A plea for the art of the musical theatre

by DANIEL HESS, PH.D via Asian American Press

October 12, 2013

Brooklyn Center, Minn.

“We do not fear censorship, for we have no wish to offend with improprieties or obscenities, but we do demand, as a right, the liberty to show the dark side of wrong, that we may illuminate the bright side of virtue – the same liberty that is conceded to the art of the written word – that art to which we owe the Bible and the works of Shakespeare.” – D.W. Griffith (Opening intertitle to the second run of Birth of a Nation following widespread protests)

With a soon-to-open repeat performance of the mega-hit minstrel Miss Saigon, the Ordway Center for Performing Arts finds itself again the object of significant community opposition, although those in charge of things over at the theatre seem to be scratching their heads, again, in bewildered puzzlement about all the fuss.

This will be the third time since 1994 that this tragedy has been inflicted on the people of Minnesota. (But, not to worry, it’s expected to make a boat-load of money off of a boat-load of people, so to speak, as it always does.)

At a recent, public conversation hosted by MU Performing Arts, the Ordway President/CEO asserted that Miss Saigon “is a musical that can do what ‘good theatre’ does, which is to make people both feel and think.”

Notably absent from her glib equation were the do’s and does of pernicious and colonialist theatre; of cartoonish, bigoted and demeaning stereotypes; of racist, misogynist, child-sexualizing, and human trafficking story lines; of dishonest myths of transnational adoption; of white-guilt-assuaging tear-jerking; and all with nary a wisp of a mention of the actual pain and injury this causes to real people here and now, not just in melodramatic make-believe.

At issue are the differing views of what Miss Saigon means. It’s been interesting to observe as the Ordway has been scrambling hard to find viable ground on which it can maintain the illusion of justifiability. The Ordway’s main advantage in this gymnastics exercise is that, as an 800-pound-gorilla of a regional cultural institution, it is both representative of a system that overrides any need to justify “accidental” oppression, and beneficiary of the power to define for those harmed what their experience ought to be. They move in seeming unawareness that this is one of the sneaky ways that white supremacy works.

Their apparent battle plan can be summarized as, “Issue no apologies and blame the victim!” which seems to have been operationalized to sound something like this, “You people merely misunderstand what this piece of musical theatre is all about – can’t you just try a little harder to have an open mind. We have feelings over here about the piece, too, which, as an organization, we’re trying to work through. You should do the same.”

Furthermore, to avoid any messy feelings about that supremacy stuff, this covert system also functions to be deniably invisible to those who benefit, as can be discerned by the stream of obtuse messages disgorged by the Ordway.

Subsequent to the Ordway’s “good theatre” insight, the president reasserted an “educational” value, even after it was pointed out that Miss Saigon traffics in lies and stereotypes. Then she said the production was not intended to be educational for an Asian American audience (apparently they are already familiar with the lies and stereotypes). In multiple comments, she located the placement of distress at the level of the personal “offense,” rather than recognizing that both in its content and production, Miss Saigon is a corrosive, injurious, and malignant manifestation of systemic racism and sexism.

In the “Cultural Conversation Resource Guide” produced by the Ordway, the two, white male creators (Schönberg and Boubil) of Miss Saigon are quoted, “We resolved to write our own story of a misunderstanding between two individuals of different cultures, but projecting it into a tragic period of modern history—a time when that basic misunderstanding between two people could reflect the deeper misunderstanding between their respective countries at war.”

Never mind that the tropes of “tragic period” and “deeper misunderstanding” are implicit, colonialist constructions, and that the respective countries were not so much “at war” as they were one bent upon domination, and the other forced to defend itself; this is not a story about individuals. It is a story about systems, one driven by odious delusions of manifest destiny and supremacy, and the other subjected to those odious delusions of manifest destiny and supremacy. One, off to save our “little brown brothers” from themselves; and the other, in no need of a white savior.

Schönberg and Boubil are further quoted, “We tried to put ourselves into the Vietnamese world of religion, mysticism, and permanent sense of fate…,” in other words, they had a hard-on for the “exotic!” And, sadly for our creators and sleepy patrons, the lives of these people can be understood as exotic only by those who see the world through the pinhole of Euro-centric monoculturalism, yet another manifestation and justification of colonialist oppression, and another way white supremacy works.

