The Value in Reviving Old Musicals

Over Thanksgiving break I was in Chicago with my girlfriend and her family. One night we went to the Cadillac Theatre to see the national tour of the musical Miss Saigon, a story about a Vietnamese bargirl and US soldier during the Vietnam War. It is based off of the 1904 opera Madame Butterfly by Puccini, written in Italian about a Japanese girl and a US naval officer. The music of Miss Saigon would sound familiar to fans of Les Miserables because the music was written by the same team of composers: Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Bobil.

The performance we saw was incredible. The cast was huge and well-balanced with white and Asian actors playing the appropriate roles. From the research I’ve done, it hasn’t always been that way. Over the years many controversies have erupted over the casting of white actors as male Asian characters, but the role of “Kim”, the Vietnamese bargirl, has always been played by an Asian woman. The musical score also includes non-Western instruments, but I couldn’t find information on exactly what they were. The story is that Kim and Chris (the American soldier) meet and fall in love in a Vietnamese brothel. Chris promises to bring her back to the US, but he is forced to go home in an emergency evacuation, leaving Kim behind. The story cuts to three years later, where Chris is living with his American wife, Ellen, in Atlanta, and Kim is still waiting for him to return to her. It is revealed that Kim has a three-year old son and Chris is the father.

By the end of the first act, you can tell that things probably aren’t going to get much better for Kim. It’s true, (warning: spoiler ahead) because when Chris returns to see Kim and take his son back to America, Kim kills herself. 

The plotline aside, I was absolutely stunned by both the talent onstage and the technical effects. At one point there was a literal helicopter flying above the actors, rotors and all. There was always so much going on onstage with the ensemble and everyone was completely committed to who their character was in Saigon. The details in every scene made watching it seem like a movie.

It’s interesting to see older shows like Miss Saigon make a comeback in 2018. As great as the show was, the racist and sexist undertones didn’t just roll off of my back. I had a similar experience watching My Fair Lady at Lincoln Center in May. The story is about a wealthy man teaching a poor woman how to speak proper English so she will be respected. While these male savior plotlines may have been popular in the 20th century, today they’re just kind of tiring. New musicals don’t base their plotlines on discrimination and they’re darn good!

I still think it’s okay to put on revivals of old musicals, even if they’re problematic sometimes. The music in Miss Saigon is fantastic and doesn’t deserve to be forgotten. Kim’s story does not deserve to be forgotten. An important part of protecting the art of today is protecting the art of the past because it serves a purpose. We should trust audiences to acknowledge these issues and to know better, but to also just enjoy the show.

Coffee Shops

Its no secret that coffee shops are places students always frequent. I’ve always thought that  its the vibes they give off, not too quiet, not too noisy but the perfect amount of white noise in the background. Sounds of coffee grinding permeate the air, small talk ensues between the cashier and customer and the creaking sounds of the door open and close. I’ve loved coffee shops for its ambience it gives off. You can chill with a cup of chai, catch up on homework and even readings over coffee or have short catch up sessions with friends in between classes. The coffee shop embodies warmth, especially with the coming winter.

I was very disappointed when Michigan Union closed down for renovation because I was really fond of the Starbucks there. The bar stool seating is my favorite, tucked away perfectly near the coffee machines, private and public all the same. I usually camp out there for two hours, writing or reading. Bumped into a lot of friends while we both get coffee. One even commented, saying that she always finds me there. Another personal favorite coffee shop of mine is Comet Coffee, hidden in the nook of Nickel’s Arcade. It looks very hipster and a passerby might think that the drinks are expensive but that isn’t true. The food and drinks here are surprisingly reasonable given that it is in Ann Arbor. Its affordable in comparison to Starbucks. I find myself coming back here so many times, alone and with company. I suppose everything about the shop attracts me, from the affordable tea/coffee and the interior design, with the barstool seating overlooking Nickel’s Arcade. You can sit there, sip tea and people-watch or do work. Maybe even ponder upon your place in life. Engage in some meta-thinking.

Another reason I really like coffee shops is because of the memories I’ve had there with people. I gone to the Michigan Union Starbucks frequently with a good friend of mine after class. We each grab coffee and get into small talks. Some of the times, those chats turn into deeper discussions, from how tough Michigan is on students to the double standards we face as women in the family. Other times are when I brought family friends to Comet Coffee and we each ordered different drinks so we could try different drinks together, great times I’ve missed now. There are moments when I was stressed out and needed advice, so I met up with a friend and told him my frustrations. I left the coffee shop feeling lighter, finally understanding that sometimes I needed to leave some situations be just as they are, so it sorts itself out.

Funny how a small tiny shop contains so many memories, and that it can mean so much.

