Monday 28 November 2022
RESPONSE TO "PROGRAMMING MISS SAIGON: ROBERT HASTIE AND ANTHONY LAU SHARE THEIR THOUGHTS"
By Kimber Lee
One effective way to silence and control women, especially Global Majority women, is to dismiss them as angry or hysterical. And after reading the statement from Robert Hastie and Anthony Lau published on Sheffield Theatres' website, I'm an extremely angry woman but I will not be silent. And look, all I wanted today was to eat a nice piece of toast and eggs with sriracha but then this crap jumped off, so here we are.
From the opening paragraph, Robert Hastie and Anthony Lau exert all the force of their position of privilege and power to subvert and control the narrative, and to override and reframe the objections expressed by the BESEA community as a mere difference of opinion rather than an honest expression of the damage done by racist depictions of Asian people. The harmful ignorance in that statement has now been put out into the world as a valid, reasonable argument and the "complex issues" have been smoothed away as a matter of personal taste or opinion. The statement indulges in many such classic moves from the white supremacist playbook.
Honestly, I am not shocked by any of this, and would have expected it to be the case in terms of the thought process that would be necessary to justify the decision to program MS. But the fact that Robert Hastie and Anthony Lau put this public statement into the world in an attempt to subvert and control the truth of what that musical does to people changes my response to the situation and it is not something I can let pass by while saying nothing.
"But Kimber," you say, "aren't there many EASEA people who love the show, who are working on this production?"
To quote from the statement, "Well, there is plenty to be said in answer to that that one."
The first thing being: How can you claim credit for open, honest conversation with the non- white community you are damaging if you have never once named the actual problem? Examples of euphemistic language used in the article to soften, twist, and obscure: "undeniably knotty," "deeply problematic," "complex issues," "complexities and challenges," "challenging territory, "divisive performance history" among others. The use of this coded language is meant to convey acknowledgement of "complexities" while diluting and dismissing any objections to the material, to re-position the protest of BESEA people into an equal-sided controversy that's just a matter of opinion rather than the racism and imperialist misogyny that live in the very core of this musical. This truth is never named accurately or honestly by Mr. Hastie or Mr. Lau, and truly, I understand the logic. If you name the truth, then it's very hard to
defend your decision to program the musical -- which was a decision, by the way, a choice -- not an inevitability against which we are all helpless.
I don't feel a need to argue that point, nor discuss the internalized racism that many of us have had to deal with from being saturated in these very tropes from birth. Mr. Hastie and Mr. Lau are entitled to their own thoughts, and I am not a missionary here to save anyone's soul by providing education on the insidious and various forms of racism. Their incredibly patronizing assertion that MS will be "done at some point whether we like it or not" is probably true and I do actually understand the economic logic driving that decision, and I pause here only to remark on this phrasing as a stunningly arrogant pat on the head that reveals more than they might think about their condescending attitude.
But first, a few items regarding the choice to bring on Anthony Lau as a co-director, and other BESEA members of the creative team. The idea that BESEA people who are employed by this highly visible Artistic Director will have the power and freedom to tell him the truth, to tell him things he doesn't want to hear is offensive in its willful ignorance of power dynamics, institutional weight upon theatre workers who are hired by the job (and can be fired, or labeled as "difficult" which will impact their future employment prospects), and the tenuous nature of working as a non-white theatre artist in a white institution. It is not an environment of equal power, no matter how much nice language about "being a family" is used as cover.
For a non-white person in a predominantly white institution, it is not always easy to do your work, let alone speak the truth when the structures that surround you were not built to receive that honesty as anything but an attack, or whining, or being difficult. Artists are often punished for making powerful people and institutions uncomfortable, which has real economic impact on a person's life.
And the idea that ESEA people don't struggle with internalized racism or hold uneducated views is another example of a startling lack of knowledge or willful miscomprehension of racial and power dynamics. The statement does mention in passing that "a large number of those who love the show may not have engaged with the issues we're talking about here" but this point is buried in a barrage of praise for "the score, drama, and emotional impact" that hurriedly asserts that many people "see nothing problematic to be reckoned with."
Can I see into the souls of the BESEA creative team working on Miss Saigon, or presume to know the depth of their reasoning? Of course not. As much as this production disappoints and upsets me, it is not the reason for my anger. It is this statement from Mr. Hastie and Mr. Lau.
