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Overture Cancels Panel on Asian American Representation in Miss Saigon Over “Inflammatory” Questions


Overture Center for the Arts has cancelled a panel discussion scheduled for tonight intended to address some of the racial tensions around the Broadway musical Miss Saigon, which will arrive in Overture Hall next week, prompting activists to host an impromptu “teach-in” outside the downtown Madison arts center tonight instead.

In a statement Wednesday, Overture Center Vice President for Equity and Innovation Ed Holmes said the panel will be rescheduled for a time after the show’s one-week run in Overture Hall.

“We determined that we have a misunderstanding with the people that we were collaborating with for this dialogue. It appears that we were not all on the same page as to our goals, objectives and the purpose for tonight’s event,” he said in a written statement. “This is uncharted territory for us.”

Overture organized the event to “provide a platform for multiple perspectives that gives voice to diverse communities about how they are represented in the arts,” according to a March 14 press release announcing the panel. The panel was organized in response to criticism Overture received on social media after Miss Saigon was announced as part of its season.

Joe Ahn, a Madison native and Asian American, was one of those who reached out to Overture to express concerns a few months ago. In an interview Wednesday he said the center seemed open to an honest dialog at first.

He also said he’s not advocating for a boycott of the show.

“I have mixed feelings about it,” he said. “I don’t necessarily think the musical itself should be outright banned or anything. I think people are more than welcome to enjoy the musical but they should also know the history behind it and the impact it has on the Asian American community.” 

That seems to have been the intent of the panel.

“Overture Center believes art is intended to be the vehicle that creates opportunity for critical, courageous conversations on our current sociopolitical concerns, cultural issues and beyond,” Overture CEO Sandra Gajic said in the March 14 press release. “Our goal is to use Overture as a gathering point that brings people together around dialogue that fosters a greater understanding of our similarities and differences.”

The panel was to be moderated by University of Wisconsin Professor of English and Asian American Studies Leslie Bow and was to include Josephine Lee from the University of Minnesota, Lori Kido Lopez from the University of Wisconsin, Nancy Vue Tran from Freedom Inc, Sarah Marty from Four Seasons Theater and Gajic.

Dr. Timothy Yu, a professor of English and Asian American studies at the University of Wisconsin, was invited to give opening remarks and to submit a note for inclusion in the playbill. He says he was later told the note he wrote would not be included in the program.

Holmes was also scheduled to give remarks.

Yu and others today said they had received an email from Gajic saying the panel would be postponed.

“The questions you submitted for review on Monday felt inflammatory and directed at me personally and not about the issues,” Gajic wrote in the email. “This is a forum for discussion not protest … We will not tolerate any harassment and bullying tactics and expect professionalism from all involved. It would appear that we have not come to an agreement how this discussion tonight should proceed. We believe that we cannot have a respectful dialogue where each of the four panelists will have an opportunity to answer the same questions. We therefore plan to reschedule tonight’s event to a future date.”

The proposed questions were to be directed to each panelist based on their expertise and position, according to a document obtained by Madison365. Those intended for Gajic were about how Overture chooses its programming (noting that Miss Saigon was booked long before Gajic became CEO), “Why do you think that plays like this still so popular with audiences when they seem to represent racial views that so out of touch?” and “What can Overture do be more responsive to the local community in Madison and programming that is more diverse?”

Read the full set of proposed questions here.

Everyone involved in the panel is “confused” about Gajic’s accusation of harassment and bullying, said Ahn, though Gajic’s email comes in direct response to an email Yu sent to Holmes just after midnight Wednesday after Holmes apparently objected to the questions and topics, removed Lopez from the panel and attempted to replace Bow as moderator.

To be frank, if Josephine Lee were not already scheduled to speak, I would consider withdrawing entirely from this event in protest,” Yu wrote. “However, Professor Lee is a respected expert on this issue and should be given the opportunity to be heard.  Out of respect for her, I will proceed with the event. However, you can be sure that in my introductory remarks, I will make clear my view of the planning of this panel and my skepticism about Overture’s seriousness in addressing these issues.

“Since Overture has also refused to make the program note *which I was specifically invited to write* available to the public, I will print copies myself and distribute them to the audience at tomorrow’s event.”

Gajic responded with her email announcing the postponement at 9:30 Wednesday morning.

Panelists have decided to hold the event regardless, now recast as a “teach-in” outside Overture Center at 7 pm, according to the Facebook event.

Madison365 reached out to several Overture Center Foundation board members but did not receive a response.

Miss Saigon has been the subject of both protest and adoration among Asian American communities, often protested for its portrayal of Asian Americans but also lauded because it provides more representation for Asian Americans than most other Broadway shows or films, especially when it made its debut in 1989.

“The trouble with Miss Saigon begins with its story, which transposes Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, and its central romance between a British sailor and a young Japanese girl, to the U.S. war in Vietnam. It continues a tradition that views the Asian woman as a sexual object to be conquered by the white hero–a stereotype highlighted by the fact that the Vietnamese women in Miss Saigon are all prostitutes,” Yu wrote in the note that was to be included in the program. He has since posted that note online.

Meanwhile Jackie Nguyen, who performs in the ensemble of the touring company coming to Madison next week, told the Wisconsin State Journal that she appreciates the representation.

“I had never seen Asians on stage before,” Nguyen, who is Vietnamese American, told the Wisconsin State Journal for a story about the panel that ran Sunday. “I said, ‘What? I can do that?’”

Overture itself has little say over what Broadway shows play here, as its Broadway season is booked through a management company called Broadway Across America, and many logistical and marketing factors determine which performing arts centers get which shows each season. Still, Overture was willing to engage in discussion about the issues surrounding the show — until today.

In 2014, the Overture Center Foundation identified racial equity as one of its top priorities in response to the 2013 Race to Equity report that found significant racial disparities in Dane County. Holmes’ hiring in 2016, and his promotion to vice president last month, are part of Overture’s so-called “Racial Equity Initiative.”

This story has been corrected. A previous version identified Sarah Marty’s affiliation incorrectly.