Synopsis: Mrs. Hue lives in present day Vietnam with a small group of women who are all living with HIV/AIDS. Bricks smash the windows of her small house. The locals fear they will be infected by the women. Mrs Hue is forced to seek help from a stubborn government official to protect and support her group. Unlikely heroes emerge both in this world and the next as these poor women reach new heights of courage.
Awards and Recognition: Red Flamboyant was developed in The Public Theater's Emerging Writers Group and the Ojai Playwrights Conference. It was a finalist for the Woodward International Playwriting Prize, the O’Neill National Playwrights Conference, the Bay Area Playwrights Festival, and nominated for the L. Arnold Weissberger Award.
Don Nguyen (Playwright) Full-length plays include RED FLAMBOYANT (Ojai Playwrights Conference, finalist - O'Neill National Playwrights Conference and Bay Area Playwrights Festival), THE MAN FROM SAIGON (NYSAF 2012 Founders Award, Naked Angels - Angels in progress workshop), THE COMMENCEMENT OF WILLIAM TAN (finalist - Bay Area Playwrights Festival, 2G Jumpstart Commission, NYSAF reading), SOUND (Playwrights Realm Fellowship, Civilians R&D reading) and THREE TO BEAM UP (The Shelterbelt Theatre, Nebraska Arts Grant recipient). Don is a founding member of Mission to (dit)Mars, a Queens based theatre arts collective, a current member of the Ma-Yi Writers Lab, and is a frequent volunteer for the 52nd Street Project
Laura Savia’s production of The Recommendation in Los Angeles recently garnered two Ovation Awards, including Best Production. New York directing credits include Bareknuckle at Gleason’s Gym (Vertigo Theater Co.), The Mnemonist of Dutchess County (Theatre Row), Letters to Santa (Naked Angels), House Strictly Private (1st Irish Festival), The Color of Justice (Theatreworks USA), and The Lover (The Drama League), The Last Days of Judas Iscariot (Lee Strasberg Institute) The Glass Menagerie (University of Rochester) as well as numerous short plays for Labyrinth Theater Co., Ars Nova, Partial Comfort, At Play, and the 24 Hour Plays. She has developed work with The Public Theater, Roundabout Theatre Company, Atlantic Theater Company, Second Stage, Playwrights Realm and Ma-Yi Theater Company, among others. Assistant directing includes Broadway’s The Merchant of Venice starring Al Pacino. Four seasons as Workshop Artistic Producer at Williamstown Theatre Festival; five seasons at Atlantic Theater Co. Director of The Living Newspaper, which has performed at Joe’s Pub, Le Poisson Rouge, and the A.R.T.’s Club Oberon. Laura teaches at NYU/The Lee Strasberg Institute and Fordham University. 2009 Drama League Directing Fellow.
Karen A. Fuhrman (choreographer) Karen has her M.A. from NYU in choreography and specializes in both ground and aerial dance. She has performed with Pilobolus, seen with 2007 Oscars Award Show, Ellen Degeneres, Good Morning America, and twice on the Conan O’ Brian show. Other credits include Cavalia of Cirque du Soleil, De La Guarda, and MOMIX. She has also danced for the VH1/Vogue Fashion Awards, MTV, PBS, ABC, and SHOWTIME. She has toured and taught aerial and dance in extensive venues through out the world.
