In popular American culture, the experience of the Vietnamese people during and after the Vietnam War is represented marginally at best, as actor Trieu Tran observes in his haunting and harrowing one-man play, Uncle Ho to Uncle Sam.
In this taut 90-minute piece, which made its world premiere at ACT on Sept. 13, Tran offers a raw look at his journey from Vietnam to America, both physically and culturally, and at his quest to find somewhere to belong.
Born on April 20, 1975, just 10 days before Saigon fell, Tran’s early life was overshadowed by a sense of loss, destruction and hope that was continually renewed — only to turn sour. His father, a broken yet wildly violent man, was tortured in a jungle re-education camp and irrationally saw the birth of his only son as the catalyst for Vietnam's many woes.
In his father’s view, both national protector figures, Uncle Ho Chi Minh and Uncle Sam, had reneged on their promises and transformed any patriotism he might have harbored into bitterness.
Fed by dreams of safety and satiety in America, Tran escaped Vietnam only to slowly starve in a refugee camp in Thailand. Eventually, he finally joined his father in the “land of the free.” There, he discovered that his people had been reduced in the American mind to single-dimensional figures spouting stock phrases like “Me love you long time” in the movie Full Metal Jacket.
Split apart in the East only to be reunited years later in the West, Tran’s family fought to maintain its unity and to find a common goal to strive for. Tran’s father struggled the most, turning to alcohol and domestic violence to vent his frustration and fury over his own past suffering and that of the people he loves.
“How many times do I have to beat you to get you to believe me? Do I have to kill you to get you to believe that I love you?” Tran’s father sobs after a particularly violent outburst. His father may have lived through abuse in the jungle as a captive, but Tran is just as much a captive of his father's abuse and thwarted dreams.
Set Designer Carey Wong’s roughly painted octagonal stage floor and interpretation of a traditional Vietnamese ancestral altar reinforce both the exterior starkness and the hidden layers of emotion found in Tran’s storytelling.
Key moments in the narrative are highlighted through the imaginative projection of photos of Vietnam, young Tran and his family, and pop culture icons on firmly closed window shutters that hang from the ceiling. A true partnership exists between Wong and Lighting Designer Rick Paulsen, who plays off the bareness of the stage floor with rippling patterns of light and shadows.
Robert Egan, the one-time associate artistic director of Seattle Repertory Theatre, co-wrote and directed Uncle Ho to Uncle Sam. He helped untangle Tran’s complex personal history, which spans nearly two decades.
Still, the piece peaks at its midway point, about 45 minutes in. After that point, the stakes seem to drop and the narrative loses focus. The insertion of nominally relevant quotes from the works of Shakespeare, seemingly added to prove Tran's theatrical chops, are unnecessary — more a distraction to the audience. His theatrical talent is already undisputable, given his appearances on several major stages as well as the TV show The Newsroom.
Some might take issue with Tran and his father’s disappointment with the less-than-satisfying reality of the American Dream — the family spent its first years in that epicenter of “American culture,” Saskatoon, Saskatchewan; a city Tran notes for its white winters and whiter citizens.
Nonetheless, the piece is a powerful indictment of the promises that the United States failed to keep to those touched by the war, as well as a rare insight into how those broken promises are still impacting individuals like Tran today.
If you go: Uncle Ho to Uncle Sam runs through Oct. 7 at ACT. Tickets are $15-$55. For tickets, visit www.acttheatre.org.