An open letter to Sheila Regan and others who are reporting criticism of the Ordway’s new production of Miss Saigon. (Read Sheila Regan’s post, “We should all boycott the Ordway’s revival of racist musical Miss Saigon,” here.)
My name is Orville Mendoza.
I am a Filipino-American who immigrated to the U.S. with my family when I was two years old. My parents’ main reason for immigrating was so that my brother and I could have more opportunities and have a better life than we would in the Philippines. I know this because my brother and I would have this explanation brow-beaten into us over and over and over again when we didn’t do well in school.
My parents told me stories of their childhood in the Philippines during World War II when they had to hide from the Japanese. They recounted the horrors of seeing their fellow townspeople murdered by Japanese soldiers. I have relatives who served and do serve in the US military. I have aunts who married white US servicemen. They married them because they were in love with them despite their race.
My parents were right about moving the family to the U.S. My brother and I were afforded many opportunities we never would have had if we had stayed in the Philippines. My entire family at one time or other experienced racism in the US. We love our home country and are fiercely proud Filipinos, but we also love America and are equally proud American citizens.
Because we moved to America, I was able to go to school and earn a bachelor’s degree in theater—much to the consternation of my parents. Once they saw I could make a living at it, they were better (but only a little bit). Performing was a passion I’ve had all of my life. But I knew if I was going to do it, and because of all the sacrifices my parents made, I would have to do it seriously, take my craft seriously. It was not going to be just a hobby. I studied hard, paid my dues and learned my trade, but nothing is more valuable to an actor than a life fully lived. Since beginning my professional career 20 years ago, I’ve done everything from Shakespeare at the Public Theater to Sondheim on Broadway. I research the roles that I play very carefully always with an eye toward authenticity and when playing a role that is not my ethnicity (which is most of the time) I give respect. I tread with great respect when portraying someone of another culture. Nothing is done flippantly, no choice uninformed. Also, because I’m in a business that is about one’s appearance, I experience blatant racism almost daily from directors, casting directors, producers, etc…it’s just the nature of the business. But I do know what racism is.
I will be playing the role of “the Engineer” in Miss Saigon when it comes to The Ordway later this month.
I’m giving you all this background information about myself because I feel like those who are speaking out against the show view us as mercenary. As not real people or real artists. That we are little more than performing monkeys for the white man. That we are purposefully doing this show to hurt our fellow Asians. I get the impression that they feel the only reason we’re doing this show despite all the negative feedback is purely for monetary gain.
Let me assure you, none of us are “getting rich” by any stretch of the imagination by doing this show. I don’t know if the Ordway will break even with this production. No one goes into theater to get rich.
There is also the suggestion that we Asian artists involved in the show are “selling out.” I, for one, do not believe I am “selling out.” That term has the connotation that I’m doing something against my will or morals for monetary gain. I whole-heartedly believe in this show. The show deals with racism but it isn’t racist, in my opinion. The tone of the show is very specific. It neither glorifies prostitution, or war, nor does it whitewash a very real historical event in Asian and American history. To do so would be insulting to those who lived it. Yes, it is a work of fiction based on another work of fiction set in a less than flattering world. But the underlying motives and themes of the show are very different.
The assertion that this show is hurtful to all Asians has simply not been my experience with the show. I’m not trying to belittle or diminish the feelings that those who are speaking out against Miss Saigon are having. They are entitled to their opinion. And I know the show is not to everyone’s taste. But in my own experience, traveling the country having been a member of the original second national tour for almost six years (yes, we played the Ordway, and yes, I remember the protests back then), those Vietnamese immigrants and servicemen who lived the war and actually came to see the show expressed sincere gratitude that a version of what they experienced was being presented on stage. Instead of being hurtful, they felt it was cathartic. We cannot diminish their feelings either. I, personally, can relate to many things in Miss Saigon. To simply dismiss the show because of it’s setting or it’s subject matter is reductive. All drama contains some unflattering elements of the human experience. That’s what drama is built on. It’s not the subject matter, it’s the very specific way you deal with the subject matter.
Also, to assume that only Asians are allowed to tell Asian stories hurts all artists of every race because that idea is a two-edged sword. If that were the case, I would not have had the rich experiences in my career playing a Russian in Chekhov’s The Seagull, or British in Peter and the Starcatcher on Broadway last season, or an Italian officer in the revival of Stephen Sondheim’s “Passion,” or any one of the many roles that I’ve played that haven’t been of Filipino or Asian descent.
Again, it’s about dignity and respect. Contrary to your beliefs, I feel like our production of Miss Saigon gives that dignity and respect. If you’re upset that this “Asian themed” story is being produced and directed only by white men, I can assure you that this process has been a true collaboration where great efforts were made to present a realistic portrait of this very specific time and place with authenticity and realism. In the original production, we spoke with servicemen and immigrants, watched documentaries, read passages from memoirs all dealing with the Vietnam War. Shared our own experiences from relatives who served. One actor in the production of Vietnamese descent introduced us to his family. His father recounted their experience of being “boat people.” I believe theater is the one art form that is a true collaboration. Without the work of every individual involved in a production, the show will not go on. Given that, I take just as much responsibility, if not more for everything that happens on that stage.
I’ve been on both sides of similar issues. I’ve spoken out against poor casting choices. I’ve spoken out against racism. In this business, there are many things to speak out about. I know I probably won’t ever change any of your minds, but I hope that you know we do hear you. And I think I understand you. But also know that my opinion of the show differs from yours. We have a duty to those who find value in the show and we have a duty to ourselves as artists to present our production with as much dedication and professionalism as possible.
I hope we can both disagree with each other and yet also understand each other.
Coverage of issues and events affecting Central Corridor communities is funded in part by a grant from the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative.