(Garden Grove, CA) August 17, 2014 – On a warm Sunday night in Garden Grove, a culturally diverse audience watches a one man show at an outdoor amphitheatre. It’s a ninety minute tale of how a young boy and his family emigrated from Vietnam to the United States during the late 1970s, escaping the horrors and hells they faced in that war-torn country. It is also a story about how this young man tried to adapt and fit in with the various communities that surrounded him and his family, especially his father, whose prayer alter and cremated ashes sit in the background on the stage. It is a reminder to the young man that there is oftentimes a price in acceptance and assimilation. And after the tale is told, the audience gives the performer a well-deserved standing ovation.
The tale is called “Trieu Tran (Unplugged),” an adapted version of his sold-out show “Uncle Ho to Uncle Sam,” which was developed at the Ojai Playwrights Conference in 2011 and performed at Seattle ACT in 2012 and the Kirk Douglas Theatre in 2013. Sunday night’s venue was the Garden Grove-based theatre company Shakespeare Orange County (SOC), who produced this special benefit and donated all the proceeds to VAALA: The Vietnamese American Arts & Letters Association. According to Artistic Director John Walcutt, the benefit was part of SOC’s mission to build a cultural bridge throughout Garden Grove’s Asian community and to create more awareness of the theater company’s stature as “One Big Family Under the Stars,” SOC’s artistic mission and anthem. And after producing three successful shows to full houses—“A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” The Troubies “A Midsummer Saturday Night Fever Dream,” and “The Tavern”—Shakespeare Orange County delves into the Vietnamese culture with actor Trieu Tran’s critically acclaimed one-man show.
The uninterrupted show begins with Tran walking on stage to the sounds of Vietnamese music. Wrapped in the yellow and red flag of South Vietnam, he lights incense and prays for his father’s soul. He hangs the flag on the wall, faces the audience and then shares his experiences being born in a country torn with bloodshed and brutality. He subtly changes voices to his dominating, cruel father, his sacrificing mother, his various friends, mentors and random strangers. But Tran’s determination to survive in the predatory jungles of Vietnam is matched only by his quest to adapt within the new societies that he and his family are exposed to: first, there was Saskatchewan, Canada and then to Boston. As the play continues, Tran takes the audience on a journey of conflicting emotions: anger at the racism, confusion at the different ethnicities and cultures, joys of freedom, and most importantly, understanding and possible forgiving his complex father, whose brutality hides a pain that consumes him and almost consumes Tran.
For any one-person show to succeed, its star must have the presence and ability to grab the audience by the metaphorical throat and carry them throughout the theatrical experience. And without a doubt, Tran possesses those charismatic, talented qualities that make him a natural storyteller. Under the deft direction of co-writer Robert Egan, Tran’s ability to go from one character to another—both genders—is absolutely flawless. Tran also possesses the unique eloquence to recreate in vivid details the various settings he describes, from the thick humid jungles of Vietnam to the freezing winters of Canada. He adds a poetic touch to his descriptions, painting a colorful picture for the audience. But Tran’s emotional range is what ties everything together for his show. He expertly balances the angry intensity of the painful scenes with the humorous segments as though he were a juggler. And when he ends the show, honoring the East and the West, respectfully holding the urn that contains his father’s ashes, he not only brings the journey to a poignant end, he also helps build that cultural bridge between Shakespeare Orange County and the Asian community of Garden Grove, establishing a bond that will continue to grow in many years to come.
Peter A. Balaskas is a journalist, fiction writer, editor, and voice over artist.
Trieu Tran (Unplugged) was performed on August 17, 2014
Shakespeare Orange County
The Festival Amphitheatre, 12740 Main Street, Garden Grove, CA