What the “creators” failed to see as they resolutely wrote their “own story,” is that their story didn’t become theirs until it’d been stolen from the rightful owners, and then “adapted” so it would fit more conveniently into the Master Narrative. From start to finish, this was a project of wholesale misappropriation and egregious misrepresentation (nice Minnesota words for outrageous “stealing” and “lying”).

The final product is little more than a Rorschach projective of the hidden biases that hide in the hearts and minds of cultural supremacists. The characters in this spectacle are puppets, suspended and danced about on the threads of that narrative.

And back in Saint Paul, there seems to be so much money stuffed into the ears of the Ordway, on top of impacted layers of privilege and wax that they can’t seem to hear the truth – Miss Saigon is an ongoing, anguish-inducing abuse of power; an exploitation that continues to traumatize and to deny the victims their reality. It is a project of destruction that brings the destroyers much wealth, and those objectified much harm. What’s that old saying? Oh yeah, “If it walks like colonialism, and quacks like colonialism…”

Colonialism is not good theatre; it is bad theatre.

Yet another representative that the Ordway pushed out the front door to salve the masses summarized the essence of Miss Saigon with a flourish about “the triumph of the human spirit over impossible odds.” (Really?! Someone please tell me he did not just say that.) For those of us who would rather we lived in a more equitable and dignity-affirming world, I think we’d prefer working for the well-being of the human spirit by, for one, getting the odds reset so that they’re reasonably fair for everyone, rather than reveling in the “triumph” that’s possible only when the system is rigged and causes so much suffering.

We can occasionally yield ourselves to a moment of moist-eyed affect when we see a few of the oppressed endure their suffering, artistically. This reassures us that we’re not bad people, and therefore not part of a corrupt system. And for those who don’t “triumph,” we can still go to bed reassured that it’s not the impossible odds we’ve stacked against them, but it’s their wobbly human spirit that failed them. That’s one of the ways white supremacy works.

When the early run of Birth of a Nation provoked protest for its hideous portrayals of African Americans, D.W. Griffith added a second, additional intertitle to the later runs:

“If in this work we have conveyed to the mind the ravages of war to the end that war may be held in abhorrence, this effort will not have been in vain.” – D.W. Griffith

Now, compare that to the Ordway’s words in defense of their hideous portrayals of Vietnamese people:

“The Viet Nam war was an atrocity…My hope is for all the people of America to see that all war is a war against mankind, a war against ourselves.”

Hmm, something sounds familiar about that. But the Ordway (via VP/Artistic Director) doesn’t stop there. No, they’re not satisfied without a closing crescendo, “We are all here together, the same, yet different and ALL EQUAL” (Ordway’s emphasis)

Despite the “keep your eye on the shiny ball” distractor about the evils of war, what the Ordway so clearly fails to grasp, is that we are NOT all equal, something D.W. Griffith likely would have more readily acknowledged.

Dependent upon your race – especially – and a number of other identify markers, access to opportunity and acknowledgment of full humanity and dignity is differentially available. Racism is real and hurts real people; sexism is real and hurts real people; heterosexism is real and hurts real people; ablism is real and hurts real people, etc. If it were true that we were ALL EQUAL, these isms would not be the cause of so much real harm to so many real people. If the Ordway wanted to address “atrocities,” sans shiny balls, they could start by putting Miss Saigon on that list of atrocities.

When the Ordway exposed itself with their claim of equality, they betrayed that thread of the master narrative that runs through all aspects of white supremacy. And beginning October 8th, this narrative will be on shameless display for those in the audience who happen to be wearing their special 3-P glasses (Privilege, Power, and oPpression).

Unavoidably, the narrative will be unseeable, but mutually reinforced, by those patrons who are not wearing 3-P glasses; it’s they who travel through life with the privilege to not care, to not know, and to not care to know; and it is they who will not just be a consumer of Miss Saigon, but will unknowingly be an active participant in the narrative. This is another way white supremacy works.

