The Royal Exchange theatre in Manchester is to present an award-winning play that rails against the portrayal of Asian women in the musical Miss Saigon.
The programming of Kimber Lee’s drama untitled f*ck m*ss s**gon play was announced on Tuesday, following news that a touring theatre company of British east and south-east Asian (BESEA) artists has pulled a production from the Sheffield Crucible next summer because the venue is staging Miss Saigon. In a statement, New Earth Theatre said it would not present its play Worth alongside “a musical that perpetuates deeply held notions of Asian inferiority”.
The winner of the international category of the Bruntwood prize for playwriting in 2019, untitled f*ck m*ss s**gon play will be staged in Manchester at the same time that Miss Saigon will be performed in Sheffield. The play was “born of rage” and came from “feeling invisible or misrepresented”, Lee has said. The playwright, who is based in New York, has criticised how “the presence of Asian American stories is only allowed a very narrow range in the cultural conversation” and said that writing the play was a way to take control of the narrative. The Bruntwood prize judges praised how her play switches between humour and tragedy. Lee said it uses comedy to deal with painful things, “going against another Asian stereotype which is that we’re all humourless and inscrutable”.
Lee has described her play as about a woman trying to find her way out of a maze or a trap. “I think it is going directly at some very painful questions that I have about how Asian women are represented.” The play is about “not only Miss Saigon but this tradition of performance and its treatment of Asian characters and this particular trope of Asian women”. The synopsis says that the character of Kim is “caught up in a never-ending cycle of events, she looks for the exit but the harder she tries, the worse it gets and she begins to wonder: who’s writing this story? She makes a break for it, smashing through a hundred years of bloody narratives that all end the same way.”
The play will be directed by Roy Alexander Weise as part of Manchester international festival and will run from 24 June to 22 July before transferring to the Young Vic in London. It is a co-production with the Young Vic and Headlong touring company.
Sheffield Theatres, which runs the Crucible, will be presenting Miss Saigon in July. On Monday it said it respected New Earth Theatre’s decision. “There is no denying that past versions of this story have provoked strong reactions and feelings. We have approached this new production sensitive to this and believe this is a chance for us to engage in a fresh way with a majority east and south-east Asian company reframing the story,” it said in a statement. “The creative team led by Robert Hastie and Anthony Lau have been in close conversation with members of the BESEA community and are keen to continue discussing their plans with concerned artists to keep a positive and inclusive dialogue open.”
The multi-award-winning Miss Saigon opened in London’s West End in 1989 . Inspired by Puccini’s 1904 opera Madama Butterfly and set towards the end of the Vietnam war, it follows the relationship between a young Vietnamese sex worker and an American GI who abandons her after she becomes pregnant.
Beats, a not-for-profit advocacy organisation founded by British east and south-east Asians working in the theatre and screen industry, released a statement saying “while some might rejoice in the show’s high drama and slick musical numbers, we can never shake off the disturbing fact that south-east and east Asian women are fetishised and hyper-sexualised, harassed and even physically attacked with the lingering trope of pliant availability, while south-east and east Asian men are emasculated and erased. These are damaging cliches which a work like Miss Saigon perpetuates, while also erasing the real experience of war and violence suffered by millions of Vietnamese women, men and children.”
Beats described Miss Saigon as an “unashamedly commercial” show and lamented the fact that it was being revived for the first time in a publicly subsidised theatre. The pejorative title of Lee’s play voiced, it said, “a sentiment we find it difficult not to echo”.