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Theatre / The Sultan of Sulu

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A rare, satirical musical play written by American playwright and humorist George Ade, with accompanying music by Nathaniel D. Mann and lyrics by Alfred G. Wathall. It debuted in Chicago in March 1902, made its way to Broadway in December of that year, and ran in a number of other cities, including Seattle and Boston, for a few decades, as late as 1931. No other performances were recorded until over seventy years later. In July 2009, the Canton Comic Opera Company (now American Musical Productions) restored and restaged it in Canton, Ohio, where it last ran in 1904, 1907 and 1922.

The play centres around, well, the Sultan of Sulu, named Ki-Ram. Sulu is an Islamic kingdom in the southern Philippines that at the turn of the 20th century found itself subjected to United States colonial rule, collateral damage from the fallout of the Spanish-American War. He, along with his eight Filipina wives, his Private Secretary Hadji, and his slaves and guards, get tangled up in the Americans' efforts to bring "democracy" and "civilisation" to the Muslim natives.

Although the Sultan Ki-Ram is a historical figure—he was based on Jamalul Kiram II, the then-reigning, Real Life Sultan of Sulu—George Ade never met him in person, and never even reached Sulu, although he did travel to the Philippines in 1900/01, and Kiram himself visited the United States several years later, in 1910. Ade based his depiction of Kiram largely on sensationalist stories from his journalist friends, not all of whom had met the Sultan personally either. The play, besides, was explicitly billed as satirical and Played for Laughs, meaning that the plot was largely fictionalised; surviving correspondence notes that the real Kiram had only one wife, and since Islam allows only up to four wives at any given point, he could not have been guilty of bigamy, let alone "octogamy", under either Sulu's Shariah law or the new American laws—not to mention that, this being a musical, Real Life people don't just burst into song, As You Know. Interestingly, the real Kiram was aware his character had been satirised in an American play, although it's unclear if he was able to attend a staging even during his time in the U.S.note  The play generally ends well for him, though. This was in line with Ade's sentiments—he never officially joined the American Anti-Imperialist League, headed by such figures as Andrew Carnegie and Mark Twainnote —but Ade also disagreed with America's forays into colonialism, and his play concludes with the U.S. occupiers relinquishing control back to the Sultan, as they were doing at the time to Cuba—on paper, anyway.

It is remarkable for being one of the very few dramatic or fictional pieces written by Americans about their colonial possessions—a scarcity made more obvious when compared to the wealth of British-authored literature about The Raj, including works by Rudyard Kipling, George Orwell, E. M. Forster, Joseph Conrad, and others.

For comparisons, see Amigo, a more recent film made in 2010, a relatively grittier piece on the Philippine-American War—the parallel colonial war being waged simultaneously in a representative town in the Hispanicised, Catholic north—with sweeping, disastrous consequences for the inhabitants. Also see its British (and now equally obscure) contemporary, Florodora, which premiered in almost exactly the same era—1899—and also takes place on a Philippine island, in particular revolving around the titular flower, and the perfume extracted from it, the business of which is a point of contention for several characters in the play.

The full text of the play can be found here.

The Sultan of Sulu features examples of:

