Overture Center apologizes for handling of “Miss Saigon” controversy

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MADISON (WKOW) — As the popular musical, “Miss Saigon” opened at Madison’s Overture Center, theater management apologized for the way they’ve handled concerns from the Asian American community.

Sandra Gajic, the theater’s CEO put it bluntly.

“We made a mistake. I made a mistake” she said. “We needed to hear that community.”

Gajic said members of Madison’s Asian American community reached out in February to express concerns about “Miss Saigon.”

The musical, based on Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, takes place during the Vietnam war and follows a love story between an American soldier and a Vietnamese woman who works as a bar girl in a brothel.

“It’s a heartbreaking story,” Gajic said. “I see it as an anti-war story.”

Timothy Yu, an Asian American studies professor at UW-Madison said he, and many other in the Asian American community, see it differently.

“Almost all the Vietnamese women in the musical are prostitutes, you have the white savior narrative, the idea that a white hero has to come in and sort of rescue the Asian woman and also the negative depiction of Asian men in the musical,” he said.

Yu said he and Gajic agreed to host a panel for March 27, the week before the show opened, to discuss some of the stereotypes and representations of Asian people in the musical. Yu was set to be a panelist. The morning before the panel, Gajic cancelled.

“We felt that the original intent of the panel somehow got lost and we overreacted,” she said.

Gajic said she saw some of the questions the panel would face and she was concerned the discussion would turn into an attack on the Overture rather than a conversation about representation.

“Well, we were pretty shocked,” Yu said. “Especially because in her email cancelling the panel, the CEO said that the questions we were planning to ask were inflammatory.”

To get his message across, Yu and the some of the other panelists put on their own version of the event called a “teach-in” outside the Overture on March 27. Then on opening night, Yu and members of the Asian American Studies Program at UW passed out fliers titled “What’s Wrong with ‘Miss Saigon.'”

“We wanted to make sure that people coming to the theater would hear the point of view of Asian Americans and know about some of these criticisms,” Yu said.

While Gajic was not CEO at the time the Overture selected “Miss Saigon” and says she had nothing to do with the programming choice, she stands by the theater’s decision to run the show. She does however, apologize for cancelling the panel and said she plans to use as these past weeks as lessons when it comes to deciding on new programming for the Overture.

“What we learned that we really need to look through also a lens of what does the community want and need to see on our main stages too,” she said.

For her that means looking into programming featuring diverse performers as well as from diverse artists.

Yu calls it a start.

“While I certainly appreciate [the apology] from a personal level,” he said. “I think though, that what I’m really interested in seeing is Overture committing to some concrete actions.”

Gajic said she’s hopeful the Overture can schedule a new panel once “Miss Saigon” finishes its run. Yu said he’s not interested in participating in another panel. Instead, he said he’d much rather see a future performance featuring positive and accurate portrayals of Asian people.

Michelle Alfini

Michelle Alfini

Reporter, WKOW

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