For two years, I had performed my one-man show, Hey, Hey, LBJ! in San Francisco, on 42nd Street in New York, in Washington DC (where it got a rave review in the Washington Post), in New Orleans and in Sydney, Australia. Hey, Hey, LBJ! is about my year as an army combat correspondent in Vietnam, and how I came to the country supporting the war and returned to protest it. I was in Bangkok on R&R nine days before I was to return home when the rocket hit the bunker I should have been in, killing and wounding all my buddies.
I decided in early 2016 to return to Vietnam for the first time in 50 years to visit where my buddies died at Cu Chi and try to perform LBJ in the country. I had no idea that I would come home with another powerful story to tell on stage. In Vietnam, I was alone — no friend, relative or ex-Vietnam buddy was available to go with me — and the feelings were so intense I was up every night at 3 looking for the first flight home.
But I ended up with the awesome experience of performing LBJ! in a private home before 30 people exactly on the night of the 41st anniversary of the fall of Saigon, all under fear of arrest from the communist government. A couple of months after my return, I knew I had to start writing the sequel. Thus the new work: Return to the Scene of the Crime.
– Why is it important to you to do this?
In Vietnam, I could not perform my play in a theater because every producer was afraid to try to get approval from the communist cultural committee. In the current political climate in America, I’d hate to see the day that this country arrives at a similar place — that all creative activities have to be cleared by the government. Additionally, my journey to Vietnam last year enlightened me to the degree of destruction that war did to that country. Here are some lines from Return that drive this point home.
David performing in a home in Vietnam:
“And in the end, this piece is dedicated to the 58,000 people whose names grace the Vietnam wall in Washington D.C., . . . and the estimated two million Vietnamese who died in this tragic conflict . . .”
What? What did I say? Did I just say 2 million Vietnamese? I have performed LBJ more than 30 times, practiced it another 300 times, but never once did I ever think of the Vietnamese victims, nor did one audience member ever reproach me about this blind and colossal sin of omission. When I did LBJ in DC, I handed out show post cards at the Wall six or seven times. So I know clearly that the Vietnam wall measures 950 feet long. But I NEVER considered that if the Vietnamese were to build a similar wall, called, of course, the American Wall, I would have to walk more than 1.7 miles to reach the end of it.
– What story are you telling in the performance?
This is the story of one man returning to the scene of the crime to deal with his past.
– What have you been learning about yourself during rehearsals?
How happy and blessed I am to have been given this journey.
– If you won a Tony for this show, who would you thank?
God for allowing me to have the joy to give this gift to others.
– When the performance is over, what do you want the audience feeling or thinking about?
That no matter how bad something may seem, good eventually comes around. Time heals all wounds.
David Kleinberg was a writer/editor at the San Francisco Chronicle for 34 years (the last 14 years as editor of the paper’s Sunday entertainment magazine); he’s spent 10 years as a stand-up comedian (appearing with Robin Williams, Dana Carvey and Richard Lewis). This is his third solo theater work. In Vietnam, David was an army combat correspondent/editor at Cu Chi from 1966-67, and winner of the Bronze Star.