I walked into the restaurant, optimistic that after months of ignoring my letter, M Theatre was finally willing to hear the issues with Miss Saigon and work out the best possible solution. This overly ideal dream was crushed in just minutes, as the artistic director told me that they were committed to performing Miss Saigon and could not change any of the lines or lyrics under contract.
While a part of me was expecting this, I was not expecting the board of M Theatre to bring an Asian woman with them who was not a board member. This woman introduced herself to me and interjected the conversation only once when asked. Her presence, I guess, was supposed to throw me off or weaken my argument in a “Not all Asians feel this way” type of banter. This move of theirs, I believe only strengthens my argument and highlights M Theatre’s willingness to not only tokenize and exploit Asian bodies on stage, but in the very practices of the organization.
As the conversation began, the three members of the board present claimed that they had not known the level of controversy this play has been surrounded by for the last twenty years. A simple google search would have yielded thousands of results on the controversy alone. This statement is either true, showing an ignorance and complete lack of research, or false, which instead displays blatant racial insensitivity. Neither of these are positive reflections for the theatre.
In attempt to further explain to the board the problematic elements of the play, particularly the representation and stereotyping of Asian people in the plot of the play and on stage through costume, I brought up the issue of yellowface and asked how the theatre plans on avoiding it in an 87% white community. The artistic director promised me that Kim, Gigi, Thuy, and the Engineer would be portrayed by Asians and that he would try to prioritize Asian actors. He also assured me that no actors would be wearing tape to hold back their eyes or “exaggerated make-up.” He later backtracked these possible remediation steps by saying he had to be “colorblind” in casting. The conclusion of what efforts are in place to avoid yellowface: minimal.
What’s more, M Theatre showed a lack of cultural and racial understanding when the artistic director rebutted my points on cultural appropriation and yellowface. He suggested that according to my ideas on yellowface, when producing Fiddler on the Roof, he could only cast Orthodox Jews. This is false. Firstly, Judaism is an ideology and religion – something people choose, while race is not. Additionally, there is no race attached to religion, and this is an issue of racial representation. What further separates the Judaism argument from Miss Saigon is a long and painful history of yellowface in theater and with this play specifically.
While it was clear that M Theatre was not going to understand the racial stereotypes in the play, I felt compelled to highlight the hyper-sexualization of Asian women in media, which this play encourages. Instead of facing this problem, the artistic director turned the conversation toward himself and brought up the issue that gay men are also sexualized and that there are horrifying statistics about gay pornography, not just Asian pornography. I argued that this play dehumanized Asian women through treating them as sexual objects, portraying mothers as disposable, and erasing their dignity. The artistic director derailed the conversation about the portrayal of Asian women again by suggesting he could ask similar questions for plays with gay leads. “Why didn’t Jonathan Larson, the playwright of Rent, choose to create a show about successful gay people?” This is a legitimate question but was not the point of this conversation. M Theatre’s aversion of the topic shows that they are not willing to progress a conversation regarding the status of women of color.
To create something positive out of this experience, the artistic director told me that M Theatre is willing to host a community conversation after one of the shows in which viewers can stay and ask their questions of the show. The artistic director told me that he hoped I would participate, but because I am a young person, “I lack credentials” and that “people in the audience wouldn’t necessarily know if I had the correct answers.” Instead, the board asked me if I had suggestions of an educated, neutral Asian American community member who could facilitate the conversation. In regards to the first comment: My lived experience as an Asian woman is credential. In regards to the second: Neutral in this case can only mean someone complacent and not willing to rock the boat at all.
In order to make partial amends, M Theatre has chosen to donate 10% of their profit from Miss Saigon to an organization working on one of the many issues in the play. The theatre seems much more willing to the possibility of donating to an organization working on suicide prevention or the treatment of sex workers. I had to bring up that race was one of the issues covered. While the suggested organizations by M Theatre are noble causes, so many plays deal with those similar issues (Les Miserables, Rent, Bare – to name a few). This is their chance to address groups not represented in other theater productions. More than just Asian women, Miss Saigon is an insult to women and supporters of women everywhere. To honor Kim, I believe M theatre should contribute their donation to an organization dedicated to women in developing countries trying to keep their children.
When I mentioned additional steps the Ordway Theater in Saint Paul took, M Theatre was uninterested. Just this past November, the president of the Ordway publicly announced that the Ordway Theatre promises no further productions of Miss Saigon. The artistic director still believes that “something beautiful” can come out of this play and that “if one person walks away a better person for it, [he] has done his job.” And if twenty people walk away with deeper set Asian fetishes and my community, my home – where I should feel safe – is willing to condone and welcome in stereotypes of Asian people? What then?
The Ordway Theater also printed educational essays in the program to address the problematic elements of the play. The M Theatre board told me that they didn’t want to do that. They would allow a blog post including educational essays on their blog, and they would alternatively allow a place in the lobby area for people to personally interact with audience members with pamphlets, flyers, and additional materials printed. While this may look like somewhat of a compromise, this would actually benefit M Theatre more than it would the Asian American community. Allowing the theatre to look like “good neighbors” by inviting in an alternative viewpoint, this move doesn’t make M Theatre to take any responsibility or ownership in acknowledging the racism, sexism, and agism in the play. It, instead, relies on an outside group to do the work and take the heat for the controversy.
The meeting concluded with M Theatre asking me to help them bring in Asian American community members and to participate in some of their planning for the play. In order to do this, the artistic director told me that I would need to stop posting negative commentary on their Miss Saigon advertisements. In other words, M Theatre asked me to sacrifice myself and my dream for my community to support their agenda and co-opt me into silence. While I may be young, I can see that the M Theatre board did not come to this meeting to hear me and my critique of Miss Saigon. I will not support and represent a theatre that will not support or accurately represent me.