Uncle Ho to Uncle Sam
ACT Theatre’s "Uncle Ho to Uncle Sam" is the gripping and challenging world premiere of the one-man show performed by Trieu Tran and based on his life story. Written by Trieu Tran with Robert Egan, who also directed it, "Uncle Ho to Uncle Sam" is 90 minutes of intermission-free emotional engagement with a fascinating man who has led a life so difficult it’s tough to listen to it, but who can also still bust a move to his favorite hip-hop music.
The basic set is simple and tranquil: a stone altar framed in red and gold, with family photos, red spirals of incense hanging, and a wooden octagonal platform where Tran paces and dances and struts, moving three wooden stools around a central pool. As we listen to his stories of pain and horror from his early childhood in Vietnam and in a refugee camp in Thailand, and then to stories of a different kind of violence in both Canada and the U.S., it helps to have peaceful place to rest our eyes.
Hanging shutters and strips of newsprint flank the altar, allowing projections to create alternate realities to match Tran’s location at the moment: dappled green like the sun through the banyan trees in Vietnam or crisp lines and neon for city streets. Designed by Carey Wong and lit by Rick Paulsen, the set and lighting are an aid to the audience both in helping the transitions between current time and flashbacks, and in soothing the mind with its uncluttered feel.
And the mind needs some soothing. Eventually I gave up writing down every horrible event that happened to Tran. Born in the early ’70s, his life is defined by the time and place of his birth. When Tran is very young, his mother takes him to visit his father in one of Ho Chi Minh’s re-education camps.
Asked by one of the guards whether he loves his "Uncle Ho," Tran politely and without understanding the question answers, "I love all my uncles." Then Tran sees a line of men staked out on bamboo poles and realizes his father is one of them, being "re-educated" by torture to appreciate and love Uncle Ho Chi Minh.
You’d think things could only get better after that, but in fact Tran’s life follows a tortuous path, fleeing Vietnam by canoe with his mother and sisters, then joining other family members on a larger fishing boat. When the boat they’re on is invaded by pirates, Tran’s grandmother is forced to choose between Tran’s life and that of his two female cousins. She chooses him, and they hear the girls wailing from the pirates’ ship.
After some time in a camp in Thailand, his family is reunited with his father in Canada. His father has become bitter and angry and takes it out on his wife and kids, then begins selling heroin and hanging out with thugs. One of the thugs kills Tran’s pet dog and makes it into stew, then finally kills Tran’s father.
Eventually Tran ends up in Boston and joins a gang. While in high school in Boston, he struggles with racial stereotypes and defining himself beyond the barriers set for him. He finds a favorite teacher, who sexually abuses him. He makes a best friend, who is shot and dies in his arms.
You can’t imagine that this will ever get better, and yet here is Tran right up on stage, carrying the weight of his past, and yet obviously creating the miracle of a happy and successful life for himself. The show is not so obvious as to descend into anything trite about the triumph of the human spirit, but clearly Tran has somehow managed to develop and maintain a belief in people as being full of possibility.
He finds his hope in small things: hip-hop music, falling in love with a girl, reading Shakespeare for the first time. And there are moments of humor: the traditional American Thanksgiving turkey but stuffed with mangoes and lemon grass, his indignant response to one headmaster who chastises him for his involvement with an Asian gang: "It’s not Asian, it’s an Italian gang!"
As a personal story, "Uncle Ho to Uncle Sam" is riveting. As a little piece of history seen from a perspective we rarely encounter, it’s fascinating. At the end, Tran steps out of his role as himself, and addresses us directly, challenging us to support him and each other in our journey as human beings.
"Uncle Ho to Uncle Sam" runs through October 7 at ACT: A Contemporary Theatre, 700 Union Street in Seattle. For info or tickets, call 206-292-7676 or visit online at www.acttheatre.org.