Sweet & Low: The Right Down Reg’lar Ruddy Racism of Gilbert & Sullivan
I first realized that Gilbert & Sullivan were problematic before I had ever performed in my first operetta. At age 23, I had graduated over a year earlier with a Bachelor’s degree in Theatre. Unsure of how to use that professionally, I was thinking about dipping my toe into the waters of community theatre; specifically Gilbert & Sullivan. I had loved Sullivan’s bright, sparkling music and Gilbert’s acid-tongued words for years and had longed to inhabit one of their baritone roles. I noodled around online to see what offerings were available to me, and I was considering auditioning for the Savoy Opera Company of Philadelphia, which touts itself as the oldest amateur Gilbert & Sullivan society in the world. They proudly boast about even possessing a letter from W. S. Gilbert himself, thanking the society for its devotion to the operettas penned by himself and his “esteemed colleague Sir Arthur Sullivan” over the course of twenty-five-odd years. As a lover of all things G&S, I wanted very much to be a part of this group. Whereas most “normal” theatre troupes simply have auditions, at which you either get the part you’re after or you don’t, the Savoy Opera Company required something else of prospective members: an “initiation tea”, to, as I believe it was put, determine one’s suitability for the organization, and vice-versa.
I remember an uncomfortable feeling in the pit of my stomach as I pulled into the driveway of a mansion that would have felt right at home next to Gilbert’s own palatially posh Grim’s Dyke, where he spent the last two decades of his life. As I exited my homely car, parked amidst a sea of BMW’s, Lexuses, and Merecedes Benz’s, I was greeted by two middle-aged men in sport jackets cracking open a keg on the porch. Upon entering the foyer, I turned my head from side to side; alcohol was absolutely every. where. Initiation “tea” was, I guess, tongue-in-cheek, as there was no “tea” to be found anywhere.
As a non-drinker who has sometimes debilitating social anxiety, I was in my own worst nightmare, but I dutifully put on a name-tag and made uncomfortable small-talk with a few Savoy muckety-mucks, where I pulled out bits and bobs of G&S trivia and tried to ham-handedly work them into conversation in an attempt to show I was “one of them” in spite of the fact that I…