Overture Center officials have canceled a free panel addressing the controversial history of “Miss Saigon” that had been scheduled for Wednesday night.
Now some of the Asian American panelists plan to gather outside Overture, 201 State St., at 7 p.m. to host a “teach in.”
They’ll talk about why the 1989 musical has drawn objections from theatergoers for years, namely for its stereotypes of “sexualized, self-sacrificing Asian women and villainous Asian men.” University of Wisconsin-Madison Asian American Studies professor Timothy Yu wrote that line in an essay he’d written to be an insert in the program. He plans to read the rest tonight, for whoever still plans to come out.
Broadway Across America books the tours in many arts centers like Overture, which presents the revival of “Miss Saigon” next Tuesday through April 7 in Overture Hall.
Ahead of that stop, several Asian American scholars, a local musical theater director and Madison community members were to host a forum to address the show’s problematic themes. They approached Overture in mid-February to request such a panel, which was to be called “Asian American Perspectives on ‘Miss Saigon’: Stereotypes, History and Community.”
In a statement, the arts center said a “misunderstanding” with members of the panel led to the decision to cancel.
“It appears that we were not all on the same page as to our goals, objectives and the purpose for tonight’s event,” the statement quoted Ed Holmes, Overture’s new senior vice president for equity and innovation. Holmes had been the center's director of diversity and inclusion since 2016.
“As of this morning, we felt that we were too far apart on the purpose of the panel. We are working on rescheduling,” Holmes is quoted in the statement. (He and Gajic have not yet responded to further requests for comment, but we will update the story if they do.)
Yu said on Wednesday that rescheduling the panel seems unlikely, and that if it was he would not be interested in participating. Given the late notice of the cancelation, a rescheduled panel might not happen before the show plays here.
“I’m very disappointed but I’m not surprised,” Yu said. “They said they wanted to have an open and courageous conversation, but even somewhat challenging questions seemed to them like protest, over the line. That does not comport with my idea of an open conversation.”
Leslie Bow, a professor of English and Asian American Studies at UW-Madison, was set to moderate, and she had developed an initial list of questions (view Madison365's link here).
Among those set to speak were Josephine Lee, a professor of English and Asian American Studies at the University of Minnesota, and Lori Kido Lopez, an Asian American Studies professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who studies Asian stereotypes in film.
“There’s no reason we have to stage these pieces over and over again when they’re problematic, especially when they don’t have that long of a history,” Lopez said. “We’ve been protesting these kinds of things since the ’70s. We thought we’d gone away from these lotus blossom stereotypes.”
Nancy Vue Tran from the local nonprofit Freedom, Inc., Four Seasons Theatre artistic director Sarah Marty and Overture CEO Sandra Gajic were also set to appear on the panel.
Yu, an Asian American Studies professor at the UW-Madison, was set to give remarks, as was Holmes.
Some 30 years ago when it debuted, “Miss Saigon” very nearly did not come to the United States. Jonathan Pryce, a white actor, had darkened his face to play the villainous engineer, a practice known as yellowface. The Actors Equity Association refused Pryce a visa, saying it could not appear to condone the casting of a white man “in the role of a Eurasian.'”
Reforms have been made since then, to limited effect. The 2017 revival of “Miss Saigon” included real Vietnamese words instead of the original gibberish in a wedding song, for example. Asian and Asian American actors have spoken out about how their work in plays like “Miss Saigon” and “The King and I” has allowed them to have a career in theater, to build a nest egg and buy a house.
But the story itself has difficult roots, in the form of the opera “Madame Butterfly” as well a Westernized view of the conflict in Vietnam. Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s adapted story of an American G.I., a young Vietnamese prostitute and the fate of their child touches on still-thorny issues. Critics in cities across the country, tasked with responding to this current tour, frequently find it objectionable.
“If the show was trying to tell the story of Vietnamese people, we did not recognize ourselves or our parents in any of the faces we were seeing on that stage,” American Theatre editor Diep Tran wrote of the new revival. “Instead, all we could see were desperate, pathetic victims — people who were completely different from the resilient, courageous, multifaceted men and women of Little Saigon.”
“The way the show represents the Vietnam War, I do think a lot about the emotional response people have,” Lopez said. “You get this sick feeling in your stomach ... if this is how I’m being represented, maybe that’s how other people see me?
“We need to have people from marginalized countries tell their own stories and have more control over them.”
Locally, the disconnect between Overture and the largely Asian American panel seems to have come with who was in charge. Joseph Ahn, a math teacher at West High School, was among those who approached Overture about a discussion, with the intention of taking the lead on a conversation with cooperation and help from Overture. But a lack of transparency and agreement about who was choosing the panelists and who had final say on questions led to a breakdown on Tuesday.
Yu called the cancelation foolish on Overture’s part, turning a lower-stakes, academic discussion into something more like a protest, which it nobody wanted in the first place. Ahn isn’t asking for a boycott.
“We didn’t even try to bring up the issue of stopping the show,” Yu said. “We were like, since you’re going to do this show anyway, let’s do something to educate people about the history. Let’s have a conversation about what we’re going to do in the future that might be different.
“If they can’t even do that, I don’t know what kind of conversation they think we’re going to have.”