Every good work of art engages its audience with a story. The better ones have the ability to convey universal truths through their own particular details. PlayMakers Repertory Company’s 2015-16 season-opening PRC2 presentation of Uncle Ho to Uncle Sam is one such work.
While we see but one performer, this is a two-man show. It was written by Trieu Tran and Robert Egan. It is performed by Tran and directed by Egan; and as we learned during the post-show discussion, this script was first developed four years ago, and is constantly undergoing revision at their hands.
The story begins at “the end” — the end, that is, of what we think of as “the end” of what is known to us as the “Vietnam War.” Born just weeks before the Fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975, Tran is a refugee. The play is a monologue — told in a not-always-linear sequence — of Tran’s odyssey from Vietnam to Thailand to Canada and, finally, to the United States.
We are given a glimpse of Tran’s father in a communist “re-education center“, where “teachers” carry machine guns and take bribes. We see a daring escape in a canoe, and we witness the barbarity of pirates.
Uncle Ho to Uncle Sam takes us to a refugee camp in Thailand, where Trieu Tran and his older cousin go into “business” as beggars. Tran’s story also takes us to Canada, where he first encounters “strange white flakes,” falling from the sky, and people with “more clothes than I’ve ever seen anyone wearing.”
We are there as the Tran family deals with (and fails to deal with) their problems. We witness successes and failures and deaths, and we are there as Tran repeatedly attempts to integrate his Vietnamese self, first into a Canadian and then an American society. Pay attention to the Thanksgiving turkey metaphor — which suggests quite a bit.
There is an Orwellian ring to the question asked of Trieu Tran’s father: “Do you love your Uncle Ho?” This phrase then brings to mind the title of the piece, and we find ourselves wondering: “Do love your Uncle Sam?” And there is a reference to a third “uncle” (although the title is not attached) — Nguyen Van Thieu, the final president of South Vietnam who escaped with a mass quantity of riches at the end of the war. Pay attention, also, to the use of the Nixonian phrase “Peace with Honor.”
This story is quite relevant today, because we frequently see refugees in the news; and through this story, we get a close-up of a face to put on refugees, a lens for looking into their stories.
But in a larger sense, this story is relevant to us all. While few of us are actual refugees, we have all had life-defining experiences. Even the most “advantaged” of us have, at some point, struggled with “fitting in.” And, of course, the very fact that we are still here shows that we are all survivors.
For all of us, there are moments when we have survived, but at what cost? When she speaks, listen to “the silver-haired woman.” The few words she speaks say much more than “Save the many.”
- Trieu Tran is onstage from beginning to end.
- His costume undergoes one significant modification.
- Snatches of music (both Vietnamese and Western) help set the tone during various scenes.
The set includes a basin of water center stage and what appears to be a shrine upstage. Are these metaphors? Listen for references to water and watch for ritualistic practices. And be sure to pay close attention when Trieu Tran speaks of the year in which he fell in love three times.
Is the show perfect? No, but it is well worth seeing. Likewise, staying for the post-show discussion is time well spent.
SECOND OPINION: Aug. 26th Raleigh, NC CVNC review by the Andrea McKerlie Luke: http://cvnc.org/article.cfm?articleId=7564; Aug. 27th Chapel Hill, NC Daily Tar Heel (student newspaper) review by Sarah McQuillan (who awarded the show 4 stars): http://www.dailytarheel.com/blog/canvas/2015/08/uncle-ho-to-uncle-sam; Aug. 27th Chapel Hill, NC WUNC/91.5 FM interview with playwright and performer Trieu Tran, conducted by Frank Stasio for “The State of Things”: http://wunc.org/post/vietnam-refugee-looks-back-life-uncle-ho-uncle-sam#stream/0; Aug. 26th Durham, NC Indy Week mini-preview by the Byron Woods: http://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/uncle-ho-to-uncle-sam/Event?oid=4644534; and Aug. 25th Chapel Hill, NC WCHL/Chapelboro.com interview with playwright and performer Trieu Tran, conducted by Aaron Keck: http://chapelboro.com/news/arts/uncle-ho-to-uncle-sam-kicks-off-playmakers-season/. (Note: To read Triangle Arts and Entertainment’s online version of the Aug. 25th Triangle Review preview by Robert W. McDowell and the Aug. 29th review by Jesse R. Gephart, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2015/08/uncle-ho-to-uncle-sam-is-trieu-trans-personal-tale-of-a-haunting-search-for-sanctuary/ and http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2015/08/visibly-nervous-trieu-tran-stiffly-gesticulates-and-shouts-his-way-through-uncle-ho-to-uncle-sam/, respectively.)
PlayMakers Repertory Company presents UNCLE HO TO UNCLE SAM, co-written and performed by Trieu Tran, at 7:30 p.m. Aug. 28 and 29 and 2 and 7:30 p.m. Aug. 30 in the Elizabeth Price Kenan Theatre, in the Center for Dramatic Art, 120 Country Club Rd., Chapel Hill, NC 27514, on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus.
TICKETS: $15 and up ($10 UNC students and $12 other college students), with discounts for UNC faculty and staff and U.S. military personnel.
BOX OFFICE: 919-962-PLAY, firstname.lastname@example.org, or http://www.playmakersrep.org/tickets/single.
GROUP RATES (15+ tickets): 919-962-PLAY (7529), email@example.com, or http://www.playmakersrep.org/tickets/groupsales.
UNC NEWS RELEASE: http://uncnews.unc.edu/2015/08/11/PlayMakers-kicks-off-prc2-season-with-uncle-ho-to-uncle-sam/.
PRESENTER: http://www.playmakersrep.org/, https://www.facebook.com/playmakersrep, https://twitter.com/playmakersrep, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PlayMakers_Repertory_Company, and http://www.youtube.com/user/PlayMakersRep.
PRC BLOG (Page to Stage): http://playmakersrep.blogspot.com/.
NOTE: Following each performance, there will be a discussion with the cast and creative team and subject-matter experts.
Uncle Ho to Uncle Sam (2012 play): https://www.facebook.com/UncleHoToUncleSam (Facebook page).
Trieu Tran (playwright/performer): http://www.trieutran.com/ (official website), http://www.playmakersrep.org/performances/embed_artist.aspx?id=78f77ffd-a597-4c0d-af99-8fefcfb5bf9d (PlayMakers Rep bio), http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0870913/ (Internet Movie Database), and https://twitter.com/Trieu_Tran (Twitter page).
Robert Egan (playwright/director): http://ojaiplays.org/staff_ojai_playwrights_conference.aspx (Ojai Playwrights Conference bio) and http://www.playmakersrep.org/performances/embed_artist.aspx?id=e4672ecb-9c73-41bd-b832-e6e244a78362 (PlayMakers Rep bio).
Pamela Vesper has been a Raleigh resident for more than 20 years. A local attorney for licensed professionals, when she’s not in court, Pam can be found watching or participating in local theater productions or enjoying the vibrant Raleigh music and craft beer scene. She also loves indie and foreign films and was an anchor on the local cable show, Movie Minutes. Pam has an opinion on just about everything; just ask her. Kurt Benrud is a graduate of Cary High School and N.C. State University, and he has taught English at both. He first became involved in local theater in 1980. He has served on the board of directors for both the Cary Players and the Cary Playwrights’ Forum. He is also a volunteer reader with Triangle Radio Reading Service. Click here to read their reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.