When I watched The King and I and Miss Saigon, I was confused. People were acting as though the racially accurate casting somehow erased the stereotypically written Asian characters. The shows particularly reminded me of the black actors that broke into the early Broadway scene by wearing blackface and making fun of themselves. I’m all for oppressed groups reclaiming the terms of their oppression, like myself and the LGBTQ+ community reappropriating the term “queer” or the black community with the n-word, but these shows feature no Asian empowerment; only Asian actors playing disempowered, victimized, or otherwise unflatteringly written characters. With that, I noted how racially accurate casting highlighted the problematic nature of the few white characters- The characters of Anna and Chris, from The King and I and Miss Saigon, respectively, perpetuate stereotypes of Asian characters and fulfill the inherently racist role of the “civilizing” Westerner.
Despite being opposite genders, Anna and Chris each serve the same gender-focused purpose in their show——they each feminize their Asian cast-mates by comparison. At the beginning of The King and I, Anna is an English governess with a flare for aggressive behavior, as demonstrated in her reprimanding of the king’s advisor. When she enters Siam, she finds herself surrounded by hyper-masculinity and femininity. King Mongkut is aggressive and impulsive, his wives are beautiful and quiet, and his children are obedient. Rather than become emasculated herself, Anna “tames” the masculinity of the King, modeling his new character after the docility of an Englishman (but more on that later). In her own right, Anna brings a positive and empowering air, akin to Mary Poppins’ decisive and rigidly sophisticated nature. Chris takes a similarly masculine role in Miss Saigon, and through him the character of Kim is further feminized. By the beginning of the show, Kim is already a victim of war, and her autonomy is stripped of her when she is forced to turn to prostitution. She plays an obedient and extremely submissive role in her own story, and that fact is exacerbated by the active and assertive role that the muscle-bound Chris plays. He takes power from her particularly when he sleeps with her, not as a lover, but as a buyer. And why is it that Chris falls in love with her, anyway? He explains in the show that his trauma from the war turned him to despair, and that she was one good thing in that hell. It’s a sweet sentiment, but a little less sweet when we consider why exactly she caught his eye. Kim was “not like the other girls” because she was a pure, teenaged, virgin. She was made docile through her trauma and was taken advantage of by her supposed lover. This moment of equating Kim’s purity and worthiness to her virginity and naivety was demeaning and objectifying then, and by today’s standards it is downright sexist. Ultimately, the actions of both Anna and Chris serve to take masculinized power away from the Asians in their lives, furthering the disempowerment of Asian cultures through feminization.
These characters also exist to perpetuate stereotypes of Asian characters through comparison, and to display the White Man’s Burden on stage. Anna is the clearest example of this cultural violence; her purpose in Siam is to educate and civilize. It was clear in her wiseacre demeanor and assertive behavior that she initially regarded the Siamese as less sophisticated than the English, and she never came to truly respect Siam as its own nation. Through the show, her only genuine respect seemed to come when King Mongkut acted European or was dying. She becomes open to understanding the people of Siam in the song “Getting To Know You,” but even in that, she only concedes that the people of Siam aren’t all that bad- she never celebrates, appreciates, or even recognizes their traditional culture as legitimate. Her only respect arrives in achieving her goal of “civilizing” and bringing European values and cultural pieces (clothing, dances, phrases, etc) to Siam. And the moment the King moves to discipline the deserting Tuptim, Anna jumps right back to calling him a barbarian. Interestingly enough, Victorian England carried the same penalty of death for desertion, whether it be for love or not. Soon after, when the King is dying, Anna’s respect for him comes out of a place of pity and guilt, yet never from a place of appreciation of legitimization of Siamese culture. Chris, meanwhile, embodies the white savior complex in a more subtle way. His role in the Vietnam war was, most simply, about protecting Western, capitalistic values and stopping the spread of communism. What he ultimately brought to Saigon was an idolization of Westernism and a negative association with the East. The Engineer actually verbalizes this negative sentiment of his own race on a couple occasions, including his lines, “Why was I born of a race that thinks only of rice and hates entrepreneurs,” and “Greasy ch*nks make life so sleazy.” Chris’ whiteness, whether or not he intended it, became a symbol for success and prosperity, and by contrast, non-whites gained the association of the opposite. Theatre critic Diep Tran described in her americantheatre.org article I Am Miss Saigon, And I Hate It how the characters of the show fall into this trap of American imperialism and white savior discourse, particularly “idolizing whiteness to the point of suicide.” Through Chris, America became synonymous with success, and Vietnam with disaster.
Still, much of this can be chalked up to the (white) men that wrote these shows without our modern respect and understanding for multiculturalism and gender studies. So how did the actors that played these imperfect characters portray them? All in all, I thought they did a pretty good job with how the characters were written. Kelli O’Hara blended traditional masculinity into femininity, yet could only do so much to improve Anna’s questionably written character. Then again, as I said earlier, her blending of gender norms had some consequences regarding the negative feminization of the Siamese characters, but I digress. I also appreciated that she tried to portray a greater respect in the song “Getting To Know You,” even if the song itself lacks celebration of Siamese culture. She could certainly have taken a stricter, more hard-as-nails approach to the character, and I felt her softer side was well developed, making her a more likeable character than she is otherwise written. Alistair Brammer brought Chris to life as a troubled and traumatized G.I. As written, Chris is not condemned by the show for anything he does, for instance paying to sleep with a 17 year old girl with whom he has an obvious power imbalance. Yet the show wants us to regard him as a “good guy” and strives to focus on his giving Kim money in the opening number, or on his (initial) refusal to sleep with her or another prostitute, or even his return to Bangkok to see her. I felt Brammer and his production did an excellent job of adding focus to the questionable things his character did; for instance, by threatening someone that wanted to use a public telephone with a gun. It would have been easy to play Chris as a simple good guy, but Brammer portrayed him as a character with depth, flaws, and regrets. Again, both the characters of Anna and Chris are highly flawed in their writing, but I believe Brammer and O’Hara each did excellent jobs bringing some modern positivity to unavoidably problematic characters and shows.
But let’s back up. Does any of this actually matter? In short, yes. I said earlier that Anna and Chris perpetuate stereotypes of Asian characters and that their roles are, albeit to varying extents, inherently racist in theory. Anna is a governess meant to bring English “civility” to Siam, and Chris is a drafted G.I. serving in Vietnam to instill Western economic, cultural, and social values. But do I think these reasons should cause the shows to be shunned or retired? Absolutely not. Although the playwrights may have perpetuated some unfortunate stereotypes in their shows, it is up to modern actors and producers to take those shows and perform them respectfully, with dignity, and with a focus on the timeless narratives they aim to tell. Understanding their production’s implications in race, gender, and other social areas is integral to accurately, successfully, and positively performing a piece, and it is for that reason that we as theatre and social critics do what we do.