Trieu Tran, in his autobiographical “Uncle Ho to Uncle Sam,” playing at ACT Theatre through Oct. 7. Photo by Chris Bennion

Trieu Tran, in his autobiographical “Uncle Ho to Uncle Sam,” playing at ACT Theatre through Oct. 7. Photo by Chris Bennion

Born on the cusp of the fall of Saigon, actor Trieu Tran embodies the Vietnamese immigrant experiences that are familiar to us from news stories, including a stay in a Thai refugee camp and flight from Vietnam in an overcrowded boat attacked by pirates. 

Less known is what happens to Vietnamese immigrants after they arrive in America. 

Currently premiering at ACT Theatre, Tran’s one-man show “Uncle Ho to Uncle Sam” gives audiences an opportunity to view our sometimes-hypocritical “land of the free” through the not-always-flattering eyes of an outsider.

 

From tragedy to inspiration

Esteemed theater producer/director Robert Egan initially persuaded Tran to transform his personal history into a theatrical piece, partnering with him as co-author and director of “Uncle Ho.” 

The harrowing story Tran performs onstage is full of personal loss and tragedy, from his father’s murder (witnessed by Tran as a child) to the murder of a close friend due to Tran’s gang involvement. Throughout, Tran struggles with love-hate-fear of his abusive father, mixed with the desire to win his respect, including an ill-conceived attempt to avenge his father’s murder. Yet, Tran’s intelligence and humor — buoyed by the support of a loving and strong mother — sustain him in life, as well as add some much-needed lightness to this dark tale. 

In this melting pot, where, per Tran, the melting is “incomplete,” resulting in “Caucasians and everyone else,” so strong is his desire to assimilate that the adolescent Tran prides himself on being a member of an Italian, rather than a Vietnamese, gang, all the while maintaining high grades in school. Michael Jackson, Tupac Shakur and, eventually, William Shakespeare provide inspiration, refuge and a sense of belonging.

 

A ‘riveting’ performance

Tran seamlessly portrays himself from young childhood to adulthood, as well as inhabiting the roles of his mother, father and other family members. 

Diminutive in stature, youthful in movement and with eyes that have witnessed too much, Tran expertly transitions from explosive violence, to smoothly moonwalking to the strains of Michael Jackson, to coyly describing his first love. His performance is riveting for its skill, as well as through the knowledge that he has lived the experiences he portrays.

An oversized traditional altar to deceased family members dominates Carey Wong’s set of otherwise Zen-like simplicity. Lara Kaminsky’s film projections place us in a specific time and place.

Kudos to Director Robert Egan and ACT artistic director Kurt Beattie for recognizing Tran’s story as both a fresh perspective on recent history and a redemptive personal journey.

 “Uncle Ho to Uncle Sam” plays through Oct. 7 at ACT Theatre. For more information, visit www.acttheatre.org.