To Grandmother’s House We Go

I remember baby blue stairs. It was a color that was simultaneously garish and soft. Garish because it clashed horribly with the moderate browns and conservative whites of my grandmother’s quiet neighborhood. Soft because it reminded me of the ascending sky on a summer’s day. I remember accompanying my parents to the store, their hands enveloping mine, hypnotized by paint swatches. I got lost in the swimming colors and possibilities while my mom and dad made their choice. I got lost in the swirling paint as they repeatedly dipped their paintbrushes. Stroke and stroke and stroke and dip. What was once natural became artificial as the wood was covered by coat after coat of blue. I remember stretching out under the shade as my parents labored under the hot sun to paint, not an artistic masterpiece, but to protect a set of stairs. Over the years, the various forces of nature would chip away at their hard work. The blue was marred and scraped and gashed, at the mercy of the driving rain or an equally temperamental set of children, my sister and me. Then, one day, I no longer lived in my grandmother’s house. The car pulled away from the pavement where my grandma stood waving and the stairs glowed under the moon’s light. The family who lived there next, impermanent renters, painted the stairs a dark maroon red, a supposedly stylish color that reminded me of blood. But I still remember the baby blue. Blue like a never-ending childhood.

My bed was not mine. Shared between my sister and I, she got the convenience of the bottom bunk while I got the light of the only window in the room. I woke up with the streaming sun across my blankets.  I woke up before everyone else except my grandmother. I saw her from my perch, quietly eating her bread and drinking her milk at the kitchen sink. Her hair was fine, white, and thin. Like feathers, they seemed to float in the light. Like a beacon, it drew my eye to her. She stood in the small enclave with her back toward me. I was never sure if she heard the rustle of the comforter as I shifted back and forth. We existed in the morning semi-silence together and alone. We never spoke, too afraid to wake the others. I hope she wasn’t lonely. I never was. I watched her careful movements and was lulled back, back into sleep.

The garage was a steady walk from the house. There, the ghosts of past endeavors lay on abandoned shelves. My dad’s fishing pole and plastic tackle box now rested far from the beach shores. My mother’s high school textbooks gathered dust in the shadow of a red gasoline container. She explained to me, as we cleared the boxes, that she had hoped to use those books again. She had photocopied every page. But my sister and I were in college now and she was a computer engineer, readying for retirement. So, the books joined the growing pile of recycling. I am not even sure what happened to the fishing pole. The garage was the last place to be emptied in what used to be my grandmother’s house. The bunk bed had already been disassembled. The sink had been cleaned and scrubbed. Only the stairs remained, as we backed out of the driveway, one last time.

Why I Write

Power.

The undeniable assurance that I am a woman who has riches building in my veins, elements of the cosmos running through my blood, the pressure of the universes accumulating like the process of impure carbon turning to gleaming diamonds, the diamonds of words, of expression, of articulation. There is nothing in this world more powerful than a person who can speak and who has something worthwhile to say. There is nothing more powerful than an articulate woman. There is nothing more powerful than putting one word in front of the other, one sentence after another, building mosques and schools and homes and worlds with nothing but the faculties of my mind, the untarnished tools I was given at birth combined with centuries of human development. There is nothing more powerful than words.

Expression.

Where there is power, surely, it must come from something, and here is the secret of writing: that it takes the sticky, messy, confusing parts of human life– the conflicting emotions, the mundane routines, the war of evil and good– and gives it back in eloquence. It aims to understand, not merely as a means to an end, but just for the sake of the thing itself; writing aims to know, to untangle, to explore, to marvel at the gloriousness of life and living. To express what is in the heart, mind, soul, body can’t be an easy task, but when it is done and done well, it hits with the force of change. When it is done well, I’m sure the humanness of writing becomes utterly divine. Besides, in all different cultures of the world, hadn’t god spoken to his messengers? Speech is divine because it is an invention of man. The most powerful invention.

Beauty.

I know there are people that disagree with me, but beauty is the double-edged purpose of writing. There is more to words than mere aesthetics– there is argument. The beauty of words comes from their ability to cause real change in the world. I want to make a massacre of beauty and re-gift it as power– I want to burn the aesthete and use his ashes as fodder for the philosopher. I want to seize language by the reigns and shout at the mute: “Look at you, caged by your pragmatism, daily routines, your boorish practicality– how, if only you could speak, you would have been free.”

Native American Indian Heritage Month

As the month of November winds down, I have only recently heard of Native American Heritage Month. I wondered why I haven’t heard of this before–yet I realized that socially and historically, Native Americans have been left out of the story.

