An Unlikely Hero
Don Nguyen and Laura Savia discuss the making of Red Flamboyant, a play about the first Vietnamese AIDS support group
by Alina Oswald
[dropcap]W[/dropcap]hen life gives you lemons, don’t just make lemonade—get people to talk about it, too. When Pham Thi Hue, a young Vietnamese woman, contracted HIV from her husband, she did not give up, even when faced with losing her home and job. Instead, she founded the first Vietnamese AIDS support group, and called it Red Flamboyant, after a beautiful, crimson-red flower that grows in Vietnam and other parts of Southeast Asia.
Red Flamboyant has been hailed an important response to addressing the needs of people living with HIV and AIDS in that country. Studies have shown that between the years 2000 and 2005 the number of people living with HIV and AIDS in Vietnam has doubled. More recent numbers paint a more promising picture, reporting that injection drug users living with HIV made up over thirteen percent in 2011, compared to twenty-nine percent in 2004. It is also believed that the number of Vietnamese women infected with the virus has been grossly underreported. But numbers tell only part of the story of living with HIV/AIDS, especially outside of developed countries.
Hue’s story made headlines, traveling the world. It inspired Amazin LeThi [A&U, September 2014], Vietnam Relief Ambassador, to start her own AIDS organization, the Amazin LeThi Foundation. It has also inspired Don Nguyen to write a play about this unlikely, yet very likable, hero. In 2011, Nguyen was invited by APICHA to do a reading of Red Flamboyant for that year’s National Asian & Pacific Islander HIV/AIDS Awareness Day.
To find out more about Red Flamboyant-—the flower, the AIDS support group, and also the play—I caught up with playwright Don Nguyen and director Laura Savia.
Alina Oswald: So, how did you learn about Pham Thi Hue’s story, Don?
Don Nguyen: Back in 2008 I got into the Public Theater Emerging Writers Group, and in that group we had to write a brand new play. I stumbled upon this article in the New York Times featuring Mrs. Hue and her Red Flamboyant support group. It was the first time that I realized that HIV/AIDS was truly this global issue…and I was really struck by it, first of all, personally, because I’m Vietnamese, and this was happening in my home country.
What intrigued you about the Red Flamboyant support group?
DN: I was really intrigued by the stories of these women who had come together, [initially] so that nobody would die alone.
Also, years before that, I wanted to write about the Trung sisters—ancient Vietnamese female warriors who fought to liberate Vietnam from China. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of that story, but when I read about Mrs. Hue and her group, I had a sense of this heroism that was happening in Vietnam, with these women. And I felt [the play] was a natural coupling of [Mrs. Hue’s] story with the story of the Trung sisters.
Why did you choose Firebone Theatre, and how did you and Laura Savia meet?
DN: Chris Cragin-Day, Artistic Director of Firebone Theatre, also started in the Emerging Writers Group with me. She’s been with the play ever since its conception, and always wanted to produce [it]. And then I met Laura [Savia] through the Public Theatre, as well. She ended up seeing the first ten minutes of the play, and it was a match made in theatrical heaven.
Laura Savia: I loved the excerpt from Red Flamboyant. It was a very social topic [presented] in a very human, very theatrical way. And there was a great sense of humor in the play, [too]. It [also] reminded me of a few strong women in my life—my grandmother, my mother and myself—and how we, too, come together when things get tough.
I think the show works on different levels. It discusses HIV/AIDS on a global level. There are so many narratives when it comes to HIV/AIDS outside the United States. On a separate level [there is] the story of these women who have come together in a very intimate setting. It’s not just a play about HIV/AIDS, but about the heroic actions that people take, and what makes a warrior, in ancient, [and also modern] times.
LS: It is unusual to have a playwright to write about someone who’s still alive, and also to meet the person [he writes about]. It’s pretty incredible that [Hue] is aware of this play that, in part, is celebrating her.
The show is really beautiful, and theatrical. It bounces back and forth between two worlds—the modern-day Vietnam, and the world of the Trung sisters, these legendary warriors in the first century AD Vietnam. As the play progresses, the two worlds start to intersect, and the story becomes larger than life, and, as in Angels in America, small themes [become] epic, large theatrical themes. There’s magic in this play.
How do you show this magic in a theater setting?
LS: Part of it is aerial work, bungee-cord technology. We have a wonderful aerial choreographer, Karen Fuhrman. Her company, Grounded Aerial, specializes in telling stories through aerial work. The actors actually jump and fly through the air. That way, the play transcends any one time and space.
So, these beautiful aerial scenes, like the battle scene, hopefully remind you not only just of Mrs. Hue’s—or the Trung sisters’—bravery, but of every act of bravery in your life, [because] we all have the potential for bravery, to affect change in our communities. Mrs. Hue, as Don wrote her, is an unlikely hero. When we meet her, she’s not the biggest personality, and yet, the one to campaign to get support for her group. We all know someone like that.
Speaking of characters, Don, as the playwright, do you have any favorites?
DN: At the heart of the play we have Mrs. Hue, who is this reluctant protagonist of the group, inspired by the real-life Pham Thi Hue. Mrs. Sau is the oldest of the group, and believes in magic and the Trung sisters. We have two younger girls. Also, several male characters played by one male actor. There’s a line in the play that describes all the women in the group: “she loved everyone, even though there was not much love returned to her.”
[In terms of favorite characters] I guess I would say this….All of these different women in the play are, actually, one woman that I know; and that is my mom. The play, in part, was written by me, in trying to, basically, figure out who my mom is, because growing up with my mom…[I came to realize that] she’s a great person, but she’s a very private person, and so all my life I was trying to figure out what makes her tick, what she dreams about, what she wants in life. And so…all of these women are aspects of her, and all are my favorite characters, because they are, basically, my mom.
Red Flamboyant stands out in many ways—in the story that it tells, in the way it tells it, and in that it’s one of the very few Off-Broadway shows using aerial work. Red Flamboyant is also a story that focuses on everyday acts of quiet heroism seeded in each one of us, everyday people. “I think that, whether it is your brother or sister or yourself, leaving this play realizing that God is inside of you, for me, it would be the greatest accomplishment of this play,” Savia says.
“It’s our hope that people who come to see [the play, also] talk about it afterwards,” Don Nguyen adds, “[and help us] raise awareness about what’s happening over in Vietnam and other parts of the world with HIV and AIDS. We could have a very stimulating conversation about HIV/AIDS. I think that’s really important.”
Red Flamboyant opens on April 24, at the Firebone Theatre in New York City, and, for now, will be running for twelve performances over three weeks. Ten percent of ticket sales are donated to Vietnam Relief Services, which directly funds Pham Thi Hue’s AIDS support group.
For more information about Red Flamboyant and Firebone Theatre, visit www.firebonetheatre.com.
Alina Oswald is Arts Editor of A&U.