Story for The UpTake by Kathryn G. Nelson and Sheila Regan
(Originally published 10-8-13)
St. Paul’s Ordway Center for the Performing Arts is one of four theaters co-producing a revival of “Miss Saigon” — which begins an eight-performance run tonight in downtown St. Paul — despite outcries from Twin Cities activists who say the performance is racist, colonial, romanticizes sex trafficking and re-enforces harmful Asian stereotypes.
The controversial musical, written by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil (who also created the more celebrated play “Les Miserables”), has sparked outcries ever since it first opened on Broadway in 1991, including during productions in the Twin Cities when it was presented at the Orpheum Theater in 1994 and at the Ordway in 1999.
Over the past few months, community leaders have disparaged the Ordway’s pending presentations of Miss Saigon — a play that details the strife of a Vietnamese “bar girl” who falls in love with an American G.I, eventually bearing his child and committing suicide so the child can be raised in the United States. The community leaders have taken their cause to social media and the press to deter patrons from purchasing theater tickets, which range from $26 to $103.
After a series of conversations hosted by Mu Performing Arts about the musical, a group has emerged called The Miss Saigon Lies Coalition, which is planning a protest during tonight’s opening. The Coalition is also planning to discuss these issues with Ordway funders later this month during a meeting hosted by the Wilder Foundation and Minnesota Philanthropy Partners.
Though past Twin Cities productions of Miss Saigon were met with protests from the Asian community, Patricia Mitchell, CEO and President of the Ordway, said her organization has reached out to the Southeast Asian community for this production, hosting “Cultural Conversations” events and printing educational materials in the programs for this year’s performances. Mitchell said she believes that her patrons are savvy theater consumers, stating, “They do understand the many layers and discussion points of this show and can intelligently assess their own feelings toward the production and its merits.”
However, in one recent “community conversation,” Tiffany Vang wrote in Twin Cities Daily Planet, there were few Asian community members at the Cultural Conversation event. “There are many ways to show commitment to diversity and respect, and that night, I didn’t feel any of that,” Vang wrote of the event.
Bao Phi, a Vietnamese American poet, also disagreed with Mitchell, stating that the Ordway is callously putting on the show despite community backlash. The mentality of the Ordway, Phi said, is, “We’re doing this play and ‘—- you.’ ”
Relevant or racist?
Miss Saigon has generated controversy from its beginning. When the play was first transferred from London (where it premiered in 1989) to Broadway, the Actors’ Equity union tried to stop the Caucasian actor Jonathan Pryce from reviving his role as a half-Asian character, though the union later relented. Throughout its more than 20-year history, the musical has been met with protests around the United States.
The first time Miss Saigon came to Minneapolis was 1994, when it was presented at the Orpheum in Minneapolis. A newspaper article from that year reported that 2,590 people attended the opening night performance, walking past a dozen protesters who were with the Pan Asian Voices for Equality (PAVE). Protesters stood in 11-degree cold to spread their message. Despite the high attendance, however, reviewer Mike Steele pointed to the inherent racism of the plot, calling it “trite melodrama masquerading as deep meaning.”
The touring musical came back in 1999, this time to the Ordway, and was again met with protests, receiving poor reviews (“a skin show disguised as theater,” said one critic). Despite the bad reviews, the Ordway sold many tickets.
Phi first protested against “Miss Saigon” as a teenager in 1994, when he was fresh out of high school. “I was kind of learning about the world and activism and representation,” he said. Then in 1999, he had a much more critical role, though he wasn’t a lead organizer. It was at the protest that year that Phi learned different strategies to being an activist, like never forcing people to take fliers. “There was a lot of training involved,” he said.
This time around, Phi is “the old cranky one,” he jokes. He said he’s encouraged by the younger generation who are taking a leadership role.
Anna Min, a 26-year old photographer, community volunteer and LGBTQ activist, got involved in the campaign when she was invited by the Mu Performing Arts to attend a conversation on public radio about Miss Saigon last month. “When I was at the conversation, I felt a distinct lack of empathy from the Ordway,” she said, which made her think that this needs to be a bigger conversation.
Sara Ochs, who spoke at a Macalester College panel about Miss Saigon in late September, said as a Korean-American adoptee she is deeply offended by the play’s representation of Asian women. Themes in the play include notions that all Asian women are sex-workers, Vietnamese children need to be “saved and brought to the U.S.” and that suicide is somehow a romantic act, said Ochs.
Though Ochs is a Twin Cities-based singer, actor and arts administrator, she said that her initial love of “Miss Saigon” in high school has been replaced with profound distaste for the play. “There’s so much wrong with this show,” she said.
Bringing the cause to the community
The Miss Saigon Lies Coalition includes a social media campaign that includes a Tumblr blogging site, Facebook Page, an online petition and blog commentaries from many in the community.
The online Tumblr campaign includes photos of people from the Asian community and the broader community with statements about how Miss Saigon “lies” by telling their personal story on handwritten posters. Ricardo Levins Morales, a longtime activist in the Twin Cities, also contributed to the campaign by creating a satirical image mocking the Ordway for its decision, using an image from “Gone with the Wind” and the sarcastic description: “A moving celebration of juvenile sex-trafficking, racist stereotyping and Asian female suicide.”
Min has been involved in the social networking campaign with the group. “We felt we needed to call out folks in the general public,” she said. The Facebook page reached 100 “likes” overnight, and now has more than 300.
For Phi, he hopes to have an opportunity for “truth-telling” as opposed to providing patrons with “educational” materials from the Ordway. “Education is not the route that we want to take,” he said. “The Ordway uses this idea that this is educational as a kind of shield for accountability.”
Tonight, the coalition is hosting a “Unity Rally” aiming to peacefully protest the musical. The event will take place across from the Ordway in St. Paul’s Rice Park and will include special guests Mayda Miller, City Council candidate Blong Yang, poet Katie Hae Leo, musician Kevin Koaz, poet David Mura, Phi and more. The event will begin at 6:30pm.
Through these organization initiatives, the groups are hoping to fulfill three main objectives: Receiving an apology from the Ordway; a promise that the Ordway will never bring back Miss Saigon again; and an agreement to issue refunds for ticket buyers ofended by the production.
So far, the Ordway has declined the group’s demand for an apology and has not promised to never bring the show back, but in an article written by Marianne Combs for MPR, the Ordway’s Mitchell “agreed to offer refund and said doing so would be consistent with the Ordway’s current ticket refund policy.”
“The only thing they came close to saying yes to was the refunds,” Phi said.
Though it is unclear what the response will be from patrons seeing Miss Saigon, Min said she feels her concerns about the play have never truly been addressed. “Those in power aren’t listening to those voices,” she said. “This was not a production intended for communities of color, even though it features people like us.”