Recently diaCRITICS managing editor Julie Thi Underhill attended Thao P. Nguyen’s “one-dyke” tragicomedy show Fortunate Daughter at the intimate Impact Theater in Berkeley, where it ran for three weekends. Last year Fortunate Daughter was a sold-out show in the New York International Fringe Festival, one of the most prestigious theater festivals in the U.S. Nguyen’s highly recommended multiple-character performance navigates some of the ongoing and palpable tensions, for Việt LGBTQ individuals, between secrecy and visibility and between coming out and coming home.
During the past year or two, debates about LGBTQ rights in Việt Nam and the Vietnamese diaspora have gotten louder, evoking both celebratory and shaming responses to same-sex relationships. On one end of the spectrum, there’s the Pride parade in Hanoi and the possibility of legalized gay marriage in Viet Nam, with implications for increased visibility and protected legal status for LGBTQ (or queer) individuals and couples. In contrast, Pride celebrations were recently challenged by some diasporic Vietnamese in Orange County, California, who excluded Vietnamese-American LGBTQ marchers from their Tết parade by asking them to “sacrifice” themselves from the sidelines, deploying the rhetoric of family sacrifice to keep “face” intact for the Việt community. This idea of family sacrifice is most likely a cultural inheritance from Confucianism, regarding sacrifice (at all costs) for the sake of upholding morality. Even the implication that queerness is amoral, however, shows to what extent these embedded “old school” cultural norms are necessarily being called into question by conversations about visibility and legalization. Recently LGBTQ acceptance within Vietnamese communities/families has become a more open debate, with some Vietnamese showing overt love and encouragement, and with others disowning or degrading their queer family and community for bringing upon a loss of face. Despite significant advances in the degree of acceptance (not just silent tolerance) of queer Viets, some observers have argued that Vietnamese society/culture, in general, still has far to go before it considers queerness perfectly respectable, without stigma. In the words of Hanoi-based photographer Maika Elan, who completed a groundbreaking documentary photo project with gay couples in Việt Nam, “[m]any can easily say they are homosexual, or have homosexual friends. However, there still exists a large barrier, when the notion of homosexuality is still limited to define what homosexuality is and how ‘different’ it is….The ‘acceptance’ of the nature of homosexuality is mostly based on sympathy, ignorance or even contempt.” In other words, despite the broader level of acceptance for LGBTQ people, especially compared to previous decades, Vietnamese society/culture often sensationalizes or misunderstands or even holds contempt for those who aren’t straight. For the queer Vietnamese constantly asked why they aren’t yet married with children, for example, the desire for acceptance from those they love—in short, the desire for ‘home’ even though they aren’t straight—sometimes clashes quite strongly with cultural norms that de-emphasize the sense of individualism necessitated by the impulse to come out or to remain unmarried.
Pondering vocabularies of respect within a Vietnamese family, Thao P. Nguyen’s autobiographical “one-dyke” tragicomedy show Fortunate Daughter offers a critical and timely intervention into the conversation about queer Việt visibility and acceptance, both in Việt Nam and in the U.S. diaspora. Even if you’ve heard or had this conversation before, you haven’t heard it like this. Fortunate Daughter demands at the outset that audience members delete (or strategically suspend) all previous associations of Việt Nam or Vietnamese people in order to hear this story for the first time, beyond the cacophony of war movie lines cluttering memories of Việt Nam. For Nguyen, her twenty-something coming-of-age is also a coming home, not only during her one-year trip to the motherland but also as she struggles in California to address the rupture between her lesbian identity and her family’s overt expectations that she marry a man. Early in her full-length solo comedy show, before meeting her extended family in Việt Nam, she practices the appropriate gendered and well-pronounced greetings on the boat ride up the Sông Mê Kông, revealing to what extent even her ability to speak tiếng Việt well will ultimately reflect upon her mother, whom she loves and respects deeply. This scene establishes Nguyen’s need to not cause her family members to lose “face” by being the wrong kind of daughter, a theme which recurs throughout her performance. Yet soon, during Nguyen’s year-long stay in Việt Nam, she also discovers that her gender-ambiguous queer “country cousin” has a place in the family—that no one seems surprised, besides Nguyen, about the lack of gender conformity nor about the cousin’s sexuality—or at least no one is talking about it. Even so, back in the U.S., Nguyen’s immediate family expresses some degree of contempt or misunderstanding towards queerness, especially her father and sister. The most sympathetic of her immediate family, Nguyen’s mother, claims after attending the San Francisco Dyke March with Nguyen—a tense and hilarious episode—that being around so many lesbians is a challenge for her because Vietnamese culture simply doesn’t have lesbians within it. So Nguyen is navigating the undercurrents of homophobia or the lack of familiarity with queerness in her immediate family while trying to decide if and how she will come out to them, a dilemma heightened by the backdrop of her sister Linh’s wedding and their father’s insistence that Nguyen is next in finding a good husband. Nguyen’s father even made calling cards announcing his unmarried daughter Thao’s availability to distribute at his straight daughter Linh’s wedding. He called out to the assembled guests, “If you are a single man, I invite you to please take a look at Thao, she is by the shrimp.” Despite the dark humor of this scene, the audience experiences to what extent one daughter’s marriage is openly celebrated while the other daughter’s queerness is forced underground, into a straightjacket, by her family’s insistence that a husband is the only conceivable partner for Nguyen.
Alongside these personal tensions about hiding and visibility, the same-sex marriage movement in California centers overt visibility as the key to winning over the advocates of Proposition 8, a California state constitutional amendment in November 2008 that indefinitely banned same-sex marriage. “Come out, come out, wherever you are!” a San Francisco gay rights rally speaker urged, in Nguyen’s reenactment. For the movement, coming out en masse will show everyone else to what extent the LGBTQ community is literally everywhere, which ostensibly should soften anti-gay sentiments. So caught between being a good Vietnamese-American daughter and a good queer rights activist, Nguyen struggles in limbo, wrestling with the possibility of bringing shame upon herself and her family, even as she recognizes the importance of equal opportunities in law and society. Furthermore, her critique of the exclusion of people of color from the leadership of activists hoping to repeal Prop. 8—an exclusion accompanied by the movement’s outright co-opting of African American freedom songs and contemporary “African” performances—deepens Nguyen’s political commentary by challenging the ethics of the same-sex marriage movement in California. As Nguyen wryly observes about the freedom song, “I think the people who originally wrote the song were talking about actual slavery.” This tension between serving her family with its own shortcomings, and serving the movement with its flawed cultural insensitivity, leaves Nguyen unable to resolve her dilemma until she makes significant progress towards doing what is truly best for her, near the end of the show. This transformation is partially achieved the help of her boss, mentor, and friend Emmy, whom Nguyen jokingly depicts as “the only older Asian dyke in the world” yet who provides a grounding element of wisdom and incisive commentary throughout the 75-minute show. Despite heavy doses of ironic humor, including a very telling reference to vegan cheesecake, what’s serious is not only the conversation about acceptance within Vietnamese families but also the critique of how the same-sex marriage movement exerts strong pressure on queer individuals to come out to everyone as a political strategy, whether this is culturally or individually appropriate for the LGBTQ individual.
