Tag Archive for Negro Theatre Project

Federal Theatre Project: The Swing Mikado’s Imperial Ambition

swing mikado 1 posterThe various regional units of the FTP’s Negro Theatre Project were responsible for many notable African American-performed productions, the New York Theatre Unit’s Voodoo Macbeth, directed by the very White and very young Orson Welles, perhaps being the most prominent. On the jazz front, the FTP’s Negro Project also had its share of notable musical productions, such as 1938’s The Swing Mikado, a Pacific Island-based takeoff of the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, created by the Chicago Negro Theatre Unit, featuring an all-Black cast (but produced and directed by Whites). So hot was this tropical Mikado concept, in fact, The Swing Mikado did battle in New York for a time with the commercially produced, Black-casted Hot Mikado, the shows actually playing across the street from each other.

The battle of the Mikados is discussed in Ka-ching, but here I’d like to note Stephanie Leigh Batiste’s Darkening Mirrors: Imperial Representation in Depression-Era African American Performance, which unpacks The Swing Mikado, in a chapter titled “Prisms of Imperial Gaze,” with the zeal a team of TSA agents might bring to a suspiciously foreign suitcase. The racial implications of The Swing Mikado, in this expansive analysis, are just the tip of the hegemonic iceberg.

As the author notes, in 1938 the U.S. had been occupying the Philippines for decades; but the show’s imaginary-island conceit is hardly an innocent fairy-tale setting.

The Swing Mikado symbolically obliterates its referents through their putative nonexistence. The discourse of paternalism, constructed disorganization and infantile dependence in the colonized society, [is] sustained by an abstraction and exoticism that insisted on the othered culture as empty and in need of civilization. The vulnerability to imperialism existing in the lack of culture tautologically signifies a need for Western imperial presence. (p. 151)

The FTP may have been a hotbed of New Deal Red activism as far as much of Congress was concerned, but in this show, unlike perhaps, the issue-focused Living Newspaper productions, American empire is reified beneath a thin veneer of entertainment. According to Batiste,

The brand of exoticization demonstrated in The Swing Mikado becomes a mainstreamed, almost mundane tool for abstracting black and othered indentities . . . The process of using blackness as a template for abstraction indicates a cultural comfort and arrogance with exoticism akin to the British impulse to make The Mikado Japanese in the first place. (p. 150)

The poster seen here, from a Library of Congress collection, promotes a San Francisco production of The Swing Mikado; the show went from being a huge hit in Chicago to seeing only modest success in New York—its Hot Mikado competition also failed to take New York by storm—before embarking on a national tour.