Back in 2008, as anti-prop 8 organizers in San Francisco sought to create a public face and build visible support for the fight for marriage equality, Thao P. Nguyen found herself being encouraged by her Queer family to come out and be counted.
She made plans to come out to her mother.
But as a Vietnamese-American, she said that as she got more involved with the movement for marriage equality, she found it had a Eurocentric tint, and that the “coming out” story unfairly lumped together everyone without regard to ethnic background, culture, or family history.
So she said that she decided to forge her own path, to disregard what her friend termed the “homo-normative white paradigm,” and neither “come out” nor “stay in the closet.”
Nguyen’s latest performance, Fortunate Daughter, directed by award-winning activist and comedian W. Kamau Bell, is based on her story, which includes a recounting of a trip to Vietnam to see her grandmother, a gay pride march she attended with her mother and a Vietnamese-American Thanksgiving dinner.
In anticipation of Nguyen’s upcoming show on Sunday, April 1, at Stage Werx Theatre, we asked her a few questions about what inspired her to become a solo performer, what makes her latest effort unique and how comedy can affect an audience.
How did you first get into performance art?
I was working at a rape crisis center in San Mateo county in 2007. One of my coworkers was performing in a “solo performance” showcase of 7 solo artists.
I went to the show and I was mesmerized. The performers told these (mostly autobiographical) stories borrowing from so many styles–storytelling, stand-up, improv. The stories were funny and rich with meaning. The performers took on the physicality and voices of multiple different characters.
I had to try it. So, I signed up for the Solo Performance Workshop (SPW). Since then, I’ve taken at least 10 classes with SPW instructors W. Kamau Bell and Martha Rynberg.
How is this new show different from other solo shows you have done in the
This is my first full-length show. I’ve done shorter pieces anywhere from 10 minutes to 30 minutes before. This is my first 80 minute show. It’s so exciting and terrifying to be taking on this endeavor. The shorter pieces can be punchier and can take you on a more zig-zaggy ride.
But with the full length show, it’s all about craft…You have to make sure that your show is tight and well written. There’s nothing worse than seeing an actor “go through the motions” rather than really feeling like the show is unfolding live and right in front of your eyes…
Also, as a performer doing live theater, the physicality is hard to sustain. It’s like being a sprinter for years and years. And now I’m putting myself in a marathon. The physical stamina it takes (especially since my show has me falling to the floor, running around, pulling my hair out, and rolling along the back wall of the stage) to do a full length show is remarkable.
Do you use comedy to get certain (more serious) messages across?
Yes, of course! It’s hard not to when my directors W. Kamau Bell and Martha Rynberg are such skilled comedians.
Also, I think it’s necessary. Not a bonus, but necessary to have comedic elements to telling a hard, emotional, and socially relevant story…Staying in the depths for a long, extended period of time without coming up for air is emotionally draining as a performer and can be (not always, but sometimes) irresponsible to your audience. Yes, the audience wants to hear and witness and compelling and moving story, but also they’re there to be entertained.
In addition, in those comic moments is where you can deliver some deep, meaningful s*&%!. Excuse my language! But it’s true. Those ridiculous moments where we can see our own humanity are wonderful opportunities to laugh, squirm, and feel both joy and pain. A full length show is like a living breathing thing. It needs to inhale and exhale. I hope that audience members get to walk away having experienced a full range of emotions.
Thao P. Nguyen performs Fortunate Daughter at Stage Werx on April 1. Doors open at 6:30pm and the show starts at 7pm. Tickets are $20 to $40. More info.