Is Discussion Enough?

Joe Kellen

When my father and I would watch the news together when I was younger, he was almost never impressed. He would look at the screen, shake his head and say:



“Same stories every year.”

 

I figured he didn’t give network news enough of a chance. Maybe it doesn’t deserve that chance, I don’t know, that’s up to you. But that phrase, the way he would rest his chin on a closed fist and roll his eyes, always stuck with me. He never stopped watching the news. The stories may not have interested him, but he never questioned their validity past a superficial level.
 

This act is not limited to my father or the news. It’s easy for us to consume the familiar, and why wouldn’t we? There’s great comfort to be found there. While satisfying, it also encourages a level of complacency that can be dangerous.Take a look at the upcoming show in the Ordway’s season, for example.
 

Controversy’s been brewing all summer over the Ordway’s production of “Miss Saigon” — a musical that’s met fierce criticism from the Asian American community. However, we keep seeing this piece represented in theaters across the globe. The show details a Vietnam War era romance between an American G.I. and a Vietnamese call girl. They end up having a child together, but the G.I. is evacuated from the country before the two plan to marry. In the end the mother commits suicide, leaving her son to join his father to create a new life in the United States.
 

By its very nature, “Miss Saigon” perpetuates the submissive, sexualized stereotype of Asian American women. Perhaps this is not the main intention of the piece, but when an important location of the show is a musical-number-laden brothel, caricature is difficult to avoid. Artists are speaking out, and this is important for us to consider as an audience.
 

Does this show merely reflect on the oppression of the Vietnam War? Could we be missing the point? My hunches point in a different direction — even if this were true, the thesis of a work of theater is not the only thing we see represented on stage. We can’t just write off these obvious tropes that are portrayed in “Saigon” because it’s “not the point” or the main attraction. It’s convenient to tell someone that they just don’t get it. The theater is not designed to be a place of carelessness: the images created on a stage, the same way they’re created on film and television, affect our world and project an idea of “the way things are.”
 

As a way to respect their responsibility to their audience, the Ordway contacted Mu Performing Arts to hold a public discussion about the piece. They’ll be holding their own discussion later in the fall. Here’s my question: Is discussion enough? We can talk about the complicated history of “Saigon,” we can address the issues people have in these forums, but what actual progress does this make? The show is still getting produced internationally.
 

To be clear, I’m not calling for a ban on “Miss Saigon.” This is all speculation — the Ordway’s production hasn’t even premiered yet. When October rolls around, we’ll see how the cookie crumbles. In the meantime, I’d like to hear what you have to say. Check out the links and leave a comment. (Maybe this is ironic — encouraging discussion in a post entitled, “Is Discussion Enough?” If it isn’t enough, it’s always a starting point. So, go ahead. Start it.)