Don’t Buy Miss Saigon: A Few Must-Read Pieces

by GUANTE via Why Is Guante So Angry?

October 09, 2013

Unity Event

(photo of the Don’t Buy Miss Saigon unity event outside the Ordway)

If you follow my blog or my regular Opine Season column, you may notice that I talk a lot about social justice through the lens of pop culture– offensiveness, language, representation, etc. Many writers and bloggers do this, because pop culture is a common baseline, something lots and lots of people understand. Potentially, it can be a gateway to begin to understand some broader ideas related to oppression and justice.

Here in the Twin Cities, the Ordway is presenting Miss Saigon again, and there’s really no better example of how our culture can form the foundation of both oppression and liberation, depending on how it’s used. I could write about why I think the musical is messed up, but some of my favorite writers in the world already have. Check these out:

Bao Phi: War Before Memory: A Vietnamese American Protest Organizer’s History Against Miss Saigon

David Mura: The Problem(s) With Miss Saigon (or, how many stereotypes can you cram into one Broadway musical)

Naomi Ko: The Plague of Miss Saigon

Multiple Voices: Don’t Buy Miss Saigon (Our Truth Project)

Lots of good stuff in those links, and Bao’s piece in particular is just devastating and essential.

This is, of course, about a single piece of art that perpetuates stereotypes and harmful narratives; but it’s also about more than that. It’s about whose voices we value. It’s about whose stories get to be told, reinforced, and driven into our collective cultural consciousness. It’s about who gets to represent our community and who doesn’t. It’s about money. It’s about institutions. It’s about evolution.

For Twin Cities arts administrators, arts professionals, promoters, organizers and artists in the Twin Cities, these points are absolutely vital to consider. This is bigger than Miss Saigon.

It’s interesting to juxtapose the Miss Saigon protest with Andrea Swensson’s recent piece on Caroline Smith and appropriation, or Toki Wright’s “Love Letter to the Twin Cities” (here, scroll down), or my piece on local iconography, “Cherry Spoon Bridge to Nowhere.” I love the Twin Cities. And I love the Twin Cities arts scene. But that love is not unconditional. We– and especially those of us in positions of power as gatekeepers, funders or tastemakers– need to ask some difficult questions and ultimately take part in providing some difficult answers.

And for those of us who aren’t in positions of traditional, capital-P “Power,” it’s business as usual: keep fighting. Keep pressuring the established institutions to be better. Keep building our own institutions to be even better. Keep making brilliant art and building community through it.

Because with any protest like this, it’s about the issue, but it’s also about the people. We can argue back and forth about what is or isn’t offensive, or how this is just PC censorship, or how art should be completely free, or whatever. I’m past that conversation. What I saw last night were literally dozens of my heroes (and a few hundred other cool people), some of the people I respect and look up to the most in my life, fighting for what they believe in. These organizers are beyond inspiring to me, and make me want to quadruple the work I’ve been doing. Thanks to all of them.

GUANTE is a hip hop artist, two-time National Poetry Slam champion, social justice activist, educator and writer. His work, which explores the places where progressive politics, magical realism, working-class identity and the power of perspective intertwine, has been featured in URB Magazine’s “Next 1000” list, City Pages’ “Artists of the Year” list, CMJ, Racialicious, Feministing and the Progressive, and he’s shared bills with Talib Kweli, Atmosphere, Saul Williams, Dead Prez, Sage Francis, Brother Ali, Andrea Gibson, Doomtree, Zion I and many more. Guante also founded the MN Activist Project and Hip Hop Against Homophobia concert series, writes a regular column at Opine Season columnOpine Season, and facilitates writing and performance workshops for youth.