“Miss Saigon” — which I saw over the Christmas break at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington D.C. — owes its narrative to Giacomo Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly,” which tells the story of a innocent geisha’s fatal love for an American naval lieutenant in 1904 Nagasaki. In updating the tale to the waning days of the Vietnam War (1975), “Saigon” improves on the tale by making the American serviceman — here Marine Sgt. Chris Scott — and his eventual American wife, Ellen, much more sympathetic figures, trapped by circumstances of war rather than being blinded by white privilege.
Having said this, I must add that “Saigon” is no Puccini opera. It’s melodic enough without being memorable in the vein of other one-note Cameron Mackintosh musicals like “Les Miserables,” forcing the singers to belt when they might be better off lilting, particularly in the screeching upper register. Like “Butterfly,” however, “Miss Saigon” remains a potent metaphor for an America that, despite its best intentions, can be thoughtless, even callous, in its treatment of foreigners, particularly those of color.
As he does with everything, President Donald J. Trump has squared off with Democrats over two undocumented Guatemalan children who died recently in American custody — Jakelin Caal Maquin and Felipe Gómez Alonzo. We can argue untill the cows come home over whether they should’ve been here, whether their parents tried to game the system in sending them here, whether they were already sick when they came here and how a broken system led to their fate. Here’s the thing, though: A country is only as great as its protection of its most vulnerable members. They were children, and rightly or wrongly, they were here. They are the responsibility of whoever is president of the United States. That would be El Presidente himself, he of the I’m-going-to-shut-the border-and-continue-the-government shutdown-till-I-get-my-wall approach to border security.
But while he’s great at the trappings of leadership — donning a flight jacket that made him look even puffier during his surprise Christmas visit to the troops in Iraq and talking tough — he’s not an actual leader like former President Barack Obama, who would go quietly at night to meet the incoming dead at Dover and Andrews Air Force Bases or visit the wounded at Walter Reed National Military Center.
Leadership has its privileges, but mostly, it has its responsibilities, which the Trump Administration has woefully neglected or ineptly executed. (Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen couldn’t tell the House Judiciary Committee how many undocumented immigrants have died on her watch. More to the point, she didn’t even bother to prepare a ballpark figure. She said she’d have to get back to the committee. Really? When? Good God, you can’t make this stuff up, unfortunately.
Apart from the continuing failure of Alexandrian leadership, leadership from the front, the debacle at the border demonstrates the United States’ disastrous indifference and/or ineptitude in dealing with people of color, particularly those who belong to the half and half — neither wholly American nor wholly foreign. in both “Butterfly” and “Saigon,” the title heroines believe that they can be modern American wives — a misconception that dooms them. Their children — fathered by American servicemen — are saved by the sacrifice of their mothers and the willingness of their stepmothers to raise them as their own.
Anyone who has seen documentaries of war knows how unusual this is. Many of these children are killed as “half-breeds” or left to suffer a fate worse than death on the streets and in institutions. The children at the border came here seeking shelter from the storm. What they found was the paradox that defines America’s relationships with foreigners. It’s summed up perfectly by “Saigon’s” Chris when he sings:
Christ I'm American
How could I fail to do good
All I made was a mess, just like everyone else,
In a place full of mystery
That I never once understood.
“Miss Saigon” continues at The Kennedy Center through Jan. 13 despite the government shutdown. For more, visit http://www.kennedy-center.org/calendar/event/TTTSB.