A "Miss Saigon" discussion implodes at Overture
The arts center's handling of a panel has sparked a "teach-in" scheduled for Wednesday night.
As the Overture Center for the Arts prepares to host a touring production of Miss Saigon this April, the venue's leadership has canceled a panel discussion intended to showcase Asian-American perspectives on the musical's treatment of Asian characters. Several of the panel's organizers and scheduled speakers now plan to hold a teach-in outside of Overture this Wednesday night at 7 p.m. The teach-in will cover many of the same issues organizers were hoping to discuss in the panel: The history of Asian-American representation in theater, ways to make local programming more inclusive, ways for arts organizations to support communities of color.
The plan, until earlier this week, was for UW-Madison professor of English and Asian American Studies Leslie Bow to moderate a discussion among UW-Madison media and cultural studies professor Lori Lopez; Nancy Vue Tran of social-justice nonprofit Freedom Inc.; Overture president and CEO Sandra Gajic; and Sarah Marty of Madison theater company Four Seasons. Between Sunday and Wednesday, Overture began pushing back on panelists and organizers.
Bow spent much of UW-Madison's spring break crafting questions for the panel, which she saw as part of a collaborative process with Gajic and Ed Holmes, Overture's senior vice president for equity and innovation. She says objections from Overture began escalating just within the past few days. "I was really surprised to get a response, I think last night, that said, basically, if you don't reply to this email about format by a certain time, like the next day, basically I was going to be fired from this panel that they had invited me to," Bow says. "The questions they wanted to do are the questions that I wrote."
At some point Overture stopped collaborating on questions, Bow says, and started objecting to the structure Bow envisioned for the event, which would have tailored questions to each individual panelist's expertise. Overture also wanted Lopez, who specializes in issues of social justice and media representation of minority groups, off the panel. Madison365’s story has more detail about the email exchanges that led up to the cancellation.
Gajic, who took the helm at Overture in summer 2018, told panelists in an email Wednesday morning—the day the panel was initially scheduled to take place—that Overture would reschedule the panel for an unspecified future date.
"It goes to show, when you talk about race in the United States, that emotions run really high...I think that's the lesson that we're taking from this," Bow adds.
Joe Yoorip Ahn, a longtime Madisonian who helped organize the panel, says it wasn't even necessarily about stopping people from enjoying the show, but about getting people to understand the significance of what they were seeing. "We never intended this panel as a protest, but rather as a means to bring more awareness to the public," Ahn says. "It seems to me that the Overture may have been overthinking and reached a false conclusion of what our intent is." If the organizers meant to protest the production, Ahn adds, they would have just staged a protest already.
In any case, it's a bit late to be surprised about the outrage surrounding Miss Saigon. As one of the panel's organizers, UW-Madison professor of English and American Studies Timothy Yu, explained in a post Wednesday, people have been protesting the production since it premiered 30 years ago. Yu wrote this piece after Overture staff invited him to "write a note about the history of protest against the show for the show's program." But after seeing the text, Overture decided not to include it in the program, Yu said in a post on his personal Facebook page. So Yu instead posted it to his department's website. It's a detailed critique that ultimately suggests that Madison shouldn't host Miss Saigon again, and should instead host productions that do greater justice to Asian characters.
The trouble with Miss Saigon begins with its story, which transposes Puccini's Madama Butterfly, and its central romance between a British sailor and a young Japanese girl, to the U.S. war in Vietnam. It continues a tradition that views the Asian woman as a sexual object to be conquered by the white hero–a stereotype highlighted by the fact that the Vietnamese women in Miss Saigon are all prostitutes. They are, as scholar Karen Shimakawa puts it, "either hypersexualized Dragon Ladies in string bikinis or Kim, the single Lotus Blossom—shy, passive, virginal in an ersatz Vietnamese wedding gown." Asian men, in contrast, are portrayed in a sharply negative light. As the poet David Mura has noted, "all the major Vietnamese male characters are seen as thoroughly morally flawed and unattractive…neither as human nor as moral nor as sexually attractive as…white Americans." Mura goes on to observe that these are not isolated stereotypes, but continuous with the stereotypes of Asians that continue to prevail in American popular culture. "Is it any surprise," Mura asks, "that such stereotypes, such racial hierarchies, affected the way I saw myself?"
In a story published Sunday in the Wisconsin State Journal, arts writer Gayle Worland detailed how the panel came together, some of the historical context surrounding Miss Saigon, and the broader issues of media representation that panel organizers hoped to highlight.
In Gajic's Wednesday email to the panelists, provided to Tone Madison, Gajic accused organizers of attacking her personally and crafting an "inflammatory" list of panel questions:
Our goal has been consistent from the start (July 2018) —to create a platform for discussion of the issues surrounding Miss Saigon. We feel the questions we forwarded to Dr. Bow address the concerns you brought up at our meeting. The questions you submitted for review on Monday felt inflammatory and directed at me personally and not about the issues. This is a forum for discussion not protest.