Grounded Aerial has appeared at Yerba Buena’s Art Festival (San Francisco), Microsoft's worldwide Vista and Office Logo launch, benefits in Lake Tahoe, Limelight night club (NYC), Company y Company (Barcelona, Spain), Bidvest International Awards Ceremony (Johannesburg, South Africa), Skirball Theater (NYC opening for Neil Diamond), Baila! (National Palace of Culture in Guatemala City), Spiderman II release party, Usher (NYC Gala), Madeski, Martin, and Wood Concert (Hammerstein Ballroom,NYC), the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia, the ESPY awards for ESPN, theLincoln Center NYC, America’s Got Talent, Beach House music video, Studio 54, Lagos, Nigeria cooperate event, Sleep No More, and most recently debuted an aerial moment on Broadway with the hit musical Matilda. Ms. Fuhrman wrote, directed and produced an aerial play, Insectinside, with a cast of fourteen dancers, actors, and aerialists. Thetheatrical spectacle premiered in San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Park Slope Brooklyn. Grounded’s most recent international event was in Guatemala City flying, drumming, and dancing for a crowd of 10,000 people for the World Cup. Our most recent workshops were in Boulder, Colorado for the International Aerial Dance Festival. Currently, Ms. Fuhrman is giving aerial and choreographic direction for an off-Broadwayshow entitled Red Flamboyant, and teaching aerial to professional dancers in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
Lisa Kopitsky (Fight Choreographer) Off-Broadway: Hamilton, Venice, Detroit ’67, Measure for Measure, Urge for Going, Neighbors (Public Theater), The Bad and the Better (The Amoralists), Oliver Parker! (Cherry Lane). Regional: Extremities (Berkshire Theatre Festival), Dracula, Hapgood, Johnny Baseball, WHADDABLOODCLOT!, The Valley of Fear (Williamstown), Romeo and Juliet (Shakespeare on the Sound). Other credits include: Bareknuckle (Vertigo), Red Light Winter (Strasberg Institute), Romeo and Juliet (The Flea: The Shakes), The Mnemonist of Dutchess County (The Attic), A Hard Wall at High Speed (APAC), Our Lot (Clubbed Thumb), The Wife (Access), Hamlet (Lincoln Center Institute), The Octoroon (PS 122), Carousel (VLOG), Snow White: Zombie Apocalypse (NY Fringe), Othello (Princeton University). Film: In Lieu of Flowers, The Exhibitionists, Higgs Boson, Handsome Zombies. Lisa is also an actor and fight/stunt performer. Member of Vixens En Garde. Education: MA in Movement Dramaturgy and Pedagogy from NYU.
Ann Beyersdorfer (Scenic Designer) An avid supporter and member of the Broadway Green Alliance, Ann is passionate about sustainability in theatre and employs green practices in her designs. She is a supporter of new work and is a founding member and the operations manager of the NYC based, RADD Theatre Co. Off-Broadway: Out of the Basement (scenic designer, The American Theatre for Actors, Araca Project), Brooklynite (assistant scenic designer, The Vineyard), Too Much Sun (assistant scenic designer, The Vineyard), tick, tick...BOOM!, Pump Boys and the Dinettes, Faust the Musical (assistant scenic designer, Encores! off-Center) Tour: 50 Shades! A Musical Parody (scenic designer, 2015 National Tour) Additional Design Credits: Fox and the Pomegranate, In a Mirror Darkly, and A Letter to E. 11th Street (Crane School of Music, World Premiere Operas), Swept (Williamstown Theatre Festival Workshop), Starve (Columbia University) and The 28th Annual Broadway Cares/Equity Fights Aids Easter Bonnet Competition,( BGA Bonnet Designer, Minskoff Theatre). BFA Syracuse University. Thanks to Mom and Dad, Firebone Theatre Company, and mentors Donyale and Craig! www.annbeyersdorfer.com
