"Miss Saigon" — April 2-7, 2019 (copy)

A panel at Overture Center set to discuss the blockbuster musical "Miss Saigon" was organized for Wednesday and then canceled. It has now been tentatively rescheduled for three weeks after the musical runs here. 

A day after it canceled a panel with Asian American scholars discussing the upcoming tour of “Miss Saigon,” on Thursday Overture Center for the Arts issued a mea culpa.  

“We did not feel there was enough parity in communications to keep moving forward, and we are apologizing formally for that decision,” said Lex Poppens, Overture’s vice president of marketing and sales. “There was an agenda over here and an agenda over here, and the two did not feel like they were meshing.”

The 1989 musical  “Miss Saigon” has drawn objections from theatergoers for decades for its stereotypes of sexualized, self-sacrificing Asian women and villainous Asian men.

Last night, dozens of people gathered outside Overture to listen to a “teach-in” with some of the original panelists — several Asian American academics, a representative from Freedom, Inc., and the Asian American community member, Joseph Ahn, who suggested the panel in the first place.

As of Thursday afternoon, Overture had tentatively set a future panel for April 24, three weeks after “Miss Saigon” runs in Madison. But it’s unclear whether any of the original panelists will agree to appear on it.

Prof. Josephine Lee from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, University of Wisconsin-Madison Prof. Leslie Bow (originally set to moderate) and UW-Madison Prof. Timothy Yu have all told Overture that they will not participate.

“I’ve already declined,” said Yu, who posted his essay, “What’s Wrong with ‘Miss Saigon?’” on the UW’s Asian American Studies website. “The statement that Overture made, this recent apology — it shows that they still want to control the terms of the conversation. You’re saying certain questions are allowed and certain questions are out of bounds, and I get to decide what that is.

“If you’re the one who gets to determine what is protest and what’s discussion, you’re not holding an open discussion.”

Overture canceled the panel on the morning of the event in part because of disagreement on who set the terms — who got final say on the panelists, who would approve the questions, and why the conversation needed to happen in the first place.

In the course of discussions, even the name of the panel had changed, from “Asian American Perspectives on Miss Saigon: Stereotypes, History and Community” to “Perspectives on Miss Saigon: History and Community.”

Overture, in its statement, said, “While we entirely support the right to protest or critique, through art or otherwise, the purpose of this panel was to create a conversation.”

“It is an Overture panel discussion,” Poppens said. The Center wanted not only to host, but to coordinate the panel and participate in it. 

Yu had more serious concerns about the show, which contains still damaging stereotypes about hyper-sexualized Asian women and a "white savior" narrative.

“We wanted to help them do better with the communities they say they want to do better with,” Yu said. “We think ‘Miss Saigon’ should be seriously questioned. We think it should be challenged, and ultimately, maybe Overture should make different choices in the future. That’s our agenda. It’s not a secret.”

Sales for the Madison stop of “Miss Saigon,” which opens Tuesday and runs through Sunday, have not taken a major hit, Poppens said. The center has sold some 14,000 tickets, 80 percent of capacity, for next week’s run.

If it goes off, the April 24 panel would be in the same time and the same room. Yu said he and others would have been open to participating, even in a rescheduled panel, but to him and others the tone of the apology felt too much like another defense.

As for the purpose of the panel, that doesn’t seem to be resolved either. 

“Their view is, this is a great work of art that is sparking conversation,” Yu said. “My take is, is this show problematic enough that we ought to think about, ‘Should we bring this show to our community? Should we put these representations up onstage or not?’

“That’s a different conversation. It makes more sense to have that before the show happens, so people can listen and be informed.”

Food editor and arts writer Lindsay Christians has been writing for the Cap Times since 2008. She hosts the food podcast The Corner Table and runs a program for student theater critics. Member @AFJEats and @ATCA. She/ her/ hers.