The Play Miss Saigon by Cameron Mackintosh

Asian American Theatre experienced a lot of difficulties and injustice in the 20th century. First of all, it is due to the preconceived attitude to the Asian diaspora in America. The Whites were guided by stereotypes. The Asian people were associated with gooks. Moreover, there existed an opinion that Asian men were dangerous and untrustworthy, while Asian women were passive. These stereotypes created suitable conditions only for the image of an Asian person as a servant (Lee 119). This attitude to the Asians in real life also influenced their theatrical life. The roles offered to them in the theatre were mostly the secondary ones. The Asians even did not have the possibility to participate in auditions for leading roles (Zia 112). The situation became more acute with the appearance of the play Miss Saigon by Cameron Mackintosh. This play became a departing point of standing up for the Asians’ rights.

The Essence of the Asians’ Complaint against Miss Saigon

After the new production of Miss Saigon in London in 1989, one of the most successful Asian American actors, B. D. Wong, attended a party where his friends told him about their impressions left after watching the play. They said that White actors performed in yellowface in this play that was quite offensive for Asian actors. White actors made everything possible to look like the Asians: used prosthetics to look squint-eyed and darkened their complexion. Most complaints were made against the leading role, which was played by English actor Jonathan Pryce (Liu 193).

Unfortunately, the British Equity Union did not see the problem in this situation. B. D. Wong and his surroundings were shocked by it and thought that such situation could never happen in the USA. In their opinion, yellowface was unimaginable on the American stage. Being the adaptation of Madame Butterfly, Miss Saigon was not considered to be appropriate for the culturally luminous audience in American. The British production seemed too anachronistic for America (Combs).

Nevertheless, the most serious controversies concerning the cast decision and content of the play began when actors heard that the American version of the show would be the same as the British one. These controversies caused the most divisive debates concerning racial representation and affirmative action in the American theatre history. It is obvious that it was a period of time when Asian American actors realized that they lost the casting battle. This understanding was only the beginning of a bigger fight. Some people rejected Miss Saigon for the racist stereotypes it resuscitated. Moreover, the play was created by White people and it was the reinterpretation of Madame Butterfly – the Orientalist story – showing the most popular stereotypes relating to Asians (Zia 117).

It is interesting that Mackintosh understood the reason of the Asians’ claim though he disagreed with Asian American actors on the casting controversy. Unfortunately, he never realized why the story of the musical seemed to be offensive. Once, he stated that it was sad that the controversy touched a tragic love story showing a young woman’s sacrifice of her life to give her son a better American life. Nevertheless, the content of Miss Saigon was rarely regarded as an issue of controversies. The basic aim of the Asian actors was to defend their right to play at the level of White actors (Lee 127).

The Most Prominent Defenders of the Asian Actors’ Rights

Participants of the protest were quite numerous. Among them, there were many prominent Asian-American actors and producers such as B. D. Wong and David Henry Hwang.

David Henry Hwang

David Henry Hwang identified himself with activism in general and with the Asian American movement that started in the 1970s in particular. The Asian Americans are very proud of David Henry Hwang’s work (Liu 153).

At the beginning of his career, Hwang worked at the East West Players and the Asian American Theater Company. Nowadays, he continues working with many Asian American theatre artists. Nevertheless, the road of Hwang to success is not closely connected with Asian American theatre. For example, the director of M. Butterfly who first played at the Washington National Theatre in 1988 was John Dexter, an American director. Moreover, Hwang wrote this play at the encouragement of producer Stuart Ostrow. Differently speaking, the most popular Asian American play was not developed at the Asian American theatre company. The team working on the production of M. Butterfly consisted of non-Asian American artists. Moreover, David Henry Hwang continued to use the mix of East and West in his later works such as Golden Child and Flower Drum Song also shown on Broadway (Schlossman 134).

It is worth mentioning that the image of Hwang is not homogeneous. Some critics like James Moy blame Hwang of reassigning Orientalist features for commercial success. Others praise Hwang for finding a real Asian American voice. It has been noticed that “Oriental” plays of Hwang have been more successful than his plays not showing Chinese traditions (Lee 135).
Nevertheless, Hwang’s merit is unquestionable. The addition of Asian American theatre projects in the Public Theater was with no doubt an affirmative action. An Asian American theatre project was a natural addition to the assortment of minority groups supported by the director of the Public Theatre. This theatre opened doors to David Henry Hwang and many other Asian American playwrights in the 1980 – 90s. One day, David Henry Hwang said: ‘I entered the American theatre through an affirmative action program, and I hope I have been a good example of it in terms of taking those opportunities and making something out of it’ (Liu 171).

Most critics agree that the production of Hwang’s FOB in 1980 has been a crucial moment in the history of the Asian American theatre. Hwang is considered to be a major writer of mainstream theatre and the only Asian American who has produced plays on Broadway. Moreover, Hwang as an individual has broken the race barrier in the American theatre. Nevertheless, his main merit is being an articulate spokesperson for Asian American theatre. Along with one of the most famous actors, B.D. Wong, and other Asian American artists, Hwang created the Asian Pacific Alliance for Creative Equality (APACE) (Schlossman 136).