I do not place blame on any of the ESEA theatre artists who chose to be part of this production for whatever reason -- love of the musical, need for a job. Theatre artists are by and large contract workers and don't always have the financial ability to say no, especially when a respected, high-profile theatre like Sheffield offers a job. I also accept that many of them may love MS and be thrilled to participate, and understand that they may feel implicated or called out by this statement, and so I will say clearly one more time: an ESEA theatre artist has to
make tough choices sometimes, and I respect that difficulty, and do not place blame on the people who have the least amount of power in the situation. But the truth stands that an ESEA person loving it does not absolve Miss Saigon of the racism and misogyny it reinforces, nor the damage it causes. Nor does it do anything to open up the larger context of these questions, about how a non-white person raised in a predominately white Western culture comes to terms with all the things that we loved as we were growing up, before we understood the self- annihilating and implicit inferiority that was seeded in us by consuming those stereotypical depictions over and over. As adults who still live here, we wrestle with the questions still: what does it mean if we still love those things? What does it mean to love a thing that dehumanizes you?
And to be ultra clear once again: I am not calling Robert Hastie a racist or Anthony Lau a person with internalized racism. I cannot see into their souls, I do not know them. I can only see their actions, and their actions are harmful and ill-considered. Their statement is duplicitous, an attempt to spin the situation away from honest conversation while pretending to engage the questions in a "ask-and-answer" style that displays superiority and condescension to those to whom they are supposedly listening. The very fact that they refuse to clearly name the racism and imperialist misogyny that is the very DNA of that show tells me that they are not having an honest conversation in good faith, and that they either live in ignorance of what the actual problem is or willfully refuse to listen to those who are providing them with that
information. They are at the very least willing to impose that ignorance on the public, as a supposed response to people's pain, in order to justify and defend themselves.
Again: I understand very clearly that this musical will continue to be revived. I understand the economics of that, and that the music and story are beloved of many people, even some ESEA communities. I do not dispute that Robert Hastie and Anthony Lau have a right to produce this musical, and would not have waded into this discourse since I feel like my upcoming play is a fairly clear indication of where I stand, and the ground upon which I stand.
But the fact that they made their insulting rationalizations into a public statement, that they elected to release a public statement deploying all of those suppressive, manipulative, patronizing, and white supremacist deflections and arguments in order to distort the pain and anger of real people into a simple difference of opinion and taste, and to posit that they have really heard people and are collaborating with the very community that is actively being harmed is something that I cannot just let pass without comment. To write and then publish that lengthy statement is an act of staggering arrogance and entitlement -- their statement which pretends to be even-handed and considerate of all sides while steadily suppressing, twisting, and glossing over the facts of the matter which are that they knowingly chose this racist musical and do not want to be held accountable or told they are harming people.
If they had released a statement naming the racism and misogyny, and stating that they're doing their best with it, but they made their decision and that's that -- I would shrug it off, it is very common for power to be wielded in this way. But they are actively using the BESEA artists who are working on the show as cover, as plausible deniability while never once naming the
show's "complexities" for what they are: racist stereotypes, misogynist and demeaning depictions, an imperialist, dehumanizing gaze on an entire race of people shown to us as a mass of cowering, abusive, cruel, inferior, evil, weak, conniving, empty sexual objects, etc etc, the damaging extraction and then framing through a white gaze of the painful narrative of the suffering that was unleashed by the Vietnam war. This is very destructive, and the real-life effects will be intensified and more widespread because of Sheffield's power and position among the major institutions of the theatre in the UK.
And the idea that you can change the racist essence of the material with your staging choices? That you and your creative team of BESEA artists somehow hold the key to de-racist-ify this patently racist musical? Are you kidding me?? Does making the U.S. soldiers into the victims of the war really do anything to change the white savior mentality of Bui Doi?? Does it really make a difference if the "scantily-clad women" are shoved into the background?? Asians are already accustomed to being shoved into the background of their own stories, used as diversity wallpaper to provide exotically colored scenery for white-centered narratives. These ideas are not only insulting and offensive, they are ineffective. They do nothing to alter the racist bedrock on which the scenes are built, and the patronizing mini-tutorial about "highlighting and focusing" on "character arcs and beats" is absolutely jaw-dropping in its infantilizing condescension.
