bit,” Polk says. Hot Mikado draws its sound from swing, jazz, gospel, blues, and rock. “They kept the script exactly the same, except they made it with all black people.”
The 42nd Street Moon production of Hot Mikado removes the yellowface makeup of The Mikado’s past as well as much of the problematic vestiges of previous iterations’ costuming, replacing kimono-fusion garb with patterned suits and dresses reminiscent of 1940s America.
Sensitive to its potential for problematic production, Polk, while directing told his cast that “I’m in the room. If you ever feel offended by anything, let me know.”
“I had to be very cautious,” Polk says. “If I don’t think about insulting anybody, or if I am too careful about insulting anybody — that’s when I do.”
Working with problematic histories — especially one that dates back to the 19th Century — can be a difficult line to tread.
“We can’t be revisionist historians. And being an African-American, I certainly know a lot of stereotypes on stage that can be derogatory,” Michelle Ianiro, who plays Katisha, says. “But at the same time some of those lent themselves to some great performances that have become iconic.”
This version of Hot Mikado, from director Polk’s perspective, is at its heart a fun show with a diverse cast. “I just wanted to have a multicultural cast, doing a farcical … show,” he says. Hot Mikado is all about laughter in the midst of ridiculous situations.
“Things you can poke fun at, in our past, have always helped us deal with stressful situations, deal with racist situations,” Ianiro says. “There was a time when we could laugh with each other, and that’s something I appreciate.”
Hot Mikado, through Oct. 13, at the Gateway Theatre, 215 Jackson St. $31-$72; 415-255-8207 or 42ndstmoon.org