He’s Got a Little List

W. Kamau Bell on race, Gilbert & Sullivan in yellowface.

W. Kamau Bell points to a slide of the movie poster for the upcoming comedy Tropic Thunder and talks about how frustrating it is to have to go online just to find out why the hell Robert Downey Jr. is made up to look like a black guy. “All I want to know is, is this okay?” Bell says. “Why do I have to spend my time thinking about this?”

The short answer is no, it’s not okay. Even if Downey’s ersatz blackness is supposed to be a caricature, it makes Bell self-conscious that people in the BART station are comparing him as an actual African-American man to this caricature. On a scale of 1 to 5 — a 5 being murderous racism — Bell gives it a 4.

This is The W. Kamau Bell Curve, the stand-up comedian’s ninety-minute monologue about racism that’s enjoyed several revivals and extensions at San Francisco’s Shelton Theater. Its current two-week Oakland run at Pro Arts was originally part of a JCC East Bay performance series but became an independent production when the JCC laid off its entire cultural arts department last Friday. Whether the show will still hit the Jewish Community Center in Berkeley afterward as previously announced was still under negotiation at press time.

Bell talks about a couple leaving in the middle of a recent performance, one of them commenting on his way out that he felt white people like himself were being unfairly “blamed” in the show, and at least in the current version it’s hard to see why.

Unless you’re planning to vote against Obama — in which case, “Congratulations, you’re a racist” — the only finger-pointing here amounts to a gentle nudge in the ribs, and a ticking nudge at that. Sure, there are generalizations about how you might be engaged in a racist place or activity if white people comprise more than the national average (Starbucks, Whole Foods, Rockridge), but they’re made with such good humor that in order to take umbrage you’d really have to recognize yourself in some of the bad behavior that Bell talks about. For example, two things never to ask black people about their hair: “Can I touch it?” and “How do you wash it?”

The larger bullet points of the show are sometimes hilarious, but the heart is in Bell’s personal stories, such as about dealing with his long-term girlfriend’s white grandpa who won’t acknowledge his presence at family gatherings, or about himself going to the Richmond district in his favorite Chinese peasant jacket and realizing “I am a dick.” Considering the heavy subject matter, Bell keeps the tone light and gives the impression of being brutally honest without — well — being a dick about it.

It would be interesting to see where The Mikado would fall on Bell’s curve. It’s Gilbert & Sullivan’s most popular operetta and possibly the most popular musical comedy in the English language, and having one of Arthur Sullivan’s lushest scores and hardly any chaff among the songs help tip the scales a bit. That said, it’s also performed in yellowface and set in an orientalist fantasia of a Japan that never was.

To be fair, William S. Gilbert’s libretto really has nothing to do with Japan. Once you get past the elaborate costumes and sets and funny names, it’s just an exotic location to set his typically tangled parody of elaborate bureaucracy, which is more about England than it is about anywhere else, and for the most part nobody in it acts the least bit Japanese, stereotypically or otherwise. In 1885, it could have been worse.

It could have been worse in 1953, too, when Lamplighters Music Theatre first took a crack at the show in the Bay Area. (Mickey Rooney’s outrageously offensive Japanese character in Breakfast at Tiffany’s was nearly a decade later.) Now the company’s doing it again for the umpteenth time, and Phil Lowery’s sharp staging is the best Lamplighters show I’ve seen in years, with gorgeous costumes by Beaver Bauer and immaculate musical direction by Baker Peeples.

John Brown’s earnest demeanor and lovely tenor make for a great romantic lead as Nanki-Poo, and Chris Uzelac is an impressively nimble and consistently amusing lord high executioner Ko-Ko. Paul Murray should lay off the gratuitous karate chops but is otherwise a solid lord Pish-Tush. (I did mention the funny names.)

The rest of the roles are double-cast, and at Saturday’s matinee at the Lesher Center in Walnut Creek, Jonathan Spencer was particularly hilarious as the congenitally snobby Lord Poo-Bah, although both the Mikado (Ray Thackeray) and his scene-stealing daughter-in-law elect (Katy Daniel) were a bit limp. The songs, for the most part, are knockouts, including a thoroughly modern rewrite of the litany of executioner’s prospects “I’ve Got a Little List.” Overall, Lamplighters presents an awfully good case for granting The Mikado a stay of execution.

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