Commentary: Ordway’s ‘Miss Saigon’ is a disservice to donors, funders and community

By Adam Chau

I’m a Vietnamese-American, adopted out of South Vietnam in 1973. I have called the Twin Cities my home for the last 20 years. I am part of a community of color being told, in effect, that it shouldn’t be offended by the production of “Miss Saigon” headed for the Ordway Center this week.

It’s as if the Ordway is telling us to disregard words, phrases, and actions that are, or have been, used to denigrate us. In effect, we should just get over it.

I find it hard to believe that the Ordway’s donors would support that type of thinking.

“Miss Saigon,” once a vehicle for stage practices like yellowface, has a history and legacy of usurping power from a community that has yet to have its voice fully heard, represented and taken seriously. In that way, “Miss Saigon” is a symbol of past indiscretions against the Asian and Pacific Islander American community, as well as other communities of color. Like any other such symbol, it doesn’t need a resurgence.

The Ordway Center for the Performing Arts (a charitable non-profit organization) presents itself as “a venue built by the community for the community.” Then why doesn’t the Ordway heed recommendations from the community, such as by Randy Reyes, artistic director for Mu Performing Arts, that it not present the show (or at the very least pledge never to bring it back again)? Why doesn’t the Ordway listen to artists and writers like David Mura, honored with multiple NEA and Bush Foundation fellowships, or Bao Phi, a nationally recognized spoken word artist and writer and program director at The Loft, one of the nation’s leading literary centers?

How can the Ordway say it is about community when it disregards the recommendations of Asian-American community leaders regarding images of the Asian-American community?

The Ordway failed even to consult its own cultural advisory board about “Miss Saigon,” even though communities of color have been criticizing and protesting the show since its inception. The Ordway can’t claim to be following the goals of its mission, which in part is to “enrich diverse audiences” in an environment where “education and community engagement are integral.”

The Ordway fell short on its due diligence by failing to vet the production in a culturally diverse community — in effect, failing its donors, funders and audiences.

Some of the Ordway’s defenders have pointed out that Asian-Americans in the “Miss Saigon” cast are supporting the production. That is simple misdirection, a red herring that in many ways asks Ordway donors to look away from the larger issues. That a movie, television show or theater production has Asian-American artists involved in it does not absolve its creators of contributing to structures and processes that have systematically held down individuals and communities of color — especially when those creators are not people of color (as is the case with “Miss Saigon”).

Working artists of all colors may be trying to change what they see as wrong in the industry from the inside, or may simply want to work in their field. Is it truly a surprise that someone from the cast of this production would come out in support of the show?

The Ordway will make a lot of money on this production. But it would also be good business, in an ever-more multicultural society, to listen to the thousands of voices who feel the Ordway is on the wrong side of history.

Communities of color will remember far into the future that the Ordway cared more about the immediate financial gains of “Miss Saigon” and less about them — as men and women, children and families, mothers and daughters, generations of people who have made their homes here, and as individuals who simply want to be treated with respect.

Adam Chau is a business and IT analyst in the Twin Cities.