Children of the dust
Miss Saigon is a dramatic musical that juxtaposes a love story against the backdrop of a war. A timeless tragedy based on the Italian opera Madame Butterfly, it follows the same major plot lines: An Asian woman falls in love with an American soldier, bears his child, and then after being abandoned, kills herself. At some point, this critic overhead an elderly man (the theater was nearly at capacity with seniors) proclaim, “This is so sad!”
Ma-Anne Dionoso, with perhaps the boldest and most beautiful singing voice in the cast, plays Kim, the Vietnamese bar girl. Her role as a strong-willed and openly emotional Asian woman is refreshing and typecast-breaking. Eric Kunze, who is as powerful a singer as Dionoso, is Chris, the American soldier. Adding hue, humor and dynamics to the musical is Kevin Gray in the role of the engineer, who—fortunately—shares as much stage time as Chris and Kim. Gray’s dramatic and voice acting backgrounds add a subtlety that shines through in a musical that’s otherwise fully loaded with drama, his persona lying somewhere between Jack Sparrow and Hunter S. Thompson. In the penultimate song in the musical, with the engineer singing about all the money he will make pimping Asian girls in America, it’s almost impossible not to feel a little fear and loathing.
The criticisms about Miss Saigon don’t stem from staging, cast, crew, singing, dancing or acting. Those were all near-perfect, in spite of the fact that it was the first show in the production’s week-long run. Instead, it’s the politics of race and perpetuation of racial stereotypes in the subtext of the plot that are irksome. In particular, the treatment of Asian women in the story isn’t anything less than centuries-old Orientalism, or the systematic depiction of Asians as inferior. Indeed, Kim is the only Asian woman in the whole plot who isn’t—literally—a whore. And yet, she is flawed because she falls in love as soon as she sees Chris, a white man, who instantly and inherently seems better than all the other Asian men in the story, just by virtue of his race.
The musical saves itself from the pitfalls of these old stereotypes by focusing in the second half on Kim and Chris’ child, Tam. Songs describe the half-Asian kid as bui doi, or “child of the dust.” The term loosely refers to a child (generally abandoned) who is fathered by an Asian woman and American soldier during the Vietnam War. By this definition, I’m almost a bui doi myself: My father was in the Air Force during that war when he met my mother in Taiwan, though I was born in the U.S.—and I wasn’t abandoned. As a half-Asian, I appreciate that the musical brings to light the many bui doi kids who are socially outcast and orphaned in Vietnam. Yet, even after approximately 23,000 bui doi were granted refuge to the United States as a result of the Asian Homecoming Act of 1988, they’re still marginalized.
As Miss Saigon hints, being called a “half-breed” or dismissed as not really American has created identity issues for a lot of us.
Miss Saigon; Wednesday at 7:30 p.m., Thursday at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. and Sunday 7:30 p.m.; $42-$74. Music Circus at the Wells Fargo Pavilion, 1419 H St.; (916) 557-1999; www.californiamusicaltheatre.com. Through August 28.