Trieu Tran Delivers a Must-See Rite of Theatre at ACT
In a media landscape dominated by trite biographies and faux confessionals aimed at jerking tears and arresting eyeballs, the facts of Trieu Tran’s life story are mesmerizing for their authenticity. That Tran recounts those facts in a raw, powerful performance that stirs without discomfiting makes ACT’s world premiere production of Uncle Ho to Uncle Sam ($15-$55 through October 7) a must-see performance.
Tran’s story is a coming-of-age tale, a story of overcoming obstacles, both socio-political and personal, that is centered on heritage, especially Tran’s relationship with his father. This riveting narrative—which would be as spellbinding in casual conversation as it is in a staged monologue—takes us from the last days of the Vietnam War to the ghettos of Dorchester, Boston. Along the way we experience the horrors of North Vietnamese re-education camps, the boat people’s escape, and refugee life in Saskatoon. The plot and its language matter-of-factly cross cultures incorporating both Tupac Shakur and Shakespeare and conflating the identities of Tran, Tupac, and Richard III.
Tran and director/co-playwright Robert Egan try to make the political personal through motifs of key statements from Nixon and Ho Chi Minh voiced as the maxims of individuals. More political context would aid these efforts, particularly a deeper examination of the animosities between the Viet Cong and South Vietnamese. From Uncle Ho to Uncle Sam reduces these animosities to a Hatfield/McCoy blood feud driven by cultural structures fixated on honor, ancestry, and the influence of the ancestor spirits. In Vietnam the conflict resulting from this heritage is international. In America it is associated with gang violence and drug dealing.
Tran is a high-energy, deeply committed performer, constantly surprising, playful, and vulnerable, yet he keeps tabs on the pulse of the audience. There are several moments when he has us in his grip, pausing just long enough to let us become conscious of the stillness in the room before moving on. In such moments Tran’s father’s avowal that “there are two races in America: white people and everyone else” takes prominence among the play’s motifs as one glances at the wash of white faces in the audience and the Asian man alone on stage.
The plot and its performance are powerful enough that Carey Wong’s set is totally unnecessary, yet it may be perfect: full and polished without feeling decadent or over-designed. An octagonal platform surrounds an octagonal pebble-lined pool at center stage in the Allen Theatre, which has been given a thrust arrangement. Suspended shutters serve as screens for projections that support without distracting while framing a shrine of family portraits. Simple, modern wood stools get effective use. There is nothing wasted or extraneous, nothing to distract from the lone man telling his story.
Robert Lepage has described his own one-man shows as “tales of loneliness,” and this is the case here as well. It is a loneliness exacerbated by a pattern of connection and betrayal by family, friends, institutions, societies, and ultimately, cultures. Only Tran’s mother and the underdeveloped character of his girlfriend stand by him, but his fixation is on a more masculine connection that never fully resolves.
The play itself is an attempt at achieving that resolution and in this Uncle Ho to Uncle Sam walks the line between theatre and ritual. The houselights come up near the end, implicating us in Tran’s plea for assistance and his commitment to a falling action that has yet to take form. It is a liminal event, words that are the actions they name, a request we must acknowledge and act on. Then, at the last second, he takes us off the hook as the lights dim again and we return to the safety of darkness. This physically and emotionally spent man stands before us with his father’s ashes; finished with his act, he no longer begs our blessing but invites our applause. The invitation is welcome.