B. D. Wong

B. D. Wong is a Tony Award-winning actor who also faced difficulties with finding parts for the Asians. Like many other young actors, he often wished he was not Asian. The situation changed only when he got the opportunity to play an Asian person in M. Butterfly by D. H. Hwang. According to Wong, this play helped him to become a better actor because he could relax and feel his importance. M. Butterfly also won a Tony Award for Best Play in 1988 for David Henry Hwang. It was a fresh view on the Madam Butterfly story through Asian American eyes. This play tells about a French diplomat and a Chinese opera singer and spy Song Liling played by B. D. Wong. For numerous Asian American actors like B. D. Wong, the opportunity to play in this play was a major turning point as there were too little offerings provided by Hollywood and Broadway for the Asians (Zia 120).

In the battle against Miss Saigon casting decision, B. D. Wong was the most active spokesman. He informed the society about the main claims of Asian American artists. He formulated the reason of their dissatisfaction in the following way: they just assumed that Asian actors should have a chance to be auditioned for the roles.

Moreover, B. D. Wong contacted the Actors’ Equity to find out whether they knew about the casting news or not. A special group existing in the Actors’ Equity – the Committee on Racial Equality – invited B. D. Wong to the discussion of the problem. This meeting gathered more than twenty Asian American actors and a lot of African American and Latino representatives of this profession. All of them had poor experience of playing leading characters even of their own nationality, not to mention roles of the Whites (Schlossman 156).

This meeting with the Committee on Racial Equality at Actors’ Equity Association was the first step to the awakening of a collective spirit of Asian artists. This was the moment when they began exchanging their experiences with each other and with African and Latino colleagues. After this meeting, Asian American artists throughout America began to draw attention to the absence of chances for the Asian actors to portray at least Asian characters (Liu 175).
Organizations Defending the Rights of Asian Actors

APACE

As it has been said earlier, after the situation with Miss Saigon the Asian actors created a new group and called it the Asian Pacific Alliance for Creative Equality (APACE). Members of this organization met in New York with the president and the executive director of Actors’ Equity – Colleen Dewhurst and Alan Eisenberg – in order to persuade them to reject the work visa request by Jonathan Pryce (Zia 120). The thought was that a White actor using yellowface should not play the role of an Asian, particularly when Asian American actors had not even been asked to audition.

B. D. Wong, being a member of this organization, sent letters to Dewhurst and other members of Actors’ Equity, begging them to do something. In his opinion, there would be an irreparable damage to the rights of actors if Asian actors were kept from bringing their unique dignity to the specifically Asian roles such as in Miss Saigon in future. He also noticed that they could never have the possibility to do the real work they dreamed about if a Caucasian actor with taped eyelids were preferred instead (Liu 186).

AAPAA

The Association of Asian/Pacific American Artists (ААРAА) was founded in 1976 and also worked during the 1990s. It was the organization representing rights of the Asian Americans in the sphere of media and arts. The basic aims of the AAPAA were to fight existing stereotypes about the Asians and Pacific Americans in the media and to stand up for the Asians’ participation in the spheres of arts and entertainment (Lee 147).

The AAPAA was created by actress Beulah Quo in Los Angeles. It was founded as a nonprofit organization for advocating for the rights and a balanced depiction of the Asian Americans in the media. Moreover, it served to provide increasing chances for an impartial employment of Asian Americans (Wetmore, Liu, and Mee 126).

It is important to mention that initially this organization worked as an educational and cultural establishment. Nevertheless, the AAPAA also worked in the political sphere where it protested against unfair employment cases and inappropriate representations of the Asians. The team of the AAPAA was very diverse as it included people of different professions: actors, producers, musicians, and even models who supported one common idea (Liu 191).

In the 1980s, questions concerning participation of Asian Americans in the media and entertainment industry became extremely sharp. The main task of the АAРAA in that period was to fight against negative stereotypes. Among the most widespread stereotypes, there were pictures of wise, but enigmatic characters of ‘Charlie Chan’ and ‘Fu Manchu’ or depiction of Asian women like a ‘dragon lady’. One more very offensive case was the use of the ‘yellow face’ by Caucasian actors playing Asians in a slandering manner, using the cliché mannerisms (Lee 158).
The AAPAA as many other Asian American groups in 1990 began the protest against the Caucasians’ casting instead of Asian actors in the ethnically specific leading role of a Eurasian engineer in the popular Broadway play Miss Saigon (Schlossman 173).

East West Players and Development of the Asian Theatre after Miss Saigon

The creators of Miss Saigon stated that there were no qualified and experienced Asian actors who could play instead of Jonathan Pryce. This statement was quite offensive for Asian Americans as there were a lot of organizations providing great opportunities for Asian actors’ playing. One of the most prominent organizations where they could gain an experience was East West Players (Zia 130).

