ESTABLISHING CULTURAL NORMS: Our role and responsibility


Sarah Bellamy

(As part of our Diversity & Inclusion blog salon, we’re hosting dialogue surrounding the recent production and protests of Miss Saigon at The Ordway. If you wish to share your thoughts on this or any other TCG Circle blog salon, please email Gus Schulenburg. As always, posts shared on the TCG Circle represent the opinions of the author and not TCG.)

The “heat is on” in the Twin Cities and a new production of Miss Saigon caused the stir. For the third time in the last two decades, The Ordway opened Schönberg and Boublil’s popular musical and for the third time Minnesotans organized in protest of its arrival. Led by a cadre of Asian American citizens, artists, scholars, parents–activists all–a rich, challenging, and compassionate dialogue is flowering just as the chill of autumn sets in.

It takes courage to open oneself up to perspectives that challenge one’s beliefs about theatre and its role in creating the cultural fabric that knits us together. It takes grace and courage to explain (yet again) why stereotypes are not abstract concepts operating within a hypothetical realm, but a highly potent and adaptive arsenal of cultural warfare that targets elders and children, delimiting agency, inclusion, and the ability to participate fully in a society called home by an increasingly diverse array of people. The passion that fires these conversations can feel harsh and unsympathetic to some people, but running away will squander a wonderful opportunity for education and empathy.

Space has been opened for transformative engagement around Miss Saigon, but it will only realize its full potential if we are willing to see this production as more than just an entertaining and popular story of unrequited love. Miss Saigon defines a cultural space that was of a particular time and place–doing it now, 25 years later, recalls that cultural space and exhumes the ghosts that come along with it. This 2013 production refreshed unrequited wishes for cultural competency, compassion, and a critical assessment of the profoundly significant role theatre can play in propagating stereotypes.

I’ve seen people genuinely baffled on both sides: it’s just a play! contrasted with how are atrocity and sex trafficking romantic? What Miss Saigon raises so powerfully is our need to overwrite atrocity with palliative stories that position defining moments of American history as mere footnotes to a larger narrative of helplessness and benevolent cultural exchange. Rather than look frankly at who we are, where we’ve been, and use that to imagine a better future, we keep remodeling the past, as though it’s a beautiful but decrepit mansion we are desperate to inhabit. It’s time we get real about how the short sale of history is a bad deal, ruinous for the stability of future generations.

It is often people of color who are most confounded by the popularity of this production. For many of us, Miss Saigon is not just a play. We see the nostalgic remapping of the Vietnam War onto the bodies of two star-crossed lovers as a malignant, propagandist theatrical device, not romance. We can’t seem to understand why it continues to be produced, and why many audiences–even those who acknowledge its hypocrisy–flock to see it and become seduced all-over again by the ‘love story’ about a ‘prostitute with a heart of gold’ and a big, strapping GI who wants to ‘do the right thing.’ These are enduring fantasies. They make audiences feel okay about a world that is desperately unjust; that pacify people into thinking in spite of tragedy and inequity, love will win. They let us off the hook; keep us complacent and waiting for someone else to take action. They do important work to re-inscribe gender norms, to keep women subservient and ashamed of sexual agency, to justify white supremacy and promote the white savior narrative, and to mollify protest around an appalling war which stands as one of United States’ most arrogant and cruel.

It gets a lot easier to wrap your head around all of this for folks of color when we remember a key point: this work is not for us. It is by, for, and about white people, using people of color, tropical climes, pseudo-cultural costumes and props, violence, tragedy, and the commodification of people and cultures, to reinforce and re-inscribe a narrative about white supremacy and authority.

We revisit this kind of work perennially to do structural maintenance on the house that imperialism built, which in spite of a shoddy foundation, is still standing. These stories inculcate more and new people into the clan of the willfully ignorant, unconsciously consuming controlling narratives that continue to influence public discourse on race, class, gender, sexuality, and difference. How do we combat racism, sexism, homophobia, in an environment that looks progressive, but isn’t? How do we tell the difference between the work that engenders positive social change, and the work that shellacs injustice in a shiny veneer?

I liken it to the difference between two Hollywood films that look similar but do different work: “The Help” and “The Butler.” Both are main-stream and cater to a fascinating contemporary investment in depicting black people in servant roles. However, “The Help” is a story created by white people (Kathryn Stockett and Tate Taylor) about white people that uses black people as props and blackness as an analytical frame to answer questions about whiteness. “The Butler” is a story created by black people (Wil Haygood and Lee Daniels) about black life that uses three-dimensional depictions of black people to meditate on what it means to be both black and American in the 20th Century. Are they both good stories? Artistically, perhaps. Ethically, probably not. If you estimate their value from buzz and box office sales–both were successful. If you estimate their value with regard to cultural authenticity, historical accuracy, and contemporary relevance, one attempts to conceal a traumatic history while the other attempts to reveal it. Who is this work for? What is it for? To what role should art aspire in our society? Aren’t these questions essential to ascribing aesthetic value?

