Puppet Regime

"The people at the Ordway who sponsored this show are very stupid and innocent.": Vietnamese Americans picket the Thang Long Water Puppet Theater.

AS THE AUDIENCE in the Roy Wilkins Auditorium opened their programs during a Tuesday-evening performance of the Thang Long Water Puppet Theater/Vietnam, several half-slips of paper fell to the floor, where they then remained, for the most part unread. The inserts, an official "Ordway Music Theatre Statement," begin, "As you entered the performance this evening you may have noticed a group demonstrating in front of the Ordway Music Theatre..."

And indeed, outside about 90 Vietnamese-Americans and supporters, ranging in age from 8 to 80, circle Rice Park, holding crudely drawn signs: "No To Communism, Yes to Democracy!"; "Art is no More Art When it Serves a Political End"; and "Our Deepest Gratitude to the 58,000 Americans Who Died in the Vietnam War, including 1,200 Minnesotans." They gather without much notice or organization to protest the Ordway-sponsored performance of the North Vietnamese puppet group, and they draw little attention before leaving.

The Ordway claims that the show bears no political significance. "I'm glad that, unlike the country the protesters fled, we are in a country that allows this kind of exchange," says Kevin McCollum, president and CEO of the Ordway. "Water puppetry is an art form that predates any government in power. Art is--and should be--a catalyst, so I feel that the Ordway is fulfilling its mission."

Those protesting the show argue that such posturing comes from a privileged and uninformed vantage point; they are unmoved by such easy advocacy for an open marketplace of ideas.

"My son and I spent 10 years in a 're-education' camp in Vietnam," says Can Cung, now protesting with the same son. "It's our duty and obligation to demonstrate against this so-called 'traditional art.' This troupe is not really traditional because if you listen to the words and the music, you realize that these 'folk songs' have an obvious political agenda. If you understood the language, you'd recognize the class-struggle slogans. Also, this troupe is completely paid for by the communist regime in Hanoi, who have spent a lot of money to send those folks here in order to mislead the public about their regime."

In the current arts-funding climate, with its silly provincialism on one side and self-righteous bellyaching on the other, there's the temptation to dismiss ideological opposition to the arts out of hand. Yet after listening for just a few minutes to the stories of people who, like Can Cung, have spent years in hard labor/death camps to be "re-educated" through propaganda, it's more difficult to dismiss these people's concerns with a politically correct sweep of the hand.

Bich Manh Chu, president of Vietnam Veterans in Minnesota, argues that people in the Western world tend to be naive. "We like the arts," he explains slowly and methodically. "We protest what is [behind] this show--the communist government." Chu turns and watches as mothers bring their dressed-up kids to the ticket booth at the Roy Wilkins. "I spent 4,452 days and nights in a 're-education' camp, and thank God we survived," he continues. "We came here to serve and contribute to this country--my family and kids work and study very hard here. But the people at the Ordway who sponsored this show are very stupid and innocent. They don't know anything about communism. They don't realize that behind the art, there's a dark side. This show contains some very sophisticated political dogma, and people here don't understand the dark side of propaganda."

For most audience members, though, who presumably didn't speak Vietnamese, such propaganda is not so much sophisticated as undetectable. There is much that is dazzling about the performance, and it all seems pretty innocent. Behind the cover of an elaborate miniature pagoda, puppeteers animate fire-breathing dragons, white-winged angels, splashing boats, slithering snakes, and diving golden ducks. Occasionally a narrator prefaces an act with an explanation of the ancient folk tale being depicted, but for most of the people sitting in the audience, the evening is about color, firecrackers, and music.

Unlike the blustery rhetoric that passes for artistic debate on the national stage, what ultimately might be most notable, and most poignant, about this protest is the quiet with which it floats across this cold weekday afternoon: a wound from two decades ago and an ocean away, now reopened without sympathy or real recognition. This dynamic appears most obviously when a bus full of high school students pulls up in front of the Ordway, close to show time.

"Are you here to see the Thang Long Water Puppet troupe?" asks one of the protesters.

"No, we're here to see Big," two teenaged girls reply, laughing. "What are you doing?"

"We're here to demonstrate against the Ordway-sponsored performance by the communist puppet troupe from North Vietnam," a man answers, handing them a flier.

The teenagers look down, then look back up, blankly. "Oh... Why?"

The Ordway has organized a public forum at the Martin Luther King Center in St. Paul to discuss these issues, November 15, 10 a.m. to 12 p.m.; call 282-3016 for information.

 
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