  • Abhorrent Admirer: "Abhorrent" is a bit of a strong term, but Galula, Ki-Ram's wife the longest, and the one wife who actually married him entirely voluntarily (his seven other, younger wives were all seized from their uncle Datto (Datu) Mandi in a power struggle), is described in the script as being old and homely (read: ugly, or at least not much to look at). She however serves and sides with him faithfully to a degree his younger, newer wives never quite could.
  • The Alcoholic / Can't Hold His Liquor: Ki-Ram takes rather very enthusiastically to liquor cocktails, the name for which he consistently forgets, though he remembers that "it had a cherry in it". He wakes up with a mammoth hangover at the beginning of Act II.
  • All There in the Script: Many characters have full names listed in the cast listing, which are rarely used in the play proper.
  • America Saves the Day: Oddly enough, from itself. A last-minute cable from the U.S. Supreme Court decrees that "the Constitution follows the flag on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays only", and that America is only to keep order in Sulu, not to interfere with local laws or customs. Ki-Ram is released from his bonds and reinstated as Sultan. Americans essentially save him from themselves.
    • Reality Subtext: The Insular Cases, a list of Supreme Court decisions that began in 1901, decided precisely over the issue of how much the Constitution or other U.S. laws applied to their new colonial empire.
  • America Takes Over the World: Sulu, in this specific case; this is the first decade of full-blown, overseas American imperialism. The occupiers themselves, of course, disguise it, or else genuinely view it, as a benevolent mission to shape Ki-Ram's (former) subjects to become more like them, but whether it's outright hypocrisy or wilful blindness, Ade lampoons the colonisers' intent for all it's worth.
  • Arc Words: "I have insured his life for fifty thousand pesos."
  • Author Tract: Ade was an ardent anti-imperialist, and despite Sulu still having practices like slaverynote  and Islam-based polygamy, Ade ends his play with the U.S. colonialists deciding to relinquish control of Sulu, and give sovereignty back to the Sultan.
  • Big Eater: "The Queer Little Ostrich".
  • Butt-Monkey: Hadji, Ki-Ram's Private Secretary, who is often ordered around and told by his boss that he's not permitted to think. He's even sent out to encourage Datto Mandi to retake his nieces (Ki-Ram's wives) when the Sultan is being pressured to divorce all but one of them, but fails, being captured by American forces.
  • Dark Reprise: "Since I First Met You" has one.
  • Dramatis Personae: Naturally, as a play, the characters are listed at the beginning of the script.
  • Evil Colonialist: As this is a musical comedy they're not portrayed as terribly evil or abusive, but the Americans still level rifles at Ki-Ram during their invasion of Sulu despite claiming "benevolent assimilation". They also impose American laws on him unilaterally, divorce him from his wives, arrest and finally imprison him and Hadji, his Private Secretary, in so doing temporarily forcing him out of power (though they're later released).
  • Expanded States of America: What the Americans hope or expect to do with Sulu, though outright annexation isn't mentioned. The same expectations held for the rest of the archipelago, i.e., the Catholic Philippines as a whole.
  • Face Death with Dignity: "The Smiling Isle". Ki-Ram thinks "assimilation" will kill him, and he comes out prepared to die … until Col. Budd reassures him that he isn't expected to.
  • Funetik Aksent: Restricted to one word in particular; the pronunciation of "Arkansas" is exaggerated, and written in the script, as "Arkansaw".
  • Gorgeous Period Dress: By the 2009 performance the costumes certainly count as this, even if they're no more accurate to historical Sulu and other Philippine native dress styles than the costumes in the original early-1900s stage run that American Musical Productions did their best to faithfully replicate.
  • Handsome Lech / Casanova Wannabe: Ki-Ram attempts to flirt with practically all the American women arrivals. His invites to Judge Advocate Pamela Jackson to join his Royal Harem is what prompts her to retaliate by forcibly divorcing him from all but one of his eight wives, and stipulating onerous alimony payments under threat of imprisonment.
  • Have a Gay Old Time: Some references to lovemaking, which in this era would've meant simple flirting. Also, of course, "gay" as in "happy". The Gay '90s had just ended, after all.
  • Historical Domain Character: The Sultan himself. In Real Life, Hadji Mohammed Jamalul Kiram II ruled Sulu from 1894 to his death in 1936, but properly signed over much of his ruling powers to the Americans in the Carpenter Agreement of 1915, making him Sulu's last sovereign ruler. Sulu was subordinated to the (majority-Catholic) Filipino government in Manila after the Americans formally granted "independence" in 1946.
    • The Private Secretary's full name is Hadji Tantong, but he may be based on the real Sultan Kiram's principal advisor, Hadji Butu (1865–1937), who was later appointed to the Philippine Senate.note  The real Hadji was considered far more competent and intelligent, however, and though he bent the knee to the American colonialists out of pragmatism, he also vigorously campaigned for Philippine/Moro independence, and was distinguished in politically resisting the Spanish colonisers previously.
