'Uncle Ho to Uncle Sam': Theater Review

Uncle Ho to Uncle Same - H 2013

Uncle Ho to Uncle Same - H 2013

An ambitious recounting of a child Vietnamese refugee's perilous escape and rocky adjustment to American assimilation.

A man recounts a displaced life growing up in America after his family flees South Vietnam when the government falls.

Shakespearean specialist Trieu Tran has his own tale of Shakespearean dimensions: born within days of the ignominious fall of the “Republic” of South Vietnam in 1975, his life story stands in for a generation of his displaced people while resolutely asserting its own distinctive individuality.

In his epochal one-man show Uncle Ho to Uncle Sam, running in repertory in Culver City as part of the Radar L.A. international theater festival, Tran recounts how at the age of four his mother bribes their way into a visit with his proud father who is being tortured in a re-education camp. Like so many other “boat people,” they are nearly raped and slain by pirates en route to a Thai refugee camp.

Then, as an uncomprehending seven-year-old, he arrives in Saskatchewan to live in poverty with his implacably angry father, who meanwhile has taken a second wife, only to be murdered himself by a fellow countryman arguing over drug-dealing.

Finally, with his mother and sisters, he migrates to Boston public housing as a pre-adolescent, torn between being the model Asian student and a combative brawler, though he rejects stereotypical pigeonholing, preferring to find self-definition in hip-hop culture and joining an Italian gang, rather than the ethnically mandated Cambodian one.

Tran’s true adventures are the stuff of great fiction, with complications worthy of a hefty novel, complexities he deals with far more effectively when elucidating his own roiling emotions and rather less so with grand themes and generalizations, which tend to be vague and somewhat forced. The show stumbles at the outset, finding its footing only when Tran grounds his story in narrative incident and his piercing personal perceptions of an unceasingly traumatic youth. He is, however, a nimble and focused performer, and his extraordinary experiences do not require linkage to any universal formula to make them compellingly relevant. His insights into himself more than suffice to make electrifying storytelling.

Perhaps the most poignant of many searing images is that of Tran being bathed by his father, who uncomfortably joins him in the tub, scrubbing off the blood of his beaten mother, who has been sent to the hospital, as the old man uncomprehendingly pleads with him: “What more do I have to do to show you I love you, kill you?” Tran must navigate his coming-of-age while his finer sensibilities contend with brute survival instincts. Despite ongoing tragedies rarely of his own making, he endures through his resilient ability to remake himself over and over again.

Uncle Ho to Uncle Sam may be glaringly imperfect as a play, but its power is so sustained and undeniable, it makes so many other autobiographical forays by actors with pitiable stories seem trivial by comparison. This has been a life fraught with challenge and adversity, and the performance itself as an act of witness before us validates its own significance far more than any summation can possibly do justice to.

Venue: Center Theatre Group at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, Culver City (runs through Oct. 6)
Cast: Trieu Tran
Director: Robert Egan
Playwright: Trieu Tran with Robert Egan
Set designer: Takeshi Kata
Lighting designer: Lap Chi Chu

Sound designer: Brendan Patrick Hogan
Projection designer: Lara Kaminsky
Presented by Radar L.A. Festival