ST. PAUL, Minn. — When she first saw it as a teen, Sara Ochs loved “Miss Saigon.” Twenty years later, the musical disgusts her.
A Korean adoptee, Ochs recalled the thrill of seeing a stage filled with Asian actors. But over the years the thrill gave way to a rough reality: “Miss Saigon” portrays Asian women largely as helpless, submissive and oversexed.
Ochs won’t be in the audience this fall when Miss Saigon plays at St. Paul’s Ordway Center for the Performing Arts. Instead, she and other Asian American artists will protest the production. They say the award winning musical – the 12th longest running show in Broadway history – perpetuates damning stereotypes, and glosses over the realities of human trafficking in order to pull at heart strings and sell tickets. Others, including some who will act the roles at the Ordway, see “Miss Saigon” as an accurate if painful look at lives broken by the Vietnam War.
Written by the creative team behind “Les Miserables” and inspired by the opera “Madame Butterfly,” “Miss Saigon” features a love story between an American G.I. and a Vietnamese girl at the end of the war.
Its big opening number takes place in a club called Dreamland, where American G.I.s come for the girls, which they call “slits.” One G.I. buys a girl for his buddy. Her name is Kim, and she just happens to be new to the business – an orphan of the war. That night she and the G.I. sleep together, and fall in love. They plan to marry, but he’s evacuated, leaving her behind, pregnant.
Three years later, desperate to help her child find a better life, she commits suicide so her boy can join his American father — and his father’s new American wife.
“I just felt so connected to the story and really moved by it,” Ochs said recently as she sat in a St. Paul cafe a few floors below the offices for Mu Performing Arts, the Twin Cities Asian American theater company where she works. Her feelings changed with age. “It’s just in poor taste,” she said.
“The Asian woman as a prostitute, the over sexualization of the Asian woman … I can’t tell you how many times I have been harassed by people on the street because I am Asian, so they think I’ll be submissive and I won’t talk back to them, or they think that I’ll be sexy, and it’s just like – oh gross!”