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Opening night of Playmakers Repertory Company's Uncle Ho to Uncle Sam presented a brutally poignant one-man portrayal of playwright Trieu Tran's autobiography-turned-drama. The play covers the life of a Vietnamese boy who has just barely escaped the torture begun by the Viet Cong in the 1970s. This is not even the beginning of the end of his troubles, however, as he then has to begin his "haunting search for sanctuary" in the United States. And who better to portray such a personal and harrowing story than the "boy" himself?
Co-authored with Robert Egan, who is also the director, Uncle Ho to Uncle Sam is an homage to Tran's history. It tells the story of his experiences as a refugee from war-torn Vietnam, a son abused by a severely troubled father who doesn't know how to love, a gang member just trying to assimilate in inner-city Boston, and a young man who has the blessing of two cultural heritages in his past but must learn to either forgive or forget aspects of both.
Egan and Tran came up with the idea for the work after working together on a play about Vietnam War veterans' residual feelings after the war. The actor and the director spend most of their break time talking about the war, as they both have very different personal relations to it: while Egan was an anti-war protester, Tran escaped from Vietnam's horrors with hatred of the Viet Cong in his heart and a desire to see them fall. Tran says in Playmakers' blog, "Robert and I talked long and hard in a most complicated way about both of our experiences. He suggested I had a real story to tell." Thus Egan urged Tran to begin writing about his past, giving him prompts and sometimes, as he explained in the post-show discussion, playing the role of Tran's father. "I'd ask, 'What would your father say here? How might he feel about this situation?'" Egan explained.
The imaginative structure of the play was engaging, while paced appropriately for a long memoir. Tran's dance-like movements helped to characterize the emotions he has experienced, as well as the people he described. There was a lot of life covered in 95 minutes. Egan says they were "writing fat to get thin," paring down a 300-page collection of memoirs into a workable play, which they admitted is still constantly being rewritten, edited, and changed after audience discussions and performances.
The play runs as a series of scenes and monologues, with a minimal permanent set featuring an altar to his father, a bowl of water in the center of the stage, and several movable stools. In this way, director Egan and stage manager Hannah-Jean Farris have created a wide open setting for Tran to tell his story. Sometimes he sits on the stools, sometimes he stands atop them to capture the energy and spirit of his four-year-old self, sometimes he crouches on a stool to personify a Vietnamese heroin mafia, sometimes he kneels before the bowl of water as if to attempt to wash the sins of his past away (and sometimes a stool shatters and splashes down into the bowl of water, but Tran handled this gracefully as if it were meant to happen).
Sound designer Brendan Patrick Hogan is to be praised for his work in outlining the memories of Tran's past. Sound clips, light music, and appropriate transitional sounds drifted together just as one might hear them playing in the back of the mind while recalling a past experience. The varied choice of music – from traditional Vietnamese flutes to Michael Jackson's "Thriller" – aided in the lyrical yet brutal, and even humorous, stories Tran told.
Refugees and first- and second-generation American immigrants can find much material in the play that resonates deeply within their own experiences, but the messages cross cultural borders. Vietnam veterans and those of other foreign wars have found Tran's play to be cleansing, Tran added during the post-show discussion, as it is not a condemnation of the war but rather an exploration of all the stakes, the players, and the results. Everyone can find something to love, hate, laugh at, or reflect upon in this masterfully written and performed work. And who knows, maybe it can help this American melting pot to melt a little bit more completely.
As a part of Playmakers' PRC2 series, this show encourages active discussion and audience feedback after the play concludes. Wednesday's performance featured a discussion with Tran and Egan, while Thursday introduces Christian C. Lentz, Assistant Professor of Geography at UNC. Friday night features President of the Vietnamese American Association of Raleigh, Henry Nguyễn, Saturday features Pearl Nguyen and Vimy Dang, Executive Board Members of the UNC Vietnamese Student Association, and Sunday concludes with Brittany Darst, Program Associate of the Carolina Asia Center. These discussions are free and open to the public and begin five minutes after the conclusion of the play.
Uncle Ho to Uncle Sam continues through Sunday, August 30. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.