The half-Asian, half-Caucasian woman who jauntily bounds out on stage—handbag and smile in hand—at the beginning of the solo play Reclaiming Vietnam is in Vietnam to volunteer at an orphanage. She is meeting up with a friend to explore the country before her orphanage work starts and she excitedly relates her travel plans to the audience.
This woman has a wonderful smile, an infectious energy, and a bubbly attitude that is impossible to resist. Except that…well, except that she is so bubbly and so energetic that you wonder whether there isn’t something larger and darker lurking underneath the surface. And guess what? There is.
Initially, it seems that what lurks underneath is an identity crisis. Her name is Kim (played by Kim Chinh who also wrote the play) and we learn that she is estranged from her parents. Her father is Vietnamese, her mother Caucasian. She hates being Vietnamese, and yet, here she is in Vietnam. As the title suggests, she must be in Vietnam to reclaim her heritage.
But the title is disingenuous. Soon it becomes painfully clear that the danger lurking underneath is not at all about her Vietnamese identity, but instead, about the sexual molestation that she experienced by her cousins growing up. Oh wow! Talk about a huge sleight of hand! The play suddenly demands to be dark. And yet, Chinh manages to keep it light. Or at least, light alternating with some pretty dark revelations.
It could be a criticism that Chinh never allows the play to go to a dark place and stay there. It’s as though she straps you onto her back and then drops down into a deep and dangerous well, but on a bungee cord that immediately bounces back up to the surface lightness. You are with her on her journey, which is a constant bungee jump between light and dark, Vietnam and America, and her ability to confront those members of her family who sexually abused her. It is a constant see-saw, and as an audience member, you see that she is dealing with everything, but you wonder whether she is really dealing with everything. That is a question that will linger after the play is over. After you have gone out for coffee to think about everything you have just seen.
Chinh is a terrific actor: expressive, versatile, and able to inhabit all the characters in her play with extraordinary believability. Especially notable were her impersonations of her male cousins and brothers, whether smoking while in denial of their actions or dunking their heads into a pool out of anger. Reclaiming Vietnam is worth going to see just to see her.
What trips the play up is the structure. Reclaiming Vietnam feels like two distinct plays, both of which have incredible potential, but both of which are still in embryonic form. There is the play about the sexual molestation (closer to gestation), and there is the play about the Vietnam identity (less close). I don’t think this was intentional and suspect that the two stories are intricately related to each other. Unfortunately, this does not come through in its current form.
Having said that, what feels most intriguing about Reclaiming Vietnam, is the potential to birth two very powerful plays. Within this play are two exceptional kernels ripe for development. The sexual molestation story would benefit from seeing more of the backstory and how she worked up the courage to confront her relatives rather than just seeing the final meetings. The story about identity had a lot of missing pieces and would benefit from being fleshed out more fully.
As it stands now, Chinh has written a very good play. In the last scene, she is surfing with her brothers in California. She acts out going to the beach in her wetsuit, heading into the cold water, paddling to catch a wave, and then getting pummeled by that same wave. She gets pummeled by another wave. She is ready to quit when her brother tells her a secret about surfing and she finally puts everything together.
This last scene is absolutely wonderful and it brings us back to the beginning of the play when we first encounter an energetic young beautiful woman bounding out on stage ready to take on life. After all that she has suffered, it is encouraging—even uplifting—to see her balanced on the water and ready to take on life again.
Reclaiming Vietnam written and performed by Kim Chinh and directed by Elizabeth Browning played at 59E59 Theaters on July 9 and 11 as part of its East to Edinburgh Festival. The play will also take place from August 17-19 in Edinburgh, Scotland.