Stephanie Levin (Costume Designer) has been designing costumes in NYC since 2010. Selected Recent: Mother Jones (NYMF), <50% (NYC Fringe Encores), Deepest Man (3LD); Too Many Lenas (Carroll Simmons, ANTFest 2014, Ice Factory 2014); OLÉ (TiA, Prague Fringe); Once Upon a Bride, Jane the Plain, Hearts Like Fists, DEINDE (Flux Theatre Ensemble); Latrell Live Tonight (Joe's Pub); Death For Sydney Black, Animals Commit Suicide (terraNOVA); (un)Real (Reckless); White Hot (Flea); Oy Vey (Theater Row); Jack, or The Submission (Meisner, dir Fritz Ertl); Alfridge Von Waddlegrave (Aggrocrag, ANTFest 2012). Select Assisted: It Shoulda Been You (William Ivey Long, Bway. Dir: David Hyde Pierce), Little Dancer (William Ivey Long, JFKC. Dir: Susan Stroman), CABARET (William Ivey Long, Bway, dir: Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall), Big Fish (William Ivey Long, Bway, Dir: Susan Stroman), The Long Shrift (Jessica Pabst, Rattlestick. Dir: James Franco), Legally Blonde (Gregg Barnes, Austria), Mame (Gregg Barnes, Goodspeed). Upcoming: Midsummer Night's Dream (Stages on the Sound), Dark at the Top of the Stairs (Strasberg). www.designedbylevin.com
Josh Liebert (Sound Designer) has been a New York based Sound Designer and Engineer for the last ten years. International: The Last Confession and Our Country’s Good (North American Sound Designer, Mirvish Productions Toronto); Central Avenue Breakdown in Daegu, South Korea; 2011-2012 European tour of Ain’t Misbehavin’ (directed by Richard Maltby); Off Broadway Designs include: Galois; The Other Josh Cohen; Son of A Gun, 40 Weeks; Emily:An Amythest Remembrance, Refuge of Lies; Surviving Billy Boy; Sessions; Every Girl Gets Her Man.Regional Designs include: Stars of David (Florida Tour, with Peter Fitzgerald) The Rocky Horror Show (Buck’s County Playhouse, with Ed Chapman), Maruice Hines is Tappin’ Thru Life (Alliance Theatre Company and Cleveland Playhouse, with Carl Casella); The Story of my Life and South Pacific(Delaware Theatre Company); Ice Glen, King John, The Taming of the Shrew, Martha Mitchell Calling, and Kerfol (Shakespeare & Co.); The Storm (Hudson Theatre Company); Associate Designer (Broadway): Fish in the Dark; This is our Youth; A Night With Janis Joplin; Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. Assistant Sound Designer (Broadway): Relatively Speaking, Baby it’s You, La Betê, Irena’s Vow. MFA: The College-Conservetory of Musica at the University of Cincinnati; BFA: Ithaca College. Thanks as always to Mark, Judi and Ben for their eternal support.
The National Catholic Reporter
By Retta Blaney | April 25, 2015
Interview with Don Nguyen and Chris Cragin-Day about Red Flamboyant
Play Melds Myth and Real-Life Inspiration
As a playwright born in Vietnam, Don Nguyen saw dramatic possibilities in a New York Times story about an HIV-positive woman in Haiphong, a large port city near Hanoi, who started the country's first support group for infected women. He wasn't sure, though, that he could turn it into a play. Not only was it a heavy subject, but having lived in the U.S. since he was 3, he questioned his ability to capture the women's reality.
"I'm Vietnamese, but I grew up in Nebraska," he said. "They felt very foreign to me. I wasn't sure how I could write their voices. It was a fascinating subject but seemed daunting to take on."
Like most writers, he had a number of ideas rumbling around in his head. One nudging from the back of his mind was the ancient Vietnamese legend of the Trung sisters, who gave their lives in a fight against the Chinese army. Nguyen saw a creative challenge in combining the factual story with the myth, as both were about strong women fighting for liberation -- from a disease and its stigma, and from a threatening military.
The play that resulted, "Red Flamboyant," will have its world premiere April 24-May 16 at Calvary-St. George's, an Episcopal church in Manhattan, N.Y. The play is produced by Firebone Theatre, an off-off-Broadway company dedicated to producing plays "where the human meets the divine."
With casting set to begin, Nguyen, 42, and Firebone's artistic director, Chris Cragin-Day, 37, took time out on a cold January afternoon to talk about the production in Cragin-Day's office at The King's College, a Christian college in New York's financial district, where she is an assistant professor of English and theater.
"I love the feminist aspects of this story," Cragin-Day said. "I love these women who are just so powerful, not in a social sense but in a soul sense."
