Stories For Us

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Get a room of Asian American artists together and one way or another we end up talking about representation and what it means to us as a theatre community. There’s no question that there needs to be more performers on our stages and more of our stories being told to the general–mostly homogenous–masses. And who knows, maybe if that effort of inclusiveness happened, it would help audiences to diversify and grow.

That being said, it’s always a victory when we do get to see ourselves on the stage. Most recently, Miss Saigon has hit Broadway once again with a revival that totes authenticity to the Vietnamese culture it uses as a backdrop and celebrates the fact that it does not employ yellow face as the original had done. With gorgeous music, epic level design, and a fan base that is in line with the Les Miserable or Cats crowd, why wouldn’t I be thrilled to see this hit Broadway’s season this year?

Yet, I’m not. This isn’t the show I want to represent my maternal family’s history or culture. This wasn’t written for us. And no matter how much work is done to it, I’m not sure it ever will truly be for us.

It’s interesting that recently, there’s been a slew of musical revivals that make use of Asian cultures and because so, employ Asian American performers. From The King and I to New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players’ The Mikado, there’s been a somewhat steady stream of shows that allow people that look like me on to the stage in mass.

What’s also interesting is how there’s been a lot of talk and work about how to “fix” these problematic shows. Of course, addressing the obvious issues of yellow face is a no brainer, but also the need to find some justification and authenticity to lessen the themes of Orientalism and appropriation within the text.

In the case of The Mikado, it had to be demanded. In the case of Miss Saigon, there seemed to be some effort from the get go. The question is: is it really our job to clean up the mess of these White playwrights, composers, and lyricists? Should we really spend the time, energy, and resources to try and make it a little less painful to watch these shows that continuously point to us as being nothing but exotic, caricatures, villains, or the punch lines to jokes? Do we do it because it’s the only way we’ll be seen on stages as big as Broadway?

To be perfectly honest, watching Miss Saigon was not the best experience for me. It was filled with moments of being uncomfortable, confusion, and frustration. None of it had to do with the cast who, by far, are the best part of the show. If anything, they prove why we need more Asian American performers in our productions. They’re brilliant and every single one of them is astounding to watch.

How much can we do to “fix” these stories? Especially, when we can’t completely rehaul the script? Production teams and actors can only try to add so much nuance or depth, but at the end of the day, when you have a bad script…it’s a bad script. Race and culture aside, Miss Saigon is poorly written. Practically every character is unlikable, Kim loses all sense of logic and becomes laughably crazy by Act II, and the brutality that the women endure in the story is pretty hard to swallow.

Adding back in the issues of race, it quickly becomes apparent that it is clearly written by White men who did not do any research or hold respect up to the culture they wished to make use of. With plenty of lyrics that are cringe worthy including:

“Why was I born of a race
That thinks only of rice
And hates entrepreneurs?”  

Asian characters are either defined as villains, sleeze bags, sex objects, or unable to save themselves. I even began to question whether I didn’t know enough of my own culture as more and more of it was presented with a Pan Asian approach.

This is a story by White writers, for White audiences. They tout the Vietnamese as the mysterious, backwards, and victims who can’t help themselves. They make audiences feel better for the mistakes the United States made during the war without really holding the U.S. accountable. It misrepresents so much of the history in favor of romanticism; it’s painful when you know the truth of it all.

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Again, this is all in the text. It is the script that’s inherently a problem. When you try to glue something back together that’s broken, you still see the cracks and faults running through it.

I hope twenty years from now, that even if Miss Saigon is revived again (let’s pray not), this won’t be the only production giving Asian Americans work and telling our stories. I want there to be other musicals and plays that employ Asian Americans, that tell our stories, that are written for us and by us, and that performers don’t have to dream of playing prostitutes to be on Broadway. I want them to dream bigger.

Which means we will continue to push our stories into institutions that desperately need to expand the stories they present. We need to continue to obtain positions of power throughout the country and raise each other up. We should continue to be critical of what’s being produced, regardless of whether it gives us work or not. I don’t think it’s worth our time or energy to try and put a band-aid on stories that aren’t even really for us. We can’t be enablers to these kinds of stories, then shout about the very same problems that are running rampant in these works.

Why does it bother me so much? I get either Miss Saigon or Vietgone by Qui Nguyen to tell my family’s history. Two diametric works that exemplify what a story told through a white lens is and what a story written by our community can be. If we had more options, more stories, being shared that accurately depict our history and humanity, than maybe having a production of Miss Saigon on Broadway wouldn’t bother me as much. At least I’d have other options.

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Vietgone by Qui Nguyen. Photo by South Coast Repertory.
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