A touring version of the Broadway musical “Miss Saigon” opens Tuesday at Ordway Center. It has drawn criticism, including at a recent community forum in St. Paul. We asked Patricia Mitchell of the Ordway and Twin Cities writer David Mura to explain their views of the show.
A complex story
Like many other theatrical works, the Ordway’s upcoming presentation of “Miss Saigon” has sparked both excitement and criticism. For an arts organization, this is inevitable. Just as the Ordway should be sensitive to all community perspectives, we also have a responsibility to present works which inspire reflection and conversation.
“Miss Saigon” is a significant piece of musical theater, with a 25-year history. Its longevity stems from being a tragic story imbued with many layers of meaning. It is a story of specific characters, in a specific time and place, but it also presents complex issues — real questions about life. Set at the end and in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, “Miss Saigon’s” themes are in many ways universal and remain relevant even now.
After the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and recent debate about intervention in Syria, how timely it is to have a new production of “Miss Saigon.” It shows us how war forever alters the lives of ordinary people from different cultures who are improbably set on a collision course. It reminds us how individuals uniquely view the same events.
For some, “Miss Saigon” is a story that painfully perpetuates stereotypes. For others, it is a searing condemnation of America’s involvement in Vietnam or war in general. For others, it is a tragic love story. Some would deny theatergoers the chance to experience the complexity and relevance of “Miss Saigon.” But the Ordway believes it is important for audiences to judge the story for themselves, even while acknowledging the deep pain that some people feel in response to the show.
We encourage community conversations about the issues presented in “Miss Saigon.” As we do for our other performances, we will host a pre-show “Ordway Extra” and a post-show “talkback” so that people of all opinions can openly and respectfully discuss the piece.
We at the Ordway work hard to present diverse artistic programming. Audiences appreciate our ability to present work of various perspectives, from many different cultures and artistic mediums. They also appreciate intelligent, nuanced, thought- and emotion-provoking productions. The fact that “Miss Saigon” elicits passionate conversation and debate is a testament to the timeless, and timely, power of story and art.
Patricia Mitchell is president and CEO of Ordway Center.
Trafficking in stereotypes
Picture a community with a history of environmental problems. A polluter dumps more toxins and says, “You should thank us; we’re sparking conversations about pollution.”
This is how the Ordway defends hauling in the toxic sludge of “Miss Saigon” a third time, despite protests by the Asian American community at the two prior productions.
“Miss Saigon” lies about human trafficking. It glamorizes a brothel encounter between an underage 17-year-old Vietnamese prostitute and an adult American G.I. It calls the encounter a love story. Prostitution is not a love story.
Say a 17-year-old white Minnesota girl was forced into prostitution, then claimed she’d fallen in love in one night with a john who is a soldier from Nigeria, Saudi Arabia or North Korea. Would your average Minnesotan believe this? Or would they label it for what it is — the sexual and economic exploitation of a minor?
By reducing its portrayal of Vietnamese women to a brothel, “Miss Saigon” reinforces the stereotype of Asian women as prostitutes, as symbols of submissive, ever-available sexuality. At a recent forum on “Miss Saigon,” Asian American women spoke of how such stereotypes negatively affect the way they are treated.
“Miss Saigon” treats Vietnamese men no better. In its portrayal of a pimp and a North Vietnamese colonel, “Miss Saigon” promotes the stereotype of Asian men as unlovable, venal and brutal toward women.
Such portrayals are steeped in the history of colonialism. As in “Miss Saigon,” the white male occupying forces are always morally superior to and more sexually attractive than the native colonized men.
“Miss Saigon” re-uses the “Madama Butterfly” plot that celebrates a Japanese woman’s suicide over a white lover. The first message: All Asians think and act alike. The second: Asians are obsessed with suicide and do not value life.
As an Asian American, I’ve grown up with these stereotypes. I don’t need the Ordway’s “Miss Saigon” to discuss their toxic effects. What I need is for them to stop.
Twin Cities writer David Mura is a member of the Don’t Buy Miss Saigon coalition.