This is the same, slick “Supremacy Productions” that brought us that endless string of unforgettable hits such as the Naturalization Act of 1790, The Black Codes, the Dred Scott Decision, the Jim Crow Era, The Chinese Exclusion Act, Ozuma v. United States, United States v. Thind, the Asian Exclusion Act, the Japanese American Internment, etc., etc., and most recently that new break-out sensation, The Invalidation of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.

With “good theater” like this, we hardly need a Miss Saigon, but for the fact that the cash pours in hand-over-fist.

The paternalistic manner in which the Ordway has responded to the innumerable expressions of deep pain induced by their determination to reinforce racism, misogyny and stereotypes, betrays an inherent bias that they, the superior being, knows what is best for the inferior. Since they don’t see it, it must not really exist. And since it does not really exist, we will continue to take, exploit, harm, and oppress in wood-paneled, richly-upholstered, climate-controlled, guilt-anesthetized comfort.

I have no reason to believe that anyone at the Ordway is a bigot. I could easily believe that most if not all are actually tender-hearted, bright, compassionate souls, working very hard to do the right thing. But, this is one of the ways white supremacy works. One does not need to have overt malice and bitter bile rising in the throat to perpetrate harm.

There is a long, painful history in this country of harm inflicted upon persons of color because their experience of reality was defined by white culture as aberrant, inferior, exotic, pathological, criminal, or just different. This has also been the experience of folks in other non-dominant identity groups.

The well-known Doll Experiments of the 1940s and re-conducted several times since, elucidated the damage done to children by the dominant group’s power to define reality. When children were asked to select dolls that were “nice,” “bad,” “pretty,” “ugly,” etc., internalized negative definitions from a racist society were revealed. With apparent anguish, many African American children identified dolls that looked like themselves as bad and inferior, and white dolls as good and superior.

If one is unconvinced by the voices of agony that have lined-up to share with the Ordway their pain, perhaps the robust and rapidly growing body of empirical, peer-reviewed literature might convince someone over there about the truth of how these forms of marginalization directly cause measurable harm to those targeted.

The power to define another’s reality is never benign.

Over time and by various means, white culture has also defined persons of color as unattractive, unintelligent, unqualified, uncivilized, and immoral. The belief in superiority of things white, and the inferiority of things non-white creates an unconscious permission to define and dominate.

Compared to generations ago, the hardware that the conquering (white) people used to dominate others in this society has significantly diminished, but the software continues to thrum in the machine, animated by a code that never ceases to run, which is deeply and implicitly embedded with biases, privilege, prejudice, entitlement and superiority. It’s this code that informed the writing of Miss Saigon; the faulty perception of its cultural realism and historical accuracy; the Ordway’s determination to keep bringing it back time-after-time; and for the genuinely warm-hearted patron to have an experience of sympathy, triumph, and a good cleansing cry.

If the Ordway ever found its way to some speck of honest concern, and deigned to ask what they might do to mend their ways, here’s a recommendation: When a number of people all say “You’re hurting me,” stop what you’re doing and believe them. Don’t say, “this will make people feel and think;” “this will be educational;” “this will make us think we’re ALL EQUAL,” or “this is about the triumph of the human spirit over impossible odds.” If what you want is to see real triumph over impossible odds, how about poking your head out the window and taking a look at the resiliency of the folks you are assaulting, and how they continue to advocate tenaciously for their dignity and their truth.

Here’s another recommendation: Read your mission statement: (Our mission is to be a driver for the artistic vitality of our community by hosting, presenting, and creating performing arts and educational programs that engage artists and enrich diverse audiences.) If what you’re peddling is an abject lie, it cannot be “educational.” And by putting up minstrels like Miss Saigon, you are not “enriching diverse audiences.” You are enriching yourself at the expense of our diverse community.

And finally: listen, and hear. Listening without hearing invalidates and significantly compounds the injury. And pretending to listen just pisses people off (you’ve likely already learned this one).

Hear these words from the people you have injured: “It’s not about the art, it’s about the damage it does.”

Stop hurting people, even if you think it’ll make good theatre, and good money.

Miss Saigon – never again.

Dr. Daniel Hess is a licensed Minnesota psychologist who has done extensive research on the effects of trauma and has worked with the Southeast Asian refugee community since 1981.