When you walk into an immigration story, you think you know the arc. Horrific stories of a war-torn native land, a degrading journey to a xenophobic world, the struggle to fit in, a dark night of the soul, acceptance of a unique melting pot history and future.
What you don’t expect are jungles and pirates and murder and hip hop and Shakespeare.
ACT’s world premiere of Trieu Tran’s autobiographical one-man show, “Uncle Ho to Uncle Sam,” is the reason why these stories need to be told. Tran’s journey shakes you out of complacency. It forces you to look at the details. For 80 minutes, you’re reminded that everyone’s history is unique and no amount of prior knowledge can prepare you for Tran’s truth.
The show begins solemnly with Tran wrapped in his native country’s flag, a Vietnamese Homer orating an epic. The only boy in a sea of girl cousins, Tran is nicknamed the “warrior prince,” with all the weight and honor the title carries. His struggle to relate to his abusive and brutish father, a victim of the Viet Cong’s reeducation camps, permeates his tale. He vacillates from hating him and begging for forgiveness.
After a harrowing escape from Vietnam, his family flees to Canada and eventually to Boston where Tran goes to high school. After attacking a classmate after a racist remark, Tran earns himself a respected membership in an Italian gang. He discovers hip hop, deeply relating to TuPac’s lyrics, and is eager to assimilate, which gets him into trouble with other Asian gangs. He’s bounced from school to school, though still managing to excel academically. In college, he finds love and Shakespeare, particularly the histories, which makes a lot of sense when you think about it. Not too much else should be revealed.
Incidentally, Tran’s passionate description of hip hop music and culture is the best this reporter has ever heard from anyone. So there’s that.
Tran’s stellar performance is precise and emotive, effortlessly transforming age and gender and even size. His intense and energetic storytelling is personal, but he is not an open wound. When he takes you to the dark places, you trust he will bring you back to the light, either with a laugh or a profound discovery.
Carey Wong’s set is a temple with incense burning and artifacts from Tran’s life laid out on an altar. The time and place shifts through artfully done projections on suspended window shutters. In the center, Tran’s stomping ground — a round deck with a rock pool in the middle, usually tranquil, but not without ripples. Director and collaborator Robert Egan did an excellent job mapping and shaping the piece. The audience is locked on Tran’s every movement.
Some transitions between timelines are a little jarring, particularly when flashing forward from a gruesome scene. The misplaced vengeance plot at the end seems a little rushed considering the richness of everything that comes before it, but this is truly not much to complain about.
With a national election burning on the horizon, “Uncle Ho to Uncle Sam” could not be better timed. Perhaps if we had more awe and reverence for people’s individual histories instead of assuming we’ve heard it already, there would be more kindness in the world. Don’t miss this chance.
“Uncle Ho to Uncle Sam” by Trieu Tran plays now through October 7, 2012 at ACT, the Allen Theatre, 700 Union Street. Single tickets ($37.50-$55; Students $15, People 25 and under $20, Seniors 25% off) are available by calling 206 292 7676 or visiting www.acttheatre.org.