The real-life inspiration for the main character, Mrs. Hue, is Pham Thi Hue, who was featured in the 2006 Times story that Nguyen read. Although AIDS was widespread in Vietnam, many of those who had it were shunned by their families and fired if their employers found out. Most of the infected women had received the virus from husbands who were IV drug users.
Hue called her shelter Haiphong Red Flamboyant after a Vietnamese flower. Not only did she receive no government funding, the article said, but she had to endure bricks being thrown through her windows and a constant struggle to find money for food and medicine.
Nguyen hadn't known HIV/AIDS was so prevalent in Vietnam.
"It affected me, being Vietnamese, and that the country I was born in had such a huge problem. The stigma around it was shocking to me, and I wondered how I could get a germ of a play from that."
He began writing in 2008. To create a naturalistic play about Hue and all those dying of AIDS would be "an overwhelming experience for the audience," he said. "I had to find a less realistic way. The Trung sisters legend demanded more heightened reality. It dictated the voice of the play."
In short, the Trung sisters formed an army to seek revenge after the Chinese killed the husband of one of the sisters. The Chinese fought back and demanded the Vietnamese give up the sisters. They sacrificed themselves by jumping into a ravine.
Nguyen recognized a connection between Hue and the legendary sisters.
"She was a modern-day warrior who could be juxtaposed with the ancient female of Vietnam to make a great story."
But by 2010 and his "20th draft," he was frustrated. "I felt like I was writing from a distance with these people."
He decided to go to Vietnam to get a feel for the country and possibly meet Hue. Since he didn't speak Vietnamese, he asked his parents to go with him, and they readily agreed.
A cousin in the country found Hue for Nguyen and told her about the play he was writing. She agreed to a meeting. It was then that it hit him: Suppose the real Hue was nothing like the character he had created?
"It became really stressful. All I had had was one article to base her off of," Nguyen said.
His appointments with Hue kept getting canceled, meaning rescheduling flights a couple of times. After three weeks, it seemed ill-fated.
But when yet another meeting was scheduled, he went for it.
"It was really a good test of faith," he said.
And it paid off. With his father as interpreter, Nguyen talked to Hue for an hour. When he mentioned he was incorporating the sisters' legend, "her eyes lit up" and she told him it is the Vietnamese belief that "if you do something great, you are a sibling of the Trung sisters."
She told him to make it clear that she receives no government support. In that strong insistence, he recognized the character he had created was very much like the real Hue.
As Nguyen was leaving, Hue said something to him in Vietnamese. He smiled and nodded. In the taxi, his father told him she had said, "Don't forget about me."
And he hasn't. Ten percent of ticket sales from "Red Flamboyant" will go to support the real-life women through the Vietnam Relief Organization.
The four female characters and one male character will be played by Vietnamese actors if possible. If not, definitely by Asians. The actors will play instruments, since the play incorporates live and recorded music. The play also will feature puppetry, possibly water puppets, which are immensely popular in Vietnamese culture.
Some of the actors will have to fly, using single harness bungees for a more free-flowing choreography. These aerial feats alone would be challenging for a small off-off-Broadway company like Firebone, but Cragin-Day sees advantages in its size.
"We take risks," she said. "Companies like ours don't have much money at stake."
Still, the company bought extra insurance and hired Karen Fuhrman of Grounded Aerial, an expert in the field, to do the choreography.
"It gives us the freedom to experiment with the human body in flight," Cragin-Day said.
She believes the play will speak to many people, especially women.
"I feel like it's not just about Vietnamese women," she said. "This play captures that spiritual strength that is the legacy of women, and that's beautiful."
[Retta Blaney is an award-winning journalist and author of Working on the Inside: The Spiritual Life Through the Eyes of Actors.]
