Ordway's 'Miss Saigon' angers Asian-American artists

Miss Saigon
Miss Saigon
Photo Courtesy of the Ordway

When she first saw it as a teen, Sara Ochs loved "Miss Saigon." Twenty years later, the musical disgusts her.

A Korean adoptee, Ochs recalled the thrill of seeing a stage filled with Asian actors. But over the years the thrill gave way to a rough reality: "Miss Saigon" portrays Asian women largely as helpless, submissive and oversexed.

Ochs won't be in the audience this fall when Miss Saigon plays at St. Paul's Ordway Center for the Performing Arts. Instead, she and other Asian American artists will protest the production. They say the award winning musical - the 12th longest running show in Broadway history - perpetuates damning stereotypes, and glosses over the realities of human trafficking in order to pull at heart strings and sell tickets. Others, including some who will act the roles at the Ordway, see "Miss Saigon" as an accurate if painful look at lives broken by the Vietnam War.

Written by the creative team behind "Les Miserables" and inspired by the opera "Madame Butterfly," "Miss Saigon" features a love story between an American G.I. and a Vietnamese girl at the end of the war.

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Its big opening number takes place in a club called Dreamland, where American G.I.s come for the girls, which they call "slits." One G.I. buys a girl for his buddy. Her name is Kim, and she just happens to be new to the business - an orphan of the war. That night she and the G.I. sleep together, and fall in love. They plan to marry, but he's evacuated, leaving her behind, pregnant.

Three years later, desperate to help her child find a better life, she commits suicide so her boy can join his American father -- and his father's new American wife.

"I just felt so connected to the story and really moved by it," Ochs said recently as she sat in a St. Paul cafe a few floors below the offices for Mu Performing Arts, the Twin Cities Asian American theater company where she works. Her feelings changed with age. "It's just in poor taste," she said.

"The Asian woman as a prostitute, the over sexualization of the Asian woman ... I can't tell you how many times I have been harassed by people on the street because I am Asian, so they think I'll be submissive and I won't talk back to them, or they think that I'll be sexy, and it's just like - oh gross!"

The Ordway is one of four theater companies co-producing this fall's revival, which will star Manna Nichols in the lead role of Kim.

Nichols views the production as a sort of Romeo and Juliet tale in an 'East-meets-West' setting. But she says the show is based in fact.

"For me, it's not about the evils of race or the evils of beating down women. It's just about the history of that time," she said.

The daughter of a Chinese American, this will be Nichols' third time playing Kim. She says it's the first time she will encounter protests. "We have so much war documentation that supports a lot of our show," she added. "It's actually incredibly historically accurate compared to most musicals."

Sun Mee Chomet sees more mythology than history in "Miss Saigon."

Chomet's experience as a Korean adoptee is the inspiration for her show "How to be a Korean Woman" which she's performing at the Guthrie Theater this fall. Minnesota is home to more than 30,000 Asian adoptees, many of them Korean.

"There's a mythology of marketing that is given to adoptive parents, at least for my generation, that somehow the parents were poor, were incapable, the possibility that they were prostitutes, that we were left on doorsteps, that we were unwanted."

The message conveyed in "Miss Saigon" -- that Americans can save the poor children of the world and offer them a better life -- is not necessarily true, she added.

At the end of the Vietnam War, when the fall of South Vietnam was imminent, President Gerald Ford ordered the evacuation of approximately three thousand orphans, who were then distributed to families in the United States and Europe.

While organized as a humanitarian effort, Operation Babylift came under political fire, in part because aid workers failed to properly document the children. Some, it turned out, weren't orphans at all.

Chomet says that's an important fact that's not dealt with in the musical.

"Miss Saigon" was written twenty four years ago, but it remains one of the only Broadway shows starring an Asian character.

As such, Chomet says it's influenced an entire generation's thinking about how Asian women behave. "I would be so happy to never ever see Miss Saigon produced again."

Patricia Mitchell, President and CEO of the Ordway, disagrees. She says when it comes to popular drama, themes of trafficking and self-sacrifice abound.

"Women are sacrificing themselves up one side and down the other. And if you eliminated that story line from theater and opera, you'd eliminate a lot of the literature," she said.

While she understands some are upset by "Miss Saigon," Mitchell says it's a compelling piece of theater that has become a classic, and many people are eager to see it.

"I don't want to convey the impression that we don't take seriously the fact that this is a very painful piece for some people because we completely acknowledge that and give it weight. I don't think that means the piece should not be done."

Mitchell says if the show isn't done, then there won't be opportunities to talk about the problems it brings up.

Mitchell wasn't at the Ordway the last two times it brought Miss Saigon to town, but she knew it had drawn protests. So in advance of this fall's booking, she contacted Mu Performing Arts to host a series of conversations about the production. The Ordway is also hosting its own conversation later this month.

Twin Cities artists who have been protesting this show for more than two decades say talking is no longer enough. They say if they were truly being listened to, the show wouldn't be coming back.