    • There was also a real-life Datto (or Datu) Mandi; "Datu" is his title, meaning roughly Chief.
  • Hollywood Costuming:
    • The Sultan's default costume—which one reviewer compared to a clown outfit, and which evokes some weird Oriental mishmash, part-Japanese, part-Chinese, part-Arabic, but all-comical—looks nothing like the real Kiram's ceremonial attire. In his later years, the real Kiram took comfortably to wearing Western suits—in fact, even while the play was being written, he had already been photographednote  wearing a Western suit jacket. Possibly deliberately invoked due to Rule of Funny.
    • Ki-Ram's Filipina wives wear costumes with little resemblance either to Moro women's attire or to Hispanic-derived Filipiniana dresses.
    • Possibly averted with the American characters, with whose attire Ade would obviously be more familiar. The officers are depicted (in both the 1902 and 2009 productions) in white, long-sleeved summer uniforms recognisable to audiences as reasonably accurate for their time. Meanwhile, the American women's Gibson Girl / Progressive Era ruffled dresses and big hats do not seem jarringly anachronistic, at least.
    • The page image might actually be more accurate than the play in that regard; it was drawn by a Filipino cartoonist named Rodolfo Ragodon.
  • Hypocritical Humor: Col. Budd tells Ki-Ram that the Americans come in peace, to teach democracy to the people of Sulu; after all, in the grand American tradition, "all government derives its just powers from the consent of the governed" … And then his men train their rifles on Ki-Ram.
    Budd: Now the question is, do you consent to this benevolent plan?
    Ki-Ram: Are all the guns loaded?
    Budd: They are.
    Ki-Ram: (Beat) I consent.
  • Ice Queen: Pamela Jackson, Judge Advocate, for the most part.
  • Insane Troll Logic: Pamela decrees that by (American—and colonial) law, upon divorcing Ki-Ram, each of his ex-wives is entitled to half his income in alimony. Obviously that can only apply in a monogamous, i.e. American/Western-style, marriage—but as Ki-Ram has eight wives and Pamela is demanding he pay alimony to them all simultaneously, this comes down to him owing them the impossible sum of four times his current income, whatever amount it may be, and on pain of imprisonment too. No way to win on this one—until Hadji suggests letting Datto Mandi rescue the wives (who are his nieces, at least most are), in the hope this will invalidate alimony requirements.
  • Insistent Terminology: Ki-Ram refers to the bar (as in a liquor bar) as a "life-saving station".
  • Institutional Apparel: Ki-Ram (as Convict #47) and Hadji (#48) wear these upon their imprisonment. The script adds the delightful note that their prison stripes be cut like Western formalwear.
  • Inter-Service Rivalry: Some of this manifests between the U.S. Army Regulars (represented by Lt. Hardy), on the one hand, and the Volunteers (characterised by Col. Budd), on the other.
  • Intrepid Merchant: Insurance salesman Wakeful M. Jones, who risks the death penalty by entering Ki-Ram's private chambers unannounced … and successfully insuring his life for 50,000 pesos.
    Lt Hardy: (to Ki-Ram's wives) Don't worry about Mr Jones. He's from Chicago.
  • Is It Something You Eat?:
    Ki-Ram: Did you ever hear of the Datto Mandi of Parang?
    Budd: What is it—some new kind of breakfast food?
    Ki-Ram: Certainly not. The Datto Mandi is a warlike gentleman who holds forth on the other side of the island.
  • Lighter and Softer: Compared to the Real Life American colonial occupation of Sulu, of course, though this is partly because the worst atrocities of the colonial U.S.-Moro War were yet to happen, most notably in 1906.
  • Mighty Whitey and Mellow Yellow: Long before America's 20th-century Asia-Pacific wars popularised the concept of American soldiers taking on East & Southeast Asian (and Pacific Islander) women, Col. Budd and Chiquita eventually take to one another after the latter is divorced from Ki-Ram.
  • Melting-Pot Nomenclature (verging on Aerith and Bob): It's the Philippines, so of course there's a melange of names of all sorts of origins. There are names of South/Southeast Asian origin (e.g. Ki-Ram himself, Hadji); Hispanic names (as with Ki-Ram's wives: Chiquita, Ramona, Natividad, Selina, etc.—suggesting they came from the Catholic north)note ; the Nubians' names (Didymos, Rastos); and Anglo-American names (Jefferson & Henrietta Budd, Pamela Jackson, Wakeful M. Jones, etc.). There are even names that appear to be a play on words (Dingbat, for example).
  • Missing Mom: Henrietta Budd's late mother, which is why her father, Col. Budd, is looking to remarry.
  • Oh Wait, This Is My Grocery List: Judge Advocate Pamela Jackson has Hadji read out to Ki-Ram the penalty for failing alimony payments in an Arkansas law book. Hadji accidentally starts reading out Pamela's recipes (which she had been filing in there).
  • Punny Name: Dingbat. He's a native guard, so presumably it was supposed to sound Malayan or Mindanaoan as a joke.
  • Real-Person Fic: Of the real-life Sultan of Sulu (see Historical Domain Character) and a few other Sulu royalty around him.
  • Royal Harem: Ki-Ram currently has eight wives—Chiquita, Galula, Mauricia, Ramona, Pepita, Natividad, Natalia, and Selina—and it's his concurrent marriage to all of them that comes under threat of penalty when the American colonialists take over, imposing the new law that a man can only have one spouse at a given time. There's no mention of sex, though, given society's Victorian (or rather Progressive) attitudes at the time.