As we consider plays like Miss Saigon, or another blockbuster musical that trades in atrocity–The Scottsboro Boys—we would be wise to remember what Toni Morrison so elegantly points out, “the subject of the dream, is the dreamer…an extraordinary meditation on the self; a powerful exploration of the fears and desires that reside in the writerly consciousness. It is an astonishing revelation of longing, of terror, of perplexity, of shame, of magnanimity. It requires hard work not to see this.”[1] These mythic renderings of people of color reveal more about whiteness than anything else.

The story of the “Scottsboro Boys,” or the story of the nine children who were lynched by white supremacist organized crime, had already been beautifully rendered by Langston Hughes. Published in 1932, Hughes’s Scottsboro Limited: Four Poems and a Play in Verse was an indictment of a system of violence and hatred and a gross miscarriage of justice:

That Justice is a blind goddess
Is a thing to which we black are wise.
Her bandage hides two festering sores
That once perhaps were eyes.
—Langston Hughes, from Scottsboro Limited[2]

This was not the take-away producers assumed contemporary audiences wanted, however. With The Scottsboro Boys, we focus less on the terrorism of the South, and instead find ourselves entertained by the “thrilling final collaboration by musical theatre giants John Kander and Fred Ebb” and the direction of “5-time Tony® Award winner Susan Stroman.”[3] The unchecked arrogance in the face of this tragic history is staggering. Under a banner that reads: “About the Boys” the website features photographs of adult African American actors scrolling next to the following description: “this daring and wildly entertaining musical explores a fascinating chapter in American history with arresting originality…. So gather ’round… and join THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS on their remarkable journey.”[4]

To where do these innocent children journey? What is “daring,” “remarkable,” or “wildly entertaining” about their slaughter? Not to mention the pejorative use of colloquial language with the invitation to “gather ‘round” to be entertained by a minstrel about authorized lynching. In the hands of an all-white creative team, a decision was made to take one of the most violent examples of white power and supremacy and stage it using one of the most virulent devices of theatre (blackface and minstrelsy) and discipline a contemporary populace to see both as innocuous and nostalgically antiquated. The only thing that makes this “arrestingly original” is that it stands as one of the most bald-faced examples of ignorance and arrogance in theatre history. And The Scottsboro Boys is popular.

The question we must ask ourselves is not just why this work is being done, but why now? Why might audiences be clamoring for stereotypical renditions of people of color on our stages? Why are certain audiences so hungry for white savior stories right now? What’s at stake with the changing demographics of our nation and how can we find our way toward compassion and empathy around the societal change we’re facing?

Like the romanticization of sex trafficking in Miss Saigon, the racial violence depicted in The Scottsboro Boys is not at all connected to contemporary social justice claims. In fact, it does the opposite by suggesting that we have arrived at a post-racial moment wherein we can afford to make fun of and laugh at the spectacular violence of our past. Let me just go on the record as stating without hesitation: we are not in a post-racial moment. Data show that hate groups are on the rise, and militia and patriot groups (both of which have a history borne from anti-Semitism and racism) have spiked dramatically since 2008.[5] Our children are paying for this culture of permissive violence. Since 2012, three children–all within the age bracket of those nine pulled from the boxcar–have been gunned down by ‘neighbors’: 17-year old Trayvon Martin in February 2012, 13-year old Darius Simmons in May 2012, and 8-year old Donald Maiden, Jr. was shot in the face while playing tag in front of his home last month–he survived. In an environment that is increasingly more fearful and uneducated, we must consider the role of theatre in perpetuating a culture of violence against black boys. This is why The Scottsboro Boys is not just a play.

What too many producers refuse to consider is their own culpability propagating stereotypes and how these, in turn, reinforce an unequal and unjust society. I present on this topic all over the country and talk with theatre practitioners about how to engage in work in a culturally responsible and sensitive way–it’s a good start, an important start, but after that, we as a field need to come up with real plans for structural change that leverage the abilities and skills of a diverse coalition of community partners. TCG is convening important forums and sharing a wellspring of talent and information with us to aid in the erection of real and lasting infrastructural support for diversity and inclusion. This matters and the more folks at the table, the better. Solutions exist where we meet, not where we diverge.

Nobody wants to be told that they can’t do something; producers and artistic directors bristle at the notion. I’m just asking that we consider if it’s worth it. Miss Saigon grossed $285,843,972 during its 10-year run on Broadway from 1991-2001. It remains the 12th longest-running Broadway musical. From one vantage point, it is well-made theatre, spectacular, and gorgeous, but it does all that while trafficking in dangerously manipulated narratives that justify atrocity. You don’t get to say that you are an ally, that you empathize with the plight of oppressed peoples, and then make money off of projects that further oppress them. Of course you can put on the play, but that makes you something else–you’re in a different camp.

