By Retta Blaney
Playwright Don Nguyen saw potential in a New York Times story about an HIV-positive woman who started the country’s first HIV support group for women in Haiphong, a large port city near Hanoi. But he questioned his ability to capture their reality.
“I’m Vietnamese but I grew up in Nebraska,” he said. “They felt very foreign to me. I wasn’t sure how I could write their voices. It was a fascinating subject but seemed daunting to take on.”
Then he remembered an ancient Vietnamese legend of the Trung sisters, who gave their lives in a fight against the Chinese army. Nguyen saw a creative challenge in combining the factual story with the myth, as both were about strong women fighting for liberation.
The play that resulted, Red Flamboyant, will be staged at the Parish of Calvary-St. George in Manhattan from April 24 through May 16. It is produced by Firebone Theatre, an Off-Off-Broadway company that explores “the relationship between divine immortality (fire) and human mortality (bone).”
Nguyen, 42, and Firebone’s artistic director, Chris Cragin-Day, 37, talked with TLC in Cragin-Day’s office at the King’s College, where she she teaches English and theatre.
“I love the feminist aspects of this story,” Cragin-Day said. “I love these women who are just so powerful, not in a social sense but in a soul sense.”
That soul sense also attracted Dusty Brown, director of Calvary-St. George’s Olmsted Salon, an arts and culture ministry.
“We want to explore life through culture and conversation, to bridge the gap between the church and the greater culture at large,” he said. “We want to stimulate conversation and make the church safe for everybody.”
“Grace and mercy are experiences everyone can relate to,” Brown said. “They come after experience with the law and judgment.”
The real-life inspiration for the main character, Mrs. Hue, is Pham Thi Hue, who was featured in the 2006 Times story. Although AIDS was widespread in the country, many of those who had it were shunned by their families and fired from their jobs. Most of the women were infected by their husbands, who were drug users.
Hue called her shelter Haiphong Red Flamboyant after a Vietnamese flower. She struggled constantly to find money for food and assistance. Bricks occasionally shattered the windows of Red Flamboyant.
Nguyen had not known HIV/AIDS was so prevalent in Vietnam.
“It affected me, being Vietnamese, and that the country I was born in had such a huge problem,” he said. “The stigma around it was shocking to me and I wondered how I could get a germ of a play from that.”
He began writing in 2008. A naturalistic play about Hue and all those dying of AIDS would be “an overwhelming experience for the audience,” he said. “I had to find a less realistic way. The Trung sisters’ legend demanded more heightened reality. It dictated the voice of the play.”
The Trung sisters formed an army to seek revenge after the Chinese killed one sister’s husband. The Chinese fought back and demanded the Vietnamese give up the sisters. They sacrificed themselves by jumping into a ravine.
Nguyen recognized a connection between Hue and the legendary sisters: “She was a modern-day warrior who could be juxtaposed with the ancient female of Vietnam to make a great story.”
But by 2010 and his “20th draft,” he was frustrated. “I felt like I was writing from a distance with these people.”
He decided to see Vietnam firsthand and possibly meet Hue. Since he did not speak Vietnamese, he asked his parents to accompany him. They readily agreed.
A cousin in the country found Hue and told her about the play he was writing. She agreed to a meeting. It was then that it hit him: suppose the real Hue was nothing like the character he had created?
After three weeks of postponed appointments with Hue and rescheduled flights, it seemed ill-fated.
“I thought, I’m not going to see her and that’s fine. I got close,” he said. “It was really a good test of faith.”
But they met at last. With his father interpreting, Nguyen talked to Hue for an hour. When he mentioned he was incorporating the sisters’ legend, “her eyes lit up.” She told him the Vietnamese believe that “if you do something great, you are a sibling of the Trung sisters.”
She asked him to make it clear that she receives no government support. In that strong insistence he recognized the character he had created was very much like the real Hue.
As Nguyen was leaving, Hue said something to him in Vietnamese. He smiled and nodded. In the taxi his father told him what she had said: “Don’t forget about me.”
Ten percent of Red Flamboyant’s ticket sales will support Hue’s work through a foundation based in the United States.
Some of the actors in Red Flamboyant will fly, using single-harness bungees for a freer-flowing choreography. Staging these aerial feats is challenging for a small company like Firebone, but Cragin-Day sees advantages.
“We take risks. Companies like ours don’t have much money at stake.”
Still, the company bought extra insurance and hired Karen Fuhram of Ground Aerial Dance Theatre, an expert in the field, to handle the choreography.
“It gives us the freedom to experiment with the human body in flight,” Cragin-Day said.
She believes the play will speak to many people, especially women.
“I feel like it’s not just about Vietnamese women,” she said. “This play captures that spiritual strength that is the legacy of women, and that’s beautiful.”
Retta Blaney is the author of Working on the Inside: The Spiritual Life Through the Eyes of Actors.