I'm sure you understand that as the organizer of this panel we reserve the right to determine the panelists. We invited you to collaborate on this event. We accepted two of your three panelists. Your colleague, Dr. Bow, was recommended by The Capital Times as an objective moderator. Because the show could not provide a panelist, I have joined the panel to add the venue's perspective on a show.
We will not tolerate any harassment and bullying tactics and expect professionalism from all involved. It would appear that we have not come to an agreement how this discussion tonight should proceed. We believe that we cannot have a respectful dialogue where each of the four panelists will have an opportunity to answer the same questions. We therefore plan to reschedule tonight's event to a future date.
Ahn sent me the questions panel organizers submitted to Overture, and I've uploaded the full document in PDF form here. The questions specifically directed at Gajic in fact are quite relevant to the issues surrounding Miss Saigon, and read not like personal attacks but like the questions a reasonable person would ask of an arts venue's leadership in this situation:
Can you explain how the Overture chooses programming? I understand that you came on board at the Overture after Miss Saigon was already booked here. How did the Overture come to select works like The King and I or Miss Saigon for Madison?
Why do you think that plays like this still so popular with audiences when they seem to represent racial views that so out of touch? Are these works problematic to you? Do you feel a responsibility to bring more diverse stories to the stage?
What can Overture do be more responsive to the local community in Madison and programming that is more diverse? [racially, generationally, experimental?]
What strategies might the Overture engage to bring different audiences to the theatre? Is there programming that you would like to see at the Overture that perhaps counterbalances Miss Saigon?
Gajic herself told the State Journal, in Gayle Worland's story linked above, that "We remain committed to our community to really provide a platform where we hear diverse perspectives," and "Some of these conversations might not be always comfortable." It doesn't make sense that she'd be blindsided by the tone of these questions.
Lex Poppens at Overture declined to answer questions about the panel or its collapse, and instead referred me to a press release the venue put out on Wednesday. In the release, Overture's Ed Holmes doesn't offer many specifics:
Overture Center for the Arts is postponing the dialogue, Perspectives on Miss Saigon: History and Community, originally scheduled for this evening. Dr. Ed Holmes, Overture's Sr. Vice President for Equity and Innovation coordinated the event for Overture. He said, "We determined that we have a misunderstanding with the people that we were collaborating with for this dialogue. It appears that we were not all on the same page as to our goals, objectives and the purpose for tonight's event. This is uncharted territory for us. And although we were not able to proceed this evening, this is an important conversation for us to have, one that we will not shy away from. Our goal was to ensure that all voices were heard. As of this morning, we felt that we were too far apart on the purpose of the panel. We are working on rescheduling. An added benefit of discussing these issues at a later date is everyone will have the opportunity to see the show and be more informed about the content, which is the central focus of our anticipated discussion."
For a major art's organization's "senior vice president for equity and innovation" to call a discussion about representation of people of color "uncharted territory" is pretty bizarre, especially in this day and age. Who in arts and media, in 2019, is not thinking about issues of representation and inclusion?
Lopez, like Ahn and Bow, also feels a bit taken aback after the collapse of the event. On the one hand, it did take people becoming offended and reaching out to Overture to get the ball rolling. If Overture was going to book Miss Saigon, Lopez says, it should have immediately taken the initiative to open dialogues with the Asian-American community. Still, Lopez says the organizers' initial meetings with Overture staff were highly encouraging. "When we had a face-to-face meeting with them, we were all very surprised and impressed by how willing they were to hear us out," Lopez says. Some of the ideas, including the proposal to add a program note on the play's fraught racial context, actually came from Overture staff and went beyond what Lopez would have asked for. "Then they just slowly started going back on their word."
Lopez says she also doesn't understand why Drajic felt threatened by the proposed panel questions or by any of the communication that went on among Overture staff and panelists. "We could not find any way of interpreting our communication with them as inflammatory or bullying," Lopez says. "We honestly tried to concoct questions that we felt like she would be comfortable answering...we were really confident that she would have a response to those. They weren't gotcha questions. They were things that we thought she knew how to answer and would be excited to talk about."
Lopez also never got a straight answer as to why Overture wanted to exclude her from the panel. She's the author of the 2016 book Asian American Media Activism: Fighting for Cultural Citizenship, so it's hard to think of anyone in town better suited for this very conversation.
The fallout of this debacle, Lopez believes, could do lasting harm to the relationship between Overture and local Asian-American communities, and make other scholars and activists more wary about participating in similar events at Overture. It has also played into an unfortunate dynamic in which minorities are expected to do so much of the work of educating white people about racism. "It was really nice of us to offer to do all their jobs for them, and they still were like, ‘No thank you,’" Lopez says.
This isn't the first time in recent years that Overture has bungled its handling of controversial events. In 2016, Overture's galleries installed curtains over works from feminist art collective Spooky Boobs.
Attempts to reach Broadway Across America, which produces the touring Miss Saigon show, have been unsuccessful. I will update this story as I hear more information and comment from those involved. I'm reachable at firstname.lastname@example.org.