As for delivery, Nguyen’s bilingualism adds not only a strong dimension of realism but also reveals an awareness that she has multiple audience for this performance, with tiếng Việt speakers even more privy to her insights. Although most of her performance is in English, her decision to portray certain conversations in tiếng Việt creates intimacy with her Vietnamese-speaking audience, with whom she seems to be confiding a little more deeply, especially about the persistence of homophobia in Vietnamese culture. As Nguyen forecasts her father’s potential reaction to her lesbianism, he is deeply angry that her selfishness results in his loss of face. “No, shut up! Shut up!,” his voice booms throughout the theater, as his daughter performs. “What am I supposed to tell the family?! Did you think about that?! You only think of yourself! Why did I come here, to raise a selfish daughter?!” His tirade in heavily-accented English is followed by a string of angry sentences in Vietnamese, with the stinging sharp pain inflicted by his cutting words even more palpable to those who fully understand their content, not just their tone. In this scene, the Vietnamese father fully expects his queer daughter to subsume her sexuality in order to keep “face” for the family, a dramatic challenge to the Western notion that coming out will somehow increase respect and tolerance. Although Nguyen contrasts this scene with another potential reaction—that her father has been attending PFLAG meetings, betting with his wife on which parent will know first, and watching The L Word in anticipation that their daughter would eventually come out to her parents—this optimistic fantasy is overpowered in reality by its implausibility. Even so, the bittersweet humor adds levity. “To me, The L Word not very authentic,” Nguyen’s fantasy accepting-father admits with some disappointment. “Also, I think Mommy have a little crush on Shane.” These hilarious queer American pop culture references spoken by an older immigrant male character, in a heavy Vietnamese accent, emphasize a certain surreality to the juxtaposition of the multiple worlds inhabited by Nguyen, as she performs her father who probably would never be down, in real life, with his wife’s crush on the androgynous heartthrob of The L Word. In her careful balance of tragedy with comedy, however, Nguyen’s writing leaves her audience in tears from either sadness or laughter, sometimes both at the same time.
Nguyen’s talent, emotional depth, vulnerability, humility, and courage make Fortunate Daughter a truly unforgettable performance. Embodying not only herself but also family members, boss, rally speakers, and friends, Nguyen’s body language and accents are pitch perfect, her comedic delivery is brilliant, and her political and social critiques completely on-point. Regarding Nguyen’s intersectionality as a queer rights activist who also strongly desires her immigrant Vietnamese family’s approval and love, this complexity could have resulted in a very serious and heavy performance, but she finds hilarity in even the most awkward and pained situations. The denouement of the story does not provide any one-size-fits-all answers to her dilemma, but rather allows us to ponder the dimensions and implications of tacit knowledge. And, last but not least, Nguyen’s recent run at the Impact Theater in Berkeley occurs at a timely juncture. One contemporary question within the United States is whether the general social/legal advances for LGBTQ Americans—the recent repeal of DOMA with all its implications of equality, the recent long-awaited repeal of Prop. 8 thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court’s rejection of the case, and the passing of same-sex marriage laws in select states—will inadvertently create a cultural shift that could help make queerness more acceptable to the general public, and whether this acceptance among the general public could impact the more conservative members of the Vietnamese-American community, including those in Orange County asking queer Viets to “sacrifice” themselves by remaining hidden during public Lunar New Year celebrations. Perhaps laws won’t change hearts and minds as will familial love, if even by degrees. In any case, Fortunate Daughter adds a crucial perspective on these matters with its sensitive and nuanced depiction of how Vietnamese families should indeed generate room and respect for their queer daughters, sons, and those in-between, despite the cultural pressures to save “face,” as queer individuals within the Việt community navigate the tensions between coming out and coming home.
Written & performed by Thao P. Nguyen
Produced by Meanie Productions
Directed by Martha Rynberg
Originally directed by W. Kamau Bell
Developed in the Solo Performance Workshop
Full-length solo comedy
Approximately 75 minutes without intermission
Thao P. Nguyen has been writing and performing solo shows since she joined the Solo Performance Workshop in 2007. She has been featured as a closing act at the San Francisco Theater Festival for four years running (2009-2012). In August 2012, Nguyen brought her full-length one-women comedy, Fortunate Daughter, to the New York International Fringe Festival, where she garnered rave reviews and sold out shows. Fortunate Daughter returned to San Francisco in October 2012, playing at Stage Werx Underground Theatre in a completely sold-out run. The show’s current run at Berkeley’s Impact Theatre in the Summer of 2013 has left Bay Area audiences laughing hysterically and quoting lines from the show during the whole ride home.