MINNEAPOLIS (July 20, 2016) — On Thursday, July 14, members of the Don’t Buy Miss Saigon Coalition met with Guthrie Theater Artistic Director Joseph Haj and two senior staff, engaging in critical dialogue over the Guthrie’s production of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, SOUTH PACIFIC.
Currently playing to capacity audiences on the theater’s 1100 seat Wurtele Thrust Stage, the 1949 play features a majority white cast portraying U.S. soldiers, nurses, and officers stationed in Polynesia during the latter years of World War II. The tropical island storyline (based on James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific) follows two love affairs: Emile de Becque, a middle-aged French plantation owner courts a young white nurse, Ensign Nellie Forbush, while newly arrived Lieutenant Joe Cable is betrothed to Liat, the teenage daughter of Tonkinese war profiteer Bloody Mary.
Problematic colonial themes and broad stereotypes of API peoples abound in SOUTH PACIFIC. With the exception of de Becque’s manservant, his young mixed race children, and Liat (all of whom speak only a few words in French), the indigenous characters speak in pidgin. The characters of color, and in-turn the performers who play them, function primarily as racialized comedic relief and set dressing for the entertainment and sexual exploits of the occupying U.S. forces.
Well-versed with problematic elements of the production, the coalition presented the following goals for the Guthrie meeting:
To introduce the work and history of DBMS as the latest chapter in a decades-long effort for visibility and self-determination led by the local API community.
To ask specific questions about the process of programming the Guthrie season.
To make the coalition’s vision for the Guthrie Theater known: that it can someday be a place at which API artists can be proud to perform, regardless of the production – an institution whose work does not harm the API community.
The coalition asserts that it will continue to call out institutional racism and damage done to the API community. When informed of the organizing done around the 2013 Ordway Center production of MISS SAIGON, Joseph Haj stated that he believes the two musicals to be vastly different. In reference to SOUTH PACIFIC he offered that “anti-racism is the spine of the play.” Coalition members stated:
“We do not believe a play written by two white men, wherein an under-aged indigenous girl is bedded by an American soldier can be anti-racist.”
The coalition stated that the objectification of API women and girls in Western theatrical literature is all too common:
“No amount of staging can change the Orientalist, colonial narrative of the material itself, a narrative that sits very comfortably in the white imagination. If you call this piece anti-racist, that claim is at the expense of API people.”
DBMS appreciates the opportunity to have met directly with Mr. Haj and his senior team. In a follow-up email Haj thanks the coalition for speaking “powerfully and candidly,” states that he is “grateful to learn of [our] history and concerns,” and “hope[s] that the dialogue we began today can continue into the future.”
The coalition is optimistic that through carefully facilitated outreach, the Guthrie Theater may use this opportunity to start down a path of true collaboration with and celebration of the local API community. The coalition does not (and by definition cannot) promote the censorship of artistic expression. It advocates for API constituents directly affected by harmful stereotypes. Furthermore, the hope is that publically funded institutions of all sizes and disciplines recognize and embrace the incredible wealth of talent originating from the MN API community. This “Minnesota moment” is an opportunity to create lasting partnerships, and to lay the stage for artistic work that truly reflects the community in which it is created.