The Living Church
By Retta Blaney | April 5, 2015
Interview with Don Nguyen about RED FLAMBOYANT
By Visual AIDS Staff | March 26, 2015
Interview with Don Nguyen about RED FLAMBOYANT
Visual AIDS' commitment to supporting women living with HIV on an international scale is perhaps best exemplified by our recent partnership and programs with the International Community of Women Living with HIV (ICW). We launched our 2015 events calendar with a Valentine event, LOVE POSITIVE WOMEN: Romance Starts at Home for which we hosted three papermaking valentine workshops to support women living with HIV. Jointly, women living with HIV and invited artists created hand-made valentines to be mailed with personalized messages to women living with HIV around the world as a gesture of love and support in hopes of lessening the stigma experienced by women living with HIV. And our My Body! My Rights! An Intergenerational Community Arts Werrrqshop with Women Living with HIV earlier this month for Women's HIV Awareness Month was an interactive hands-on workshop and intergenerational exchange of ideas and story telling with women from ICW joining us from Kenya, Ukraine, Canada, Puerto Rico, Kazakhstan, New Zealand, and Nigeria and a number of other places to talk about their experiences identifying as women living with HIV and their activist experience. Together the group created activist banners that were carried and displayed during other activities throughout the UN Commission on the Status of Women.
Don Nguyen's play "Red Flamboyant" brings a similar perspective to the stage, through the story of Pham Thi Hue and her activism for women living with HIV/AIDS in Vietnam. Here, Visual AIDS interviews Don about the play, his process, and stigmas surrounding HIV/AIDS in Vietnam.
Visual AIDS: Describe the inspiration and process behind your writing of "Red Flamboyant"?
Don Nguyen: Pham Thi Hue, a woman living with HIV in Haiphong, Vietnam served as the inspiration for my play Red Flamboyant. I first heard of her in a New York Times article when I was a playwright in the inaugural Emerging Writers Group at the Public Theater in 2008. I was struck not only by her courage in the face of so much prejudice and stigma against anyone having HIV, but also by her deep compassion and desire to start a support group so that no one dies alone. The fact that I was also learning for the first time about this pandemic happening in my home country really hit me on a very personal level and I knew I wanted to write about the bravery as well as the humor of these women that Pham Thi Hue brought together in the country’s first support group for HIV/AIDS.
When I started this play, I not only wanted to write about these women, but I also wanted to juxtapose them with the legend of the Trung sisters, two ancient female warriors who fought to liberate Vietnam from China’s rule. The task would prove daunting for me, a guy who was born in Vietnam but grew up in Nebraska. I was terrified to write this play so much so that I would constantly put it away and work on other projects. And yet I kept coming back to it. After about the twentieth draft and several readings and workshops, I found myself completely frustrated. Something wasn’t connecting with me. I realized writing this play forced me to admit to myself that the Vietnam I knew was only through movies and television, often depicted through the lens of the American involvement during the war. That’s all I knew of my homeland, which was not much at all. So, I decided to take a trip to Vietnam, my first time back since I left with my family when Saigon fell in 1975. And it was there that I got to meet Pham Thi Hue in person. I only spoke to her for an hour, but it was one of the most incredible moments of my life. I walked away feeling confident about the play and the direction it was heading.
Visual AIDS: What is the significance of the evocative title "Red Flamboyant"?
Don Nguyen: The title comes from the name of the HIV support group that Pham Thi Hue started in Haiphong, Vietnam. A red flamboyant is also the name of a flame red flower that grows all over Asia and other tropical areas around the world. I love the name because it fits the play and the characters in it, which both exude a stylish exuberance.
Visual AIDS: What are some particularities of the experience of living with HIV in Vietnam that the play sheds light on?
Don Nguyen: In Vietnam, the general public has an irrational fear of coming into contact with those who are infected, to the point that many believe the infected run around in the streets poking people with infected needles. There is a stigma that befalls the infected, not only by the public at large, but often times by their own families. Some are left to die on the bathroom floor of their house. Many hospitals and physicians still refuse to treat those who are infected. Many are fired from their jobs or kicked out of their own schools and left with no legal recourse. The Vietnamese government categorizes HIV/AIDS as a Social Evil, along with drug use and prostitution, so this public stigma and shunning trickles down from the top. The Vietnamese government does not do enough in terms of supporting and funding HIV/AIDS programs. People living with HIV/AIDS must look to foreign aid if they want any chance to survive this pandemic. I hope that through the lens of HIV/AIDS in Vietnam, people will come to look at HIV/AIDS on a global level, affecting and infecting people all over the world, not just ones in their community.