I’ve shared statistics about the popularity of Miss Saigon. Here are some other important statistics we might consider in the wake of this most recent production:

  • the FBI has identified the Twin Cities as one of the nation’s 13 largest centers for child prostitution.[6]
  • The Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans recently published report that identifies Minnesota as a place where recent immigrants are particularly vulnerable to established trade patterns of trafficking women and girls.[7]
  • A November 2010 study found that on any given weekend night in Minnesota, 45 girls under age 18 are sold for sex through the internet, classified websites, and escort services.[8]

The reality is that sex trafficking is not a love story. It violates numerous human rights, “including the right to be free from slavery and slavery-like practices; the right to equal protection under the law; the right to be free from discrimination based on race, nationality, and gender; and the rights to life, security of person and freedom from torture.”[9]

The Advocates for Human Rights notes that “[g]overnments violate trafficked persons’ rights when they fail to prevent sex trafficking, prosecute perpetrators or provide trafficked persons with effective remedies for these violations…”[10] We might indict our government for failing to protect the human rights of women and girls, transgender teens and adults, but how is our industry responsible for romanticizing human rights violations? We are not innocent and recognizing that gives us powerful grounds to take a stand and make a real difference. Even more encouraging, we are desperately needed: “Despite the increased attention to this problem in recent years,…the response of law enforcement is ineffective and the needs of trafficked persons remain unmet. [We must] address the barriers to an effective, coordinated response to sex trafficking.”[11] We should be part of a coalition working to protect the human rights of all people.

I am invigorated by what’s happening in the Twin Cities and so inspired by the coalition built around Miss Saigon. We have an opportunity to address two major problems in our field–one: our culpability in trafficking in stereotypes; two: the threatened health of arts organizations of color across the country. The fact remains that the more we encourage regional theatres to produce multicultural work, the more we tighten the ligatures suffocating culturally specific theatres. Engaging in authentic cross-cultural exchange that allows arts organizations of color–trusted and valued by their communities–to be part of the efforts to diversify our stages is one strategy that will nourish work that promotes positive social change. Arts organizations of color tend to be accountable to the communities they represent–that delicate system of checks and balances is available to regional theatre companies only when they partner with culturally specific organizations, not when they hire artists of color and expect one individual to speak on behalf of the whole. Miss Saigon is proof positive that we need each other. We need to find a way to work in true coalition; not in competition.

We are up against severe economic threats in our industry. Rather than revert to the old paradigms that do harm to individuals and communities, let’s imagine new partnerships that nourish the diversity of our communities. We are the vanguard of innovation, creativity, and imagination; let’s not allow ourselves to be bullied into thinking the only way to make money is to trade in stereotypes and further desensitize our audiences. Audiences are hungry to learn! They want dynamic theatre experiences; they want to reach across that deep, painful divide toward other human beings in a common experience. They want to be invited in, troubled, reawakened. They want to be part of the solution. The protest around Miss Saigon is a call to action. Instead of ignoring it, let us invest in cultural partnerships that model healthy relationships for our audiences. It will pay off in dollars and results and, equally important, it will feel good. Let’s lead. Together. There is no other way forward.

[1] Morrison, Toni. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1992) 17. Emphasis original.

[2] Hughes, Langston. Scottsboro Limited, Four Poems and a Play in Verse. With illustrations by Prentiss Taylor. New York: Golden Stair Press, 1932.

[3] Excerpted from The Scottsboro Boys website. Emphasis mine.

[4] Ibid., emphasis mine.

[5] Potok, Mark. “The ‘Patriot’ Movement Explodes” Intelligence Report, Spring 2012, Issue Number: 145

Southern Poverty Law Center.

[6] The Women’s Foundation of Minnesota citing research from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Minneapolis Division, What We Investigate, Combat Significant Violent Crime.

[7] The Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans, Human Trafficking in Minnesota Series

[8] The Women’s Foundation of Minnesota citing research from The Schapiro Group, “Adolescent Girls in the United States Sex Trade. Tracking Study Results for November 2010.

[9] The Advocates for Human Rights, Sex Trafficking Needs Assessment for the State of Minnesota, October 2008.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

Sarah Bellamy is Associate Artistic Director for Penumbra Theatre Company and a TCG Board Member. She has designed several programs that engage patrons in critical thinking, dialogue, and action around issues of race and social justice. Select programs include Penumbra’s Race Workshop curated to accompany the Science Museum of Minnesota’s exhibit RACE: Are We So Different?, and the Summer Institute, a leadership development program for teens to practice art for social change. A graduate of Sarah Lawrence College, Ms. Bellamy holds an M.A. in the Humanities from The University of Chicago and is currently the Visiting Professor of Theatre and Culture at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities.