American artists aren't shy about weighing in on the Vietnam War—but far too few offer a true Vietnamese-American perspective. With his new solo show at ACT, the world premiere of Uncle Ho to Uncle Sam, Trieu Tran is doing just that, and more. The actor-playwright (The Newsroom, Tropic Thunder) tells his own refugee story of coming to America with his family after Saigon had fallen. He talks of coping with an estranged father and the culture shock of being in inner city Boston, where hip hop and gang culture took over his life. Tran is putting authentic sweat and blood out there on stage; he’s lived through these hardships. But just because Uncle Ho to Uncle Sam is painstakingly personal doesn’t mean it’s devoid of outside influence. We talked with Tran about the theater and music that helped shape his play.
Here are four points of reference for Uncle Ho to Uncle Sam:
Beyond the 17th Parallel by T. D. Mitchell
Without Robert Egan there would be no play. Bob runs the Ojai Playwrights Conference, a yearly summer retreat... I first met Bob up there when I was an actor in a production of T. D. Mitchell’s Beyond the 17th Parallel, which Bob directed. That was the first time we got to know each other on a personal level. Eventually, I told Bob a little bit about my life and he encouraged me to tell my story, put it on paper. Bob really helped me shape the piece: the language of it, the rhythm of it, the heartbeat of the piece, where it should go, where it should end, the low points, the high points. He’s almost like a musical composer.
Richard III by William Shakespeare
I love Shakespeare. I’ve always been really, really fascinated with the character of Richard III. I felt like it’s kind of similar to my life, or the life of anybody searching for identity. I remember the first time I saw it and I read it, I was surprised to find I related to Richard. Here’s a guy who was born deformed, but he’s on the battlefield. He’s fighting and killing everyone with his brothers, and then the war ends and his sickly brother becomes king. Nobody thanks him. Nobody says anything, they just push him aside like he’s nothing. He’s a nobody just because of the way he looks or the preconceived notions that people have of him. I feel like all Richard wanted was to be loved. He just wanted respect. I feel like that parallels a lot of immigrants or displaced people without a country or without a culture. For me, personally, growing up in America, it doesn’t matter how much I achieve or how much notoriety I attain; a lot of people will always look at me as not American or as a nobody. Or as an Asian, or a chink, or a gook.
Buried Child by Sam Shepard
Sam Shepard, to me, is all about the American manhood. He’s one of the main reasons I really got interested in theater. When I was taking acting classes in college, I started reading his plays and getting familiar with his work. Sam Shepard himself has a personal relationship with an alcoholic abusive father, so that really hit home to me. All his plays talk about the dysfunction of the family and wretched lovers. All his characters are kind of searching for some sense of control in their lives while stuck in forgotten landscapes in pockets of America. One of the reasons I wrote the play was that I wanted to show the other side of Vietnam; we’re not just Platoon or Hamburger Hill. There are actual human faces beyond the other side of the war. There is a culture.
“Dear Mama” by Tupac Shakur
Hip-hop itself gives us a voice. Nobody sounded like Tupac prior to him and after him. I was living in the city; before Pac, gansta rap came out and it was like, “Yeah, this is kinda about us.” Tupac came on there and he brought poetry with it. He kind of brought that intellect. He really talked about life in the city: the violence, the hardships, racism, social problems, all the injustices, and themes of pain and aggression. There was an art form to it and a positive message to it. Pac lived it. That’s why I wanted to put hip-hop in the show; I wanted to show audiences that hip-hop is not all bad men. It’s not just I’m in the hot tub drinking and smoking my blunt with the honeys.
While in jail, Pac wrote “Dear Mama,” the homage to his mom and all mothers in the city facing poverty and hardship.... To me, this play is my “Dear Mama,” in a way. This story deals a lot with me searching for my long-lost father and trying to come to an understanding of him, but I hope this piece is also a homage to my mom. She was in her early 20s with three kids; she snuck them out of Vietnam while having to deal with the Vietcong, Thai pirates, and my crazy, abusive, alcoholic father. She brought us to the city and worked two jobs; she was on welfare, but she never complained, never took a vacation. Not only did she put food on the table, she was a mom and a dad and taught us about love and integrity. My heart and my soul is my mom.
Uncle Ho to Uncle Sam
Thru Oct 7, ACT Theatre, $20–$55