When Joe Ahn saw the lineup for the Overture Center’s 2018-19 season on social media, he felt he had to speak up.
Among the touring Broadway shows coming to the Downtown performing arts center were two musicals known for their controversial depictions of Asian characters: “Miss Saigon” and “The King and I.”
Ahn voiced his dismay in a message to Overture’s social media account. Others joined him online. “We weren’t really happy,” said Ahn, who is Korean American.
Thus began a conversation with Overture Center that has prompted a panel discussion this week titled “Asian American Perspectives on ‘Miss Saigon’: Stereotypes, History and Community.” The discussion begins at 7 p.m. Wednesday and is free.
“Miss Saigon,” which comes to Overture Hall April 2-7, already has a history of controversy. The original production came from London to Broadway in 1991 starring the well-known white actor Jonathan Pryce in the key role of the mixed-race Engineer. Pryce wore makeup to give his face Asian characteristics, a practice known as yellow-facing. The outrage that followed led to interventions from the Actors’ Equity performers union, and the producer’s temporary cancellation of the show.
Protests against productions of “Miss Saigon” in 1994, 1999 and 2013 in St. Paul, Minnesota, pushed the CEO of the Ordway Performing Arts Center there to vow the show would never come back, said Josephine Lee, a professor of English and Asian American Studies at the University of Minnesota. Lee, whose books include “Performing Asian America: Race and Ethnicity on the Contemporary Stage,” will be part of Wednesday’s panel.
“There’s a long history of Asian Americans protesting against the show, criticizing its stereotypes and so on,” said Timothy Yu, associate professor of English and Asian American Studies at UW-Madison, who will make the opening remarks at the discussion along with Ed Holmes, senior vice president for equity and innovation at the Overture Center.
“Just seeing that juxtaposed with another show (‘The King and I,’ which played Overture Hall earlier this month) that arguably traffics in certain Asian stereotypes took me aback,” said Yu, who is Chinese American.
Set during the Vietnam War, “Miss Saigon” tells the story of a Vietnamese “bargirl” named Kim who falls in love with an American soldier.
“The narrative is sort of a retelling of ‘Madame Butterfly,’” Puccini’s beloved opera from 1904, Yu said. “It’s this story of an Asian woman and a white man who kind of saves her. She’s a love object in that story, objectified or sexualized in that process, and then she sacrifices herself for the white hero.”
“A lot of Asian Americans have criticized ‘Miss Saigon’ for romanticizing the Vietnam War, perpetuating very common stereotypes about Asian women, and so on,” he said.
“The King and I” and “Miss Saigon,” revivals that had successful Broadway runs, were put on the Overture season before the arrival of new CEO Sandra Gajic in September.
Broadway shows are booked in a partnership between Overture and the company Broadway Across America. It’s a complex process, which depends on which shows are planning tours, what other cities they’ll visit, plus other factors. Overture also likes to host fresh shows that haven’t made a stop in Madison before, Gajic said.
Overture’s interest in having a respectful, public discussion about “Miss Saigon” goes back to even before Gajic formally stepped into her new role, she said. When Ahn, Yu and others came forward with concerns, they gave Overture names of potential panelists.
Overture also will host the panel “American Veterans: War, Music and Memory” featuring Vietnam veteran and Madison author Doug Bradley on April 1.
“We remain committed to our community to really provide a platform where we hear diverse perspectives,” said Gajic, who noted that Overture is already lining up similar panels for its yet-unannounced 2019-20 season. “Some of these conversations might not be always comfortable.”
Views about “Miss Saigon” are certainly not universal. Jackie Nguyen — who performs in the ensemble in the largely Asian American cast coming to Madison next month — first saw the musical at the suggestion of her voice teacher when she was 17.
“I had never seen Asians on stage before,” said Nguyen, who is Vietnamese American. “I said, ‘What? I can do that?’”
What’s more, “Miss Saigon” tells a narrative that “directly relates to my family history,” said Nguyen. “My mom was 17 when the war began, which is where Kim’s story begins as well. And my mom also met an American GI. I have three half-brothers from that relationship.”
Nguyen grew up in California, and her mother’s stories of the war “are so sad, they’re almost unbelievable.” Her mother has seen “Miss Saigon” and believes it’s an important story to tell, she said.
Ahn, who grew up in Madison, said he raised concerns about “Miss Saigon” because accurate depictions of Asian American culture in the community are rare.
“When I was in high school at Madison West here, and at St. Olaf College (in Minnesota), I felt a lot of Asian men and women were underrepresented,” he said. “And when I saw (that ‘Miss Saigon’) was the kind of representation we were going to get, I thought I had to do something about that — and that’s why I stepped up for this one.”
“You are allowed to enjoy the musical,” said Ahn. “I think the main point is awareness.”
A new generation of Asian American playwrights is heading for the spotlight now, said Yu. In the Chicago area he recently saw “Vietgone,” “a Hamilton-like, quasi-musical around a group of Vietnamese people in a refugee camp,” by Qui Nguyen, based on the lives of the playwright’s parents.
“I thought, ‘Wow, I’d love to see something like this on stage in Madison,’” Yu said.
Milwaukee Repertory Theatre just finished a run of the new play “The Chinese Lady,” inspired by the true story of America’s first female Chinese immigrant, he noted. And Children’s Theater of Madison recently produced “Tibet Through the Red Box,” with a largely Asian American cast and consultation from Jampa Khedup, who is Tibetan and teaches Tibetan language and culture courses at UW-Madison.
In his discussions with Overture, Yu said, “one thing that really emerged is that I think Overture really would like to reach Asian American communities more, and I’m not sure that they know how. So I think if we can help them do that, and put on more relevant programming, that’s good for everybody.”
Wednesday’s panel and discussions like it are the kind of thing that “will inform Broadway,” said Holmes. “It will inform the playwrights, it will inform what theater looks like for the next generation. What will be on our stages for the future?”