Kennedy Center’s World Stages is what I might call a rolling festival of international works that defy easy categorizing of genres, and no show more so than The Odyssey: from Vietnam to America.
World-renowned musician and composer Vân-Ánh Võ has assembled video footage, photo montage, plus aural interviews and an unlikely collection of instruments on stage, including cello, accordion, Japanese taiko drums, and Vietnamese traditional instruments to tell the story of the Vietnamese Boat People. It’s not a play, but certainly theatrical and a moving tribute to people whose perilous journey reminds us of another not so distant migration of refugees from a war-torn country.
Following the withdrawal of US troops from South Vietnam, Saigon fell in 1975. First a trickle then a flood of refugees risked their lives, many in little boats far from seaworthy. An estimated half a million people died at sea. Over two million more ended up in camps in Asia. Several hundred thousand made their way to America. Throughout the country several “little Saigons” sprang up, and, as other immigrants have done, these people enriched the cuisine, the economy, and the cultural landscape of America.
This period of history is deeply personal to me. I grew up in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. Later, in the 70’s I worked with the Hmong in Minneapolis in creating another “Boat Show” to tell their story. I frequented a little restaurant, a “Little Saigon,” to satisfy my Asian food craving, and remember well the little sign that hung in the window “To get better Vietnamese food than this you’d have to go back to Saigon, and you don’t want to go back there, do you?”
The first half of the evening at the Kennedy Center presented Vân-Ánh’s new multi-media music-theatre and composition, The Odyssey: from Vietnam to America. Divided into five sections or movements, the work also featured The V’AV ensemble including Alex Kelly, a remarkably adept cellist in crossover techniques, Japanese Jimi Nakagawa, dazzling on taiko drums and other percussion, and Dan Cantrell, a true world musician, who lends his talents in this show with accordion, musical saw, and Tibetan overtone circular-breathed chanting.
The work begins with a section called “Leaving,” one of the most powerfully dynamic movements of the evening. Photos of Vietnamese are projected onto two pieces of fabric stretched like triangular sails. Voices of daughters and sons tell the stories told to them by their parents of their perilous escape and sea journey. Lullabies are overlaid to calm the travelers’ fears. A fiery explosion of percussion sounds suggests warning signals of imminent danger. “Thuy?n Vi?n X?,” which has come to be known as a Boat People’s anthem, rises up uniting all people who have been displaced and suffered in war. In this section there are even the unmistakable drone of diesel engines and the occasional sound of pirates, showing how precarious innocent lives become at sea. Waves are projected roiling and changing color on the front of the proscenium and on-stage screens, making us a part of this watery world.
“Scorching Sun” represents the second movement of this work and focuses on the long days of drifting on the ocean. The hot sun bouncing off the waves has a lulling effect, but the mind begins to play tricks and hallucinates in us as for these Boat People. Vân-Ánh performs a lullaby, cradling an imaginary baby, and walking around the stage. Lullabies were sometimes the only comfort mothers could give their children or communicate with each other. This section brought to mind the most vulnerable in war, the women and children, who face rape and a kind of slavery in addition to basic survival.
The third and fourth movements bring messages of hope. The poetry of Buddhist priest and spiritual leader Thich Nh?t Hanh reminds the sojourners to stay strong. “I hold my face between my hands so I am not crying.” As Vân-Ánh sings, the song grows in musical and dramatic power to a defiant scream. The recitation of poetry, is deeply embedded in Vietnamese culture, and this one, shared in both Vietnamese and English, becomes a universal message to all refugees.
The beauty of the projections of a night scene with its sea of floating candles also calls the people to keep moving forward but also pays tribute to the souls of those who did not make it across the waters. We in the audience are asked to participate by holding up candles we have been provided, and we oblige. The act of uniting together with our small lights in a dark theater, though not a new one, becomes a potent and sacred sharing.
The final movement, which showcases new life in America, has both funny and serious moments. Popular songs are shared by recording artists of the period but also taped songs with wonderfully lilting accents by Vietnamese-Americans who have adopted some of our culture.
The second half of the program proceeds more like a traditional music concert, but it too incorporated some theatrical touches to the pieces.
It began with Vân-Ánh Võ entering in a small pool of light and sitting solo on the edge of the stage. Dressed in sea green, her long ao dai, traditional Vietnamese draped dress split up the sides, covered her legs completely and made her look like a mermaid. And, just like a mermaid, she enchanted us with her rendition of a northern tradition opera work,” Luy?n N?m Cung,” on dàn Tranh, Vietnamese zither.
The following piece was altogether more lively and playful and employed percussionist Jimi Nakagawa in a comedic turn. Halfway through the piece, he got up and left his drums and walked off stage. The others stopped then played some more, inquisitive musically. Jimi’s head popped out from the curtain. He walked around. The music sounded annoyed then as if demanding he return to his post. He played with his band mates some more by sauntering around the stage – was he channeling some Chinese tribute to the Year of the Monkey? – before taking up the drums again, and the piece resolved in an explosion of sound.
The young west Michigan composer Matthew Fountain’s work had its east coast premiere. The piece blended recorded sounds from nature and both acoustic and electronic explorations.
Composer Osam Ezzeldin also premiered his work on the east coast with this group Saturday night. His “Day Dream,” written in D Minor for The V’AN’s special assemblage of instruments, was a haunting and altogether musically satisfying event.
Perhaps most eloquent of all was a rendition of “Summertime,” featuring the eerie sounds of what Vân-Ánh Võ calls, “my beautiful dàn Bâu,” Plucking with one hand, the other hand manipulating a single guiding wire, much like a child guides electronically a video game. With this Vân-Ánh Võ bends a note and creates various degrees of tremolo. The musical ensemble’s accomplished players create the steamy, thick air of sunny Saigon, giving the familiar song a new richness.
The Kennedy Center does great work in its World Stages series. It’s a pity only two performances were scheduled.
This performance, presented March 11 and 12, 2016, has closed.
The Odyssey: From Vietnam to America . Featuring Vân-Ánh Võ and The VA’V . Presented by The Kennedy Center as part of World Stages . Reviewed by Susan Galbraith