East West Players Theatre was established in 1965. It is known as the leading Asian American theater troupe for lots of award-winning plays blending Eastern and Western traditions, costumes, music, etc. This troupe has shown more than 100 plays reflecting the experience of the Asian Pacific Americans. Moreover, it has held thousands of workshops and readings. East West Players also successfully works nowadays. The prior task of this organization was (and the same is now) to build bridges between Eastern and Western cultures. The basic measure of the troupe’s success is 56% of the Asian audience and 44% of non-Asian visitors (Liu 252).

Originally, the organization was founded by nine artists of Asian-American origin who wanted to have more chances of taking on roles except for those of stereotypical nature that Hollywood offered to them. Nowadays, East West Players also provides unique opportunities for Asian American actors. It still guarantees assertion of a merited representation of the Asian American experience in the media (Lee 159).

A great contribution to the development of the East West Theatre was made by the Artistic Director of East West Players Tim Dang in 1998. By that time, the company had grown from a 99-seat ‘black box’ theatre to a modern 240-seat theatre at the level of the Actors Equity Association. The main stage of the East West Players is in the David Henry Hwang Theater. It is located in the house of the historic Union Center for the Arts in Little Tokyo district of Los Angeles. Annually, it gathers more than 10,000 people (Liu 254).
The East West Players School has graduated a lot of famous actors and playwrights such as David Henry Hwang, B. D. Wong, Mako, John Cho, Greg Watanabe, John Lone, Nobu McCarthy, and many others (Lee 160).

The Destiny of Miss Saigon

The controversies around Miss Saigon ended with the Asians’ victory. When Actors’ Equity denied Jonathan Pryce the right to play on Broadway in the role of the Engineer in Miss Saigon, the show was closed. Cameron Mackintosh, producer of the play, swore to close the show if he did not have the possibility to use Pryce. Finally, he kept his promise. Nevertheless, it was not the end of Miss Saigon. The first time the show came back was in 1994 in Minneapolis. According to the reports of that year, about 2,590 people attended the first night show. At that time, a dozen protesters who belonged to the Pan Asian Voices for Equality (PAVE) stood in 11-degree below zero to show their attitude towards the play. As in the case of the previous production, the plot of this version was regarded by the critics as having racism notes (Combs).

The next version of the play came back to the Ordway in 1999. This time, it was also met with protests and received bad reviews. Despite this fact, many tickets were sold. The production, which appeared in 2013 in the Ordway, was the third one. Patricia Mitchell, the president of the Ordway, stated that she decided to renew the show inspired by the world affairs of the recent time. She stressed that looking at the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, the themes of war and international relationships were quite relevant at that time.

The first performance was preceded by numerous protests and was accompanied by a protest at Rice Park. The protesters wanted to remind of sexist and racist notes present in Miss Saigon. They stressed on the inappropriate attitude to women and to Asian Americans (Liu 260). After numerous debates led by Mu Performing Arts concerning the play, an organization called The Miss Saigon Lies Coalition emerged, which planned to protest during the opening night. Another aim of the Coalition was to discuss their concerns with the Ordway during the meeting organized by the Wilder Foundation and Minnesota Philanthropy Partners (Combs). The president of the Ordway Theatre started the dialogue with several members of the Asian American protesters in response to their claims. This meeting took place on September 22. All patrons attended the meeting, whereby the organizers provided printed and online versions of additional educational and resource materials for all programs.

Despite the significance of the show in relation to events in the world, Mitchell stressed Miss Saigon being a powerful reminder of the past. She said that generally this play was a dramatic love story taking place at the time of the Vietnam War. The fact that this story happened during the tragic events in Vietnam and the US history explained its complicity as it showed the dreadful side of war. In other words, Mitchell wanted those events not to be forgotten as a lot of similar events and mistakes could happen in the present world (Wetmore et al. 285).

Conclusion

Overall, Miss Saigon touched the most painful themes for the Asians living in America. Nevertheless, it was a necessary push for them to stand up for their rights. As any other people, they had the right to play in musicals at the level of the White actors. Moreover, this play showed them the importance of self-determination and working on their own conditions.

Miss Saigon helped the Asian Americans understand that they were living in the society where they were constantly misnamed and connected with different offensive stereotypes. This was the time when different organizations combating the inappropriate attitude to the Asians were created. No matter what genealogies these organizations had, they all appeared as a response to the Asian American actors’ abjection in the cultural life. These companies gathered a lot of actors, playwrights, and other art workers who wanted to prove their right to be valuable members of the society.

The little victory of cancelling the play of Mackintosh led to the appearance or development of theatres and roles for the Asian Americans. For example, an already existing organization called East West Players received more opportunities to show plays about the Asian experiences and employ more Asian actors. Nevertheless, the most important influence Miss Saigon had on the Asian Theatre was the awakening of the Asians’ pride that they were Asians. They managed to gather and exchange their experiences that helped to create a stronger Asian community.

Unfortunately, these achievements have not provided the same perception of the Asians in America that the White actors have. That is why, there is still a continuing fight for their place in the entertainment sphere.

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