About 200 people gathered outside Overture Center for the Arts Wednesday evening after the performing arts center cancelled a planned panel discussion on Asian American representation in theater.
The panel was planned because some local Asian Americans reached out to Overture Center to express objections to the Broadway musical Miss Saigon, which they say depicts Asian women as sexual objects, white people as saviors and Asian men as stupid and brutish. The Broadway tour of Miss Saigon opens Tuesday at Overture Hall, just weeks after a weeklong run of The King and I, which raises similar objections.
“At first they were confused about why it was harmful,” said University of Wisconsin student Riley Tsang, a Brookfield native who took part in those initial meetings. “So we took some time to explain some of the narratives, and we also took the time to educate them about the Asian-American community in Madison. They had no idea that Asian-Americans were facing deportation and all these other types of discrimination. So after we talked about that for a while, we asked that they would commit to not having Miss Saigon and The King and I ever again, and try to focus on centering Asian-American stories written by Asian-Americans. To which they said, ‘We have no control over this,.” because Broadway tours are booked by the for-profit company Broadway Across America.
“After they explained that to us, we said, ‘Okay, well how about having an educational event, and having an educational insert put into the program so people can at least know about why this is harmful?’ And they said, ‘Sure, that seems plausible.’ So, we left the meeting and they said that they would work with us, and then, as you heard tonight, it did not happen,” Tsang said.
UW Professor of English and Asian American Studies Timothy Yu said he was invited to write that program insert, but was told after submitting a 1,000-word essay that it would not be inserted in the program or distributed to audiences. He has since posted it to the UW Asian American Studies Department website.
Overture Center officials have not said specifically why the panel was cancelled, except that Overture was not “on the same page” with the intellectuals they had invited to participate, including Asian American Studies professor Leslie Bow, who was asked to moderate the panel and had prepared specific questions for all participants.
“As far as I know, I was preparing for class. I wasn’t rabble rousing, I wasn’t doing anything that I don’t do every day. I was preparing questions about racial diversity, awareness, difference and how people feel about specific representations that deeply affect them,” Bow said at the event Wednesday. “Apparently the question that’s the most egregious was as simple as, ‘Can you tell us how the Overture does programming? How did you choose to come to choose The King and I and Miss Saigon, which for us in the Asian American community is kind of like a one two punch.’”
Bow said after she submitted the questions Monday, so panelists could be prepared, she received an email saying “Listen, you need to call us by 11:00 AM tomorrow or basically, you are fired,” she said.
In response to that and other communication from Overture, including changes to the makeup of the panel, Yu emailed Overture officials expressing concern and pledging to distribute his essay to audiences before next week’s performances. In an email Wednesday morning, Overture CEO Sandra Gajic wrote, “We will not tolerate any harassment and bullying tactics,” and that “the questions you submitted for review on Monday felt inflammatory and directed at me personally and not about the issues.”
On Wednesday, Overture officials said the panel will be rescheduled after the Overture run of Miss Saigon is over. Rather than wait, panelists organized their own “teach in” at the corner of State and Fairchild Streets downtown.
Overture reportedly offered to allow organizers to hold their “teach in” inside Promenade Hall, the venue where the original panel was to have taken place, but organizers declined, saying the discussion was no longer taking place on Overture’s terms.
“The original plan for tonight was that we were going to have a discussion with folks from the Overture center about their decision to stage Miss Saigon,” said UW Professor of Media and Cultural Studies Lori Kido Lopez. “When we met with them earlier this year, it seemed like they understood that Miss Saigon has a problem with racism. It seems like they understood that Asian Americans have always been upset with this play. And now this was an opportunity to do something that they had never done before, which was reach out to Asian American communities in Madison and show them that they cared. It looks like this will not be happening at all.
“If they had given us a chance, here are some of the things we would have taught you. We would have taught you how Miss Saigon tells the story of a 17-year-old Vietnamese prostitute, who loses her virginity to a white GI, gets pregnant and eventually sacrifices herself so her baby could live in the U.S. That it relies on a harmful stereotypes like the hyper-sexualized Asian woman, the lotus blossom who needs to be saved and that these stereotypes are what leads to continue the oppression against Asian Americans today … These are the kinds of histories that the Overture center must not want you to hear, because they told us today that we weren’t being respectful enough, that the questions we wanted to ask were inflammatory. And we shouldn’t have been surprised, because you know, what else is part of Asian American history, that we have always been told that we should stay in our place, that we should stay quiet, and then no one wants to hear from us. And we are here to say that we’re not your model minority.”
“Shame on Overture for making a profit off the bodies of Asian bodies and Asian lives,” said Nancy Vue of Freedom Inc. “If you are a white woman, you should be outraged because this play pits white woman against Asian women. You should be outraged that it does that because we ought to be working together.”
“We’re not here necessary here to protest, but rather we’re here to educate the public,” said Joe Ahn, who was one of the first to question Overture Center via social media months ago.
The “teach-in” lasted about 30 minutes.
“I’m incredibly happy and inspired and grateful for everybody who put on this event, and really inspired by the persistence of the support of our community,” said Erika Kanesaka Kalnay, a graduate student in the Asian American Studies program at UW who attended the event. “I’m disappointed that Asian-American voices are being silenced.”