First started as a day of recognition, the movement has evolved into a month designated to celebrate significant contributions Native Americans have made to the growth of the United States. In 1990, President George H.W. Bush approved a joint resolution making November National Native American Heritage Month.

The month presents a time to learn about and celebrate diverse cultures, traditions, and histories of Native people, who were the first Americans. The month also serves to raise awareness about issues Native people have faced and continue to face, such as victimization and prominent rates of mental illness. In the United States, there are 566 federally recognized Native American tribes who speak more than 200 indigenous languages.

Since before the founding of the United States, Native people have faced being executed, forced eviction, and slavery. It’s concerning that many history textbooks glaze over the fact that Native Americans provided the basis of colonialism. It is dangerous to present a revisionist history in which people ignore certain details. Thus, as members of American society, we should work to educate ourselves and work to preserve Native culture, which is fading.

Recently, in my communications class, I learned that statistically, there is barely any representation of Native Americans on television–less than .5% of characters are Native American. Besides African Americans, only a small percentage of television and film characters are people of color. This was alarming to me, as I hadn’t noticed this factor before. In the hegemonic narrative of society, white is dominant and the norm. Was I also complicit in ignoring the history and contributions of Native Americans?

So, this month, I decided to brush up on my history and try to gan a better understanding of Native American cultures. Native people have always been important and should be represented in different media, outside of offensive stereotypes. Here are some things you can do to celebrate Native American Heritage Month:

  1. Read a book about Native American/American Indian History
  2. Watch a documentary
  3. Learn the real story of Thanksgiving
  4. Attend a lecture about Native American history/traditions
  5. Learn about local tribal communities in your area

 

 

When the West is on Fire

The fires in California have me thinking about my own dry, woody state and a wildfire that happened in my valley in July. The mountains and wildlife in my hometown are a piece of art in their own right, and the reality that they could burn away during my lifetime is terrifying.

I grew up in Colorado where we had 300 days of sunshine a year, but when the snow fell, it would stick all winter. Every couple of weeks another blizzard would come through to replenish the supply and we would celebrate another few inches on the mountain with our skis. Winter always went late into the year, and we even experienced occasional May snowstorms. This was no problem for our little town: it was the off-season so local ski-bums could skin up to the top of the most precipitated-on mountain (by this time the ski lifts would not be in service) and make their way down the mountain through an amalgamation of sticky snow, rocks, grass, and dirt. “Spring skiing” is what they called it. Eventually the temperature heats up and the only snow which remains is on the mountains’ peaks, and the flora turns green and vibrant: the grass is silky and from it sprouts smooth, velvet flowers, the forests are thick with the woody smell of pine. During the summer I am always stunned by the presence of life in these plants– I almost overwhelmed by a feeling that they are truly sentient, basking in the energy of the forest and intensity of the Colorado sun just I am. In the fall, our mountains were a gradient of hot colored Aspen trees, so bright that the leaves practically reflected off of our cheeks. Within a month or two comes the first snow fall, light at first, like the tiniest sprinkle of powdered sugar over red and yellow trees.

When I was a child learning about global warming, I did not expect to see the effects of it in my hometown. The snow had been there my entire life, in abundance. The mountains outside my door were my only sense of home, of landscape, Earth, etc. and the snow always came when the trees were still red and it always reluctantly left at the end of May to reveal a lush, wet summer brimming with life. But last year when I came home for winter break, there I was in the middle of December, staring out of my windows at bleak, brown, snow-less mountains. Longtime locals said that there had not been a winter so brown since the 1970s. I worried for my town. While a large percentage of the Aspen population has nothing to lose due to a dry ski season, there is another group of ski company employees and business owners that suffer from the lack of tourism. Beyond economic loss, less snow leads to dry summers. My whole county was placed under a fire-ban this summer: no campfires, no fireworks on the 4th of July, and no cigarette butt left unattended. One month into our third hottest summer in recorded history, two people decided they would fire outlawed tracer bullets at the local shooting range, about 20 miles from my home. A spark from the bullets led to a full on forest fire, incinerating 12,588 acres of land, burning three houses down, and displacing thousands of wildlife animals from their habitat. Next to Highway 82, a road I drove on for my whole life, I saw an entire mountain twinkling with embers and flames. The environment that was my Home and my first understanding of the Earth has disappeared into char and dust because of the carelessness of two people.

I know I don’t have control over what happens to my home. I try to stay present when I’m outside and  feel the vitality of my environment because I know it’s not going to be there one day. If I have seen things change this much in just 20 years of my life, I’m afraid to see what happens next. But the earth is resilient. The earth will fight defend herself how she sees fit and give right back to us what she receives. Maybe we’ll be compelled to take action, or maybe we’ll sit back in fear.