Wednesday, January 15, 2014

"Little Saigon (A Play in Three Acts)" by P.V. LeForge


Title: "Little Saigon (A Play in Three Acts)" 
Author: P.V. LeForge
Genre: Drama
Length: 90 pages
Naja's MPAA rating: (PG-13) for for language and adult themes

Setting: 1975, An American, post-war refugee camp

I know very little about Vietnam, but I do know a little bit about plays, and I think this is a very well-written play that deserves attention.

Summary: A large, multi-generational family is determined not to be split apart when they arrive at a refugee camp in Florida. They struggle to adapt to the changing circumstances. Their skill sets and educations are no longer needed. Their clothing and language are taken away from them, and they have to accept charity with strings attached to it (i.e., a disgusted, condescending social worker forces them to chant children's Bible songs and allows misunderstanding and frustration to completely spoil the compassionate attitude required of a professional in that position).

I was really worried that this play would be cheesy or sentimental, but it's not. I worried that the character named "Tao" would be very wise, and that the character named "Bich" would be... well. But fortunately, the author is too good for that, although there is a little bit of... maybe overly-obvious symbolism with the "Tao" character.

My understanding of the word "tao" or "dao" is that it's the truth you sense from within the core of yourself. Wikipedia also refers to it as "principle." The main character "Tao" definitely senses the truth within herself and is stubbornly attached to her own principles. She's truthful about the truth within herself to the point that she tends to make herself very annoying and draining to everyone around her. Most of the others are trying to move forward. But most importantly, despite how difficult she is, she and all the other characters are quite likable and well-rounded. There's very little moustache-twirling in this play. The characters are real people living under circumstances that really have happened.

The members of the refugee family are frightened, confused, and they deal with their changes in fortune in their own unique ways in accordance with their individual personalities. Each character is distinct, and you learn an incredible amount about how war affects people. The war turns friends and neighbors and lovers against each other, it makes people perform desperate acts. It makes people behave very irrationally as they begin to live in a world of abstraction and paranoia. Prejudice arises very quickly. People make poor choices in the name of big concepts. They big make choices that only hurt themselves, when they should make small choices to take care of themselves and the people immediately around them. They lose their principles all together. And in the middle of it all, they want desperately to heal and continue to love.

For the main character, Tao, it's like she's lost in a fantasy of power and success for the mere ideas that she's come to associate her identity with. And the way it's presented in the play, you can see how natural and subtle this process is. We shouldn't blame her for letting her circumstances affect her personality the way they do. She's consistently presented as the smartest one of the group, and according to this book about the nature of genius, people who are more intelligent (or have very good working memory) are more prone than others to post-traumatic stress. You can see how this very smart, detail-oriented person is now struggling more than the others, and is more obsessed with the past than any of the others- even if it's self-destructive and pushes away the people who are trying to care for her.

The elderly have a very hard time adjusting. There's a clear division between the refugees and the people running the camp- and they don't trust each other. The refugees are understandably afraid to talk about their experiences with the people running the camp. They don't get along with the people who have already been assimilated into the new culture. The relatively wealthy charity workers seem continually frustrated that they aren't being worshipfully admired for their goodness as they insult the refugees who are struggling to get oriented, and they practically attempt to control the refugees' thoughts as though they have a right to them. It's all the more sad when you realize that these charity workers who smugly correct the refugees' English are probably much less educated than the refugees. One refugee is an x-ray technician, one is a lawyer, one is a doctor, etc.

Conversely (and the play does a really good job of balancing this out), some of the refugees don't really want to be there, and despite the fact, they are living off of others' charity while insulting the givers of that charity and assuming the worst about them. You can see how this type of attitude has a very negative impact on others, regardless of who has the attitude. I really felt that both Tao (who does most of the condescending) and the charity worker (who also does most of the condescending) were two sides of the same exact coin. Both were being terrible in the name of abstract ideas and being rather selfish under pressure.

A lot of the struggles the immigrants are going through are universal, but the author is specific about what's happening to these particular immigrants in this particular culture. (The announcements going over the loudspeaker are in French and Vietnamese for instance.) It's interesting to see how the author handles a play written in English when the characters are probably speaking in Vietnamese in the reality of the play.

The dialog is extremely natural. There are several paragraphs worth of authorial notes to start off with, and although these notes are a little bit in the way at first, once the actual play starts, the pace of the drama quickens fast, and a director might find these notes very useful upon doing an analysis of the play for staging. You do have to warm up to the play a little, but once it gets started, it doesn't stop! It only gets better and better after the middle of the first act!

The description of the book on Amazon doesn't do the play any justice at all. Other than that, I have very few negative things to say about this ebook. I think it's a masterpiece. It's very honest, very balanced, very understanding, and it holds your interest. It's very professionally copy-edited. I only caught one definite typo in the entire thing. Amazing. I've caught more typos in published, physical copies of Harry Potter. So this sense that the author is new (to stageplays) doesn't interfere with the high-quality of the play. It would be great to see this performed live. I enjoyed this play a lot more than I've enjoyed many mainstream dramas, and the ending was as startling and sadly inevitable as, "I have always depended on the kindness of strangers."