Stagecraft is not the issue. Restaging the "focus" of the scenes does not and cannot change their substance, nor lessen the racist impact on an audience. Nor does any audience's enjoyment of those racist tropes do anything to justify their performance, especially in a production subsidised by public money. Over the years, many people have enjoyed blackface, yellowface, and racist caricatures in many contexts -- we do not accept those things
today. (Most of the time.)
I live in a city where East Asian, Southeast Asian, and South Asian people have been punched, beaten, verbally assaulted, threatened, shoved in front of traffic, and pushed off train platforms in front of oncoming trains. Throughout my life, white men in a variety of contexts have felt free to put their hands on me without asking, on my hair, my face, my back, my ass, my neck. I have been called chink, gook, yellow chinky bitch, geisha, yelled at "me love you long time," told to go back to my country -- the list goes on. These are things that I have learned to live with, and prepare for since they've been regular occurrences since I was five years old.
In my time working in the theatre, I have received more nicely phrased, more warmly offered racism, which is in many ways more difficult to address, because there is always the plausible deniability of "what was meant." And look, I'm very understanding of honest blunders, we all make them, I do myself all the time -- we are humans and we are all learning. I am not righteous in all the land, that is certain, and I have very mixed feelings about the call-out culture in which we find ourselves. I know this production will go on despite my objections, and this is not a cancellation or callout -- it is a legitimate expression of pain and anger, and normally, I would work through that on my own, with people close to me, like we all do. Because of my play, I had been informed of Sheffield's production and while I was incredibly disappointed and
disturbed, I was not surprised and not planning to do anything but support the BESEA community.
But the quiet violence of this Sheffield public statement, the kindly, avuncular way in which it seeks to dismantle and silence any opposition or protest by positioning these self-serving rationalizations as engagement with the issues, all while denying the dehumanizing effects of the racist stereotypes embedded in every scene of that musical -- this is massive gaslighting enacted in very professional language meant to soften and obscure, and to make anyone who objects seem difficult and naive. It is gaslighting and demeaning to the very painful decision made by New Earth to pull their WORTH production dates. It is gaslighting and patronizing to the BESEA theatre artists who had to make a painful choice. It is gaslighting and dismissive of those who expressed their dismay on the BEATS website. (https://wearebeatsorg.org.uk/blog/statement-about-miss-saigon)
All of these examples of silencing and violence are points along the same spectrum, and in many cases, one creates the environment in which the other can occur. But the anger that I feel is not only about this refusal to see how these things are connected to a piece like Miss Saigon, and how damaging, painful, and ultimately dehumanizing they are -- which for an Asian person could mean a momentary inconvenience, or lose you a job, or ruin your day, or get you shoved in front of a train. My anger is also about the hypocrisy of people of power and privilege wielding their position to publicly distort and dismiss legitimate objections to a racist piece of work while claiming to engage in respectful conversation.
I am an outsider to the British theatre community, I am aware of that fact in many ways, and I'm not interested in imposing myself on anyone. Many people may see this statement as disrespectful, but then I would ask -- why is it disrespectful to tell the truth? To name things for what they are? This is another tactic deployed by people in power to silence those who raise uncomfortable questions: to police the tone in which they express themselves, to avert focus from the substance of the question into "how you said it." And in many cases, for a person trying to make a life and work, the necessity of choosing battles means that one cannot engage every time something happens. Especially in the theatre industry, where one conversation, one emotional expression of pain, anything deemed to be said in the wrong way can have devastating and lasting impact on your ability to work.
There must always be a way back, for those of us who have been in the wrong -- and we will all find ourselves there one day, in one way or another, to one degree or another. There must always be a way back to each other, to connection and compassion. But it is entirely impossible to find a way back if we cannot start by telling the whole truth without rationalizing or justifying, if we cannot truly listen and take in the suffering our actions have caused.
I know these things are not comfortable to talk about. It is uncomfortable for me. My heart hurts. In my play, I put my pain in the form of comedy; in my life, I tend to use (sometimes bleak) humor as a way to step through the wreckage racism leaves in its wake. But with my play entering the UK theatre season next spring I do have skin, all my Asian skin, in the game
and I will not be silent when statements like the one from Mr. Hastie and Mr. Lau are put into the public sphere.
My eggs are cold now, but I'm gonna eat 'em anyway. Thanks for reading. Kimber Lee, Playwright
If you have any questions about BEATS, the advocacy that we do, want to know more or need to talk to someone, please contact us by using this form.