The Heat Is On: Touring Production of Miss Saigon Met With Protests at Minnesota's Ordway Theater

News   The Heat Is On: Touring Production of Miss Saigon Met With Protests at Minnesota's Ordway Theater
Kansas City Starlight Theatre's production of Miss Saigon, which is currently playing Minnesota's Ordway Theater, has met with protests from the community for its portrayal of the Vietnam War and Asian women.

Manna Nichols and Charlie Brady
Manna Nichols and Charlie Brady Photo by Bob Compton Photography

The production, which has also performed in Hartford, CT, and Detroit, MI, opens at the Ordway Oct. 8. Performances continue through Oct. 13.

The musical, which features music by Claude-Michel Schonberg, lyrics by Alain Boublil and Richard Maltby, Jr. and a book by Boublil and Schönberg, is an adaptation of Giacomo Puccini's opera Madame Butterfly set during the Vietnam War: It tells the story of a doomed romance involving an Asian woman and an American soldier.

The original Broadway production opened in 1991 and was nominated for 11 Tony Awards, winning three. It ran for ten years, closing in 2001. Numerous touring productions, as well as local theatres, have also presented the show. A reworked revival is scheduled to play London in 2014. This is not the first time Miss Saigon has faced controversy; the original Broadway production met with objections from Actors Equity to the casting of Jonathan Pryce as a French-Vietnamese character called the Engineer.

This production marks the third time the Ordway has presented Miss Saigon, and Patricia Mitchell, president and CEO of the Ordway, said when reached by e-mail that the decision to bring the show back was inspired by the recent state of world affairs.

"With current events and recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, there are themes in this production — such as international intervention, war and its aftermath, that are still relevant today," she said.

Charlie Brady and Nkrumah Gatling
photo by Bob Compton Photography

On the website, Sheila Regan writes in an open letter to arts writers and theatre reviewers that Miss Saigon is "offensive" and urges people to boycott the production. Citing the portrayal and over-sexualization of Asian women, as well as the themes of colonialism and privilege and the "glorified suicide" at the musical's conclusion, Regan wrote, "The production deserves nothing more from us than our silence. We should not preview it, review it, interview anybody involved with it. The Ordway deserves nothing more than silence for this misguided and greedy decision. ...[The] reason they are doing this is to make money. Certainly, as arts supporters we should support the Ordway looking out for its bottom line, but to do so while spitting in the face of the Asian-American community, and indeed all people of color, is sickening."

Protestors did not respond to requests for an interview. 

According to the Minneapolis news site, protestors of the Ordway production demanded that the the Ordway apologize, offer refunds to ticket holders who desired them and promise never to mount Miss Saigon again. Mitchell declined these demands.

"We do appreciate and understand the concerns they've identified, but we also know that patrons of the Twin Cities arts community are astute consumers," Mitchell said about the objections to the production. "They do understand the many layers and discussion points of this show and can intelligently assess their own feelings towards the production and its merits."

In response to the protests, Mitchell said the Ordway Theater has reached out to several members of the Asian-American community to create a dialogue around the issues presented by the piece and that staff members of the Ordway participated in Cultural Conversations hosted by Mu Performing Arts and Minnesota Public Radio. The Ordway hosted its own Cultural Conversation Sept. 22, which all patrons were invited to attend; additional educational and resource materials were provided at the Cultural Conversation, on the theatre's website and printed in each of the programs.

Daphne Valenta and Orville Mendoza
Photo by Bob Compton Photography

Along with objections to the depiction of Asian women, the way in which Miss Saigon portrays the Vietnam War has also met with criticism; however, cast members have received positive feedback from audience members. Orville Mendoza, who has performed in two previous productions of Miss Saigon and plays the Engineer in the Ordway production, said in a statement that people who lived through the Vietnam War have expressed gratitude after seeing the show. "Even though Miss Saigon is a work of fiction, they thank us for putting 'a version' of their story onstage," he said. In a letter published in Twin Cities Daily Planet, Mendoza responded to the protests against the production, sharing his experiences as a Filipino-American who immigrated to the United States with his family at the age of two.

"There is also the suggestion that we Asian artists involved in the show are 'selling out.' I, for one, do not believe I am 'selling out.' That term has the connotation that I'm doing something against my will or morals for monetary gain," he wrote.  "I whole-heartedly believe in this show. The show deals with racism but it isn't racist, in my opinion. The tone of the show is very specific. It neither glorifies prostitution, or war, nor does it whitewash a very real historical event in Asian and American history. To do so would be insulting to those who lived it. Yes, it is a work of fiction based on another work of fiction set in a less than flattering world. But the underlying motives and themes of the show are very different."

Manna Nichols, who plays Kim, emphasized her character's strength while describing Miss Saigon as telling "an incredibly powerful historical story, as well as an absolutely beautiful love story.

"I love every scene in Kim's journey," she said in a statement. "She triumphs through love and loss and each scene shows her growing stronger and stronger in the face of adversity."

Along with its significance in relation to current events, Mitchell said Miss Saigon serves as a powerful reminder of the past.  "At its core, it is a dramatic love story set during the Vietnam War. Obviously, as it takes place during a tragic period in Vietnam and U.S. history, there are many complex issues — including those ugly sides of war — present in the show's themes," Mitchell said. "For me, personally, it is a reminder of events of those times. Following long involvements in other wars, such as Afghanistan and Iraq, I believe the themes are still relevant today."

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