Saturday, October 21, 2017

THEATER'S WHITE SUPREMACIST NARRATIVE: MISS SAIGON VS. M.BUTTERFLY

This week David Henry Hwang's Tony Award-winning play M. Butterfly returns to Broadway. Excavating the trope of the innocent, subservient (and doomed) geisha of Puccini's opera  is particularly timely, given that the Madama Butterfly-inspired Miss Saigon is playing five blocks away.

The juxtaposition raises a question: can we ever put the geisha/china doll stereotype to rest? Should we? Does it have any value?

Ever since I first saw Lea Salonga in the original West End production, Miss Saigon has been my favorite of the British megamusicals. I was studying opera in London, renting a cold, damp room from former squatters who introduced me to Socialism and conceptual art. So Miss Saigon's indictment of the U.S.'s involvement in what the Vietnamese call "The American War" resonated with me. I followed the controversy surrounding Jonathan Pryce playing the Engineer in yellowface and chufound the show much more moving when I saw an Asian actor in the role on the U.S. national tour.

As Pong in Seattle Opera's TURANDOT, with soprano Jane Eaglen, 1996

And yet...as an opera singer I still put on eyeliner to play Asian characters in Turandot and The Mikado, and was ready on a moment's notice to go on as  Goro in Madama Butterfly, the prototype for Miss Saigon's Engineer. I wish I could say I thought about the ramifications, but I didn't. (This message is brought to you by White Privilege...)
As the Emperor of China in Portland Opera's TURANDOT, 2003

My world view shifted when I was asked to join the team creating Allegiance, a job where I was often the only white person in the room. Helping George Takei tell the story of the Japanese-American internment was an honor. Getting to know composer-lyricist Jay Kuo, Lea Salonga, Telly Leung and the entire Allegiance family was a life-changing experience.

ALLEGIANCE Opening Night with George & Lea - November 8, 2015
One of those changes was how Allegiance ruined Madama Butterfly and Miss Saigon for me, as well as the musical I used to view as my all-time favorite, The King and I.

As much as I wanted to, I couldn't enjoy the Lincoln Center revival of The King and I, unable to get past the narrative of the white savior solving the problems of barbaric Asian men and the women they enslave; the solution, of course, being the death of Asian characters.

You can't rewrite The King and I, but Hammerstein's script is so complexly rendered, I wonder whether it's possible to at least emphasize its humanist values over its condescending colonialism. For instance, Mrs. Anna sings "If you become a teacher, by your students you'll be taught," but the narrative of the choreography continues to be as much about Mrs. Anna teaching Western behavior as it is about being taught Eastern customs.

The song is called "Getting to Know YOU," not "Getting to Know ME." 

Mrs. Anna demonstrating Cultural Imperialism
But as a civil rights-minded liberal who unquestioningly donned yellowface, I can understand the blinders of white privilege. With no Asians on The King and I leadership team, there was no advocate for the Asian perspective.

The same issues dominate Miss Saigon. As sympathetic as the character of Kim is, she ultimately kills herself so a white American couple can raise her child. There are a host of reasons why Miss Saigon and The King and I played over 7,500 performances combined on Broadway while Allegiance played 111, but based on responses we received, our plot reversal on the white savior narrative contributed.

So I haven't been able to bring myself to see Miss Saigon, despite it featuring four Allegiance alumni I admire and care about, including--ironically--Katie Rose Clarke, the lone white woman from the original cast of Allegiance.

This week also marks the one hundredth anniversary of the first British megamusical to open on Broadway. Chu Chin Chow ran for over five years in the West End, a record that held until the 1950s. Its success was due in part to its scantily clad "slave girls," who were particularly popular with WWI soldiers on leave.

The Ladies of the Chorus, CHU CHIN CHOW - 1917
The Ladies of the Chorus, MISS SAIGON - 2017

A hundred years from now, will the bulk of the resumes of Asian musical theater actresses still be made up of sex slaves? Does the employment of Asian American actors in any role outweigh the negative stereotypes? Can these works be interpreted to reflect a more enlightened perspective of gender and race?

I'll be at M. Butterfly's opening night. I'm still deciding whether I should see Miss Saigon.

And that, my friends, is The Gospel According to Marc. 







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