    • He also speaks of having married or gotten involved with a total of some 61 wives previously.
  • Rule of Funny: As a satire, The Sultan of Sulu takes considerable liberties with historical events and characterisation, and explicitly notes that it only intends to speculate on the results of the American invasion of Sulu, not to provide a factual retelling. One probable reason for the use of Hollywood Costuming.
    • It might help to see the play as more like a forerunner to modern-day comedy shows like Saturday Night Live that also have a penchant for lampooning Real Life personalities. Or indeed as an early form of modern Real-Person Fic.
  • Shown Their Work: Besides the somewhat intentional Hollywood Costuming and parodying of actual characters and events, Ade at least keeps up with events in the Philippines, and in particular Mindanao, enough to know the real Kiram's full name and to know that the Americans are attempting to impose "benevolent assimilation" there. Then again, to knowingly satirise real developments takes a certain knowledge of them.
  • Those Two Guys: Didymos and Rastos, Ki-Ram's Nubian slaves, whom the American occupiers convert into paid workers, heads of a "waiter's union", and who end up running for Governor after Ki-Ram's imprisonment (at least until Ki-Ram is freed).
  • Triumphant Reprise: "Finale" to "The Smiling Isle", sung when Ki-Ram is freed from prison and restored to the throne.
  • Two-Act Structure: Act 2 is slightly more serious than the first, considering this is where Ki-Ram's fortunes begin to turn against him with the Americans progressively taking away his wives, powers and privileges (to the point of throwing him into prison at one point), though he gets better in the end.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: As indicated in the foreword: "The Sultan of Sulu is not an attempt to show what subsequently happened" after the Americans landed at Sulu—"but merely what might have happened". Plus, it's Played for Laughs. It's not meant to be terribly realistic.
    • For one, in reality, at least when The Sultan of Sulu came out, Kiram only had one wife. He did also have 13 concubines, which the American public may have confused for other, actual wives.
    • Islamic law (per the Qur'an) does allow for multiple wives—but only up to four, and with the precaution that the husband must be able to care for them all. By such law alone Kiram could not legally have eight wives anyway, let alone propose to more.
  • Welcoming Song: "Welcome, Americanos", sung by all the Tausug ("people of Sulu"—actually, literally meaning "People of the Current").
  • White Man's Burden: Naturally, the Americans are masters of this trope, since the Trope Namer poem by Rudyard Kipling was dedicated to their colonial sojourns into the Philippines, including Sulu. In the play they go so far as to provide schoolteachers from Boston to educate the "uncivilised" natives. Truth in Television.
  • Widow's Weeds: The presumptive, male version in Ki-Ram himself, who dons black when the insurance salesman Jones convinces him he's about to die—in as little as fifteen minutes—as a possible consequence of "assimilation".
  • Windbag Politician: Politicians get a lot of drumming in this play, though no American ones are depicted. Ki-Ram is essentially told he might "devolve" into one of these upon becoming Governor and adopting American ways.
  • Yellowface/Brownface: As a purely American production, white actors play everyone. Surviving stills from the 1903 print edition show various white actors playing Ki-Ram and his native wives, as well as (obviously) the Americans. Video footage and stills of the 2009 Canton production also show what appears to be an all-white cast, or at least one where no one is very obviously a person of colour.
    • This was, however, done with a certain ironic twist, to mock American Progressivist attitudes and its Holier Than Thou stance on imperialism in the Philippines, and arguably was not quite as insensitive as other productions of the day. Frank Moulan, Ki-Ram's first actor, did not put on much racialising makeup, except for fake, "Malay"-style eyebrows. The white actresses who played Ki-Ram's native wives did not seem to brown their faces either; it could be argued that this "yellowface theatre" resembled more an early form of Colorblind Casting where only white actors were available (the 2009 production, staged in the small Midwestern town of Canton, OH, may have had the same issue). Compare the then-contemporary stagings of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado, which inspired Ade, and where yellowface was also ironically employed to satirise what, in modern terms, could only be called a "weeaboo phase" in Victorian London.
  • Your Normal Is Our Taboo: Polygamy is perfectly acceptable in (the play's version of) Sulu, what with Ki-Ram's eight wives, which doesn't even stop him from attempting to propose to practically every American woman present. It's starkly contrasted with American monogamy, and gets Ki-Ram in trouble with the new, colonial dispensation. Judge Advocate Pamela Jackson spends the play trying to convict him of bigamy—or, rather, octogamy. She succeeds, but he gets better.
  • Zany Scheme: From prison, Ki-Ram plots with Hadji to marry off his ex-wives to the American marines in order to weasel out of alimony payments. They attempt to form a matrimonial agency for this purpose.