September 22, 2013

"Miss Saigon" Lies about the real questions about artistic responsibility

I came across a lot of posts with pictures of people writing, "Miss Saigon lies," then I found out about this Don't Buy Miss Saigon campaign.

Now, I haven't seen Miss Saigon, but from the description of it, it's probably best that I don't. To be frank, I'm not interested in discussing whether or not Miss Saigon should exist. It already exists, so arguing for or against that would be purely rhetorical at this point. Naturally, there are many Vietnamese people giving a, shall we say, less than enthusiastic response to the portrayal of Vietnamese people, especially Vietnamese women.

And, like clockwork, somebody white is going to read all that and say, "Ugh! You people just don't want anyone else to do anything! You get offended by everything! It's just fiction! They're just trying to tell a story! Why does it have to be about race or gender? It's not hurting anybody! It's not the writer's/director's/producer's fault that they're white! You should be glad they're talking about these issues! Write your own play! You're just haters! Blah blah blah!"

I will always be perplexed and frustrated by the ability of people who have one or more kind of privilege to completely ignore and dismiss all the nuance and context from any discussion about the ways that race, gender, sexuality, and class impact a specific cultural phenomenon. The cognitive dissonance it takes to say, "I believe that race, gender, sexuality, and class are systemic factors that affect every level and every aspect of society" and then say, "You complaining about racism and sexism in Miss Saigon is just you being a hater (and if you're a woman of Vietnamese descent, you're an ungrateful hater)" is along the same lines as, "God loves you, but you're going to hell," but without the whole stripping people of their human and civil rights part.

Whether a person is justified in liking or disliking some form of art, pop culture, or entertainment is, aside from incredibly reductive and simplistic, just plain ol' boring. I've never been fond of rhetorical or semantic debates, where the whole point of conversation is merely to display or sharpen one's wits or powers of persuasion. As times goes on, I have less and less interest in participating in debates about important issues where it's clear that the stakes are higher for one group of people than another. There's a reason why I'm no longer debating or arguing about the existence of racism, sexism, homophobia, etc., especially with people who are not on the receiving end of them.

Rather than strip away all the nuance and context from a very complex and very important discussion that needs to happen about media representation and who has access to and control over the mechanisms that allow certain stories to be told by certain people, I want to explore those nuances and complexities.

This most recent controversy about Miss Saigon creates an opportunity for addressing questions that have always been there and starting (continuing?) conversations that have always been happening. Questions and conversations about the responsibilities of artists to the communities impacted by their work.

I'm not in the business of providing a one-size-fits-all approach to how those conversations need to happen. However, I do caution that the content of those conversations cannot be, "How can I do what I want without anybody telling me I'm fucking up?"

I won't sit here and pretend that these things are easy to figure out because they aren't. Nothing that involves facing the historical and cultural and political roots of a society will be simple or easy. But, I think that acknowledging the difficulty and committing to working through it would be an important step, right after having a shared vision and common stakes in the outcome.

Things to do when I get back to Brooklyn (or, "Why I Went Back To Brooklyn")

There are so many different directions and approaches I can go in, which I need to decide on before I get to the, "How much will this cost again?" phase. Part of me wants to revamp rehearsals to match my tabletop RPG roots, so that would require less cramming over a longer period of time. Part of me wants to use a non-traditional performance space a la Peter Brook's "The Carpet Show" something more or less portable that also creates the magic of the piece.

All of me wants to crack open standard methods of producing theatre, stripping away the non-essential and building up from there as the piece needs it. All of me wants to discard what is dead or inert about the way theatre gets produced, those things we just accept as true about making theatre without even knowing that we do them. And I do mean everything--from auditions, to rehearsals, to performance. Note to self: I should probably write about these at some point.

I suppose using my 3rd full-length play as the fuel for this theatrical research and development (h/t Gwydion Suilebhan) is a bit foolhardy, but then again, I do think that if I'm going to experiment, I'd rather butcher my own stuff than someone else's.