Play ‘born of rage’ on Asian female stereotypes castigates Miss Saigon | Theater
Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theater is due to perform an award-winning play that rails against the portrayal of Asian women in the musical Miss Saigon.
The lineup for Kimber Lee’s drama titled f*ck m*ss s**gon play was announced on Tuesday, following news that a touring theater company of British East Asian performers and du Sud-Est (BESEA) has withdrawn a production from the Sheffield Crucible next summer as the venue hosts Miss Saigon. In a statement, New Earth Theater said it would not perform its play Worth alongside “a musical that perpetuates deeply held notions of Asian inferiority.”
The 2019 Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting International Category winner, untitled f*ck m*ss s**gon play will be staged in Manchester at the same time as Miss Saigon will be performed in Sheffield. The piece was “born out of rage” and came from “unseen or distorted feeling,” Lee said. The playwright, who is based in New York, criticized that “the presence of Asian American stories is only allowed within a very narrow range of cultural conversation” and said the play’s writing was a way to take control of the story. The Bruntwood Prize judges praised the way his play oscillates between humor and tragedy. Lee said he uses comedy to deal with painful things, “going against another Asian stereotype that we’re all humorless and inscrutable”.
Lee described her piece as that of a woman trying to get out of a maze or trap. “I think that goes straight to some very painful questions I have about how Asian women are portrayed.” The play is about “not just Miss Saigon but this performance tradition and her treatment of Asian characters and this particular trope of Asian women”. The synopsis says Kim’s character is “caught in an endless cycle of events, she seeks the exit but the harder she tries, the worse it gets and she begins to wonder: Who is writing this story? She pauses, shattering a hundred years of gory tales that all end the same way.
The play will be directed by Roy Alexander Weise as part of the Manchester International Festival and will run from June 24 to July 22 before moving to the Young Vic in London. It is a co-production with touring company Young Vic and Headlong.
Sheffield Theatres, which runs the Crucible, will present Miss Saigon in July. On Monday, he said he respects the New Earth Theater’s decision. “It is undeniable that earlier versions of this story have provoked strong reactions and emotions. We have approached this new production sensitive to this and believe this is a chance for us to engage in a new way with a predominantly East and Southeast Asian society reframing history,” he said. he said in a statement. “The creative team led by Robert Hastie and Anthony Lau has had a close conversation with members of the BESEA community and wishes to continue discussing its plans with the artists involved in order to keep a positive and inclusive dialogue open.”
The multi-award winning Miss Saigon opened in London’s West End in 1989. Inspired by Puccini’s 1904 opera Madama Butterfly and set towards the end of the Vietnam War, it follows the relationship between a young Vietnamese sex worker and an American GI who abandons her after she becomes pregnant.
Beats, a non-profit advocacy organization founded by British East and South East Asians working in the theater and screen industry, issued a statement saying that “although some may rejoicing in the show’s high drama and slick musical numbers, we can never shake the disturbing fact that women in Southeast and East Asia are fetishized and hyper-sexualized, harassed and even assaulted physically with the lingering trope of submissive availability, while Southeast and East Asian men are emasculated and erased. These are damaging clichés that a work like Miss Saigon perpetuates, while erasing the real experience of war and violence suffered by millions of Vietnamese women, men and children.
Beats described Miss Saigon as a “shamelessly commercial” show and lamented that it was being revived for the first time in a state-subsidized theatre. The pejorative title of Lee’s piece expressed, he said, “a sentiment that we find it hard not to echo.”