Visual AIDS: How are the specific stigmas that relate to the experience of women living with HIV told through the narrative?
Don Nguyen: Even though the play focuses on the women’s day to day struggle for survival, the stigmas are these exterior threats that constantly find a way into Mrs. Hue’s house, and each of the women deal with them specifically through the narrative. For example, under the constant threat of bricks being thrown through their windows, they’ve boarded them shut. They never use the front door. They want to sing at the Mid-Autumn festival, so they wear masks while performing so that they’re not recognized. And Mrs. Sau, the oldest of the group, tells the heroic story of the Trung Sisters each night for the women in order to fill them with courage and hope and to lessen the mental pain of being stigmatized.
Visual AIDS: The play exists in a fantastical world. Can you describe how this manifests on stage?
Don Nguyen: There is a moment in the play where the intimate interior of Mrs. Hue’s house breaks open to reveal ancient Vietnam with mountains and ravines. The challenge is to balance the epicness of the play with the emotional connection that comes with the intimacy of the women inside the sitting room of a very small house. And to do that theatrically calls for creative solutions; I’m looking forward to seeing how our designers solve some of these production challenges.
Visual AIDS: "Red Flamboyant" incorporates Aerial Choreography. Can you describe how this came about and how it has been developed?
Don Nguyen: Along with the epicness of the world the Trung Sisters live in, I knew from the very beginning that I wanted to see the Trung Sisters fly. It serves as an homage to the Kung Fu soap operas my parents would spend hours upon hours watching. The characters in these soap operas flew all the time. There was never an explanation for it. It was just how it was. And that’s the same for the Trung Sisters. Similar to those Kung Fu soap opera characters, the Trung Sisters possess something inside them that allows them to “fly over crowds and skip across clouds.” Of course, flying on stage is very expensive and very dangerous. This is where the aerial choreography comes in. We’ve partnered with one of the best aerial choreographers in the country, Karen Fuhrman, who operates Grounded Aerial. She held a flying workshop for the artistic team and introduced the notion of single bungee aerial, which is beautiful to watch. It allows the performer to smoothly glide across the stage, or flip and kick in the air as if they had superpowers. It’s truly something to behold, and I can’t wait to see how the audience reacts to it.
Visual AIDS: What was the inspiration behind the donation of 10% of ticket sales to Vietnam Relief Organization?
Don Nguyen: Mrs. Hue’s Red Flamboyant support group has no easy or immediate way to donate money. There’s no website, she’s not on social media, as far as I know. There truly remains a boundary between her world and ours. So I was delighted to discover Vietnam Relief Services, a non-profit organization that directly funds Mrs. Hue’s support group and is in constant contact with her. The play does not just function as an exciting evening of theater, it must also raise awareness for the pandemic that is affecting so many people in Vietnam. At my request, Firebone Theater Company is happily donating 10% of ticket sales to Vietnam Relief Services so that we can continue helping Mrs Hue and her group as much as we can. I also want to mention Amazin Le Thi, global ambassador for Athlete Ally and Vietnam Relief Services. We have partnered with her on publicity and outreach. Her own foundation works to inspire and empower HIV and homeless LGBTQ children and youth through sports and education.
Visual AIDS: What is the take-away that you hope audiences will leave "Red Flamboyant" with?
Don Nguyen: I hope our audiences walk away with a greater sense of the world in general, that there are these untold stories in little pockets of the world that need to be told. I hope they are entertained by not only the fantastical elements of the play which include the air combat, but also the more intimate story of these women just trying to make it every day with their strength and dignity intact.
New York Theatre Review
By Jody Christopherson | April 14, 2015
Jody Christopherson interviews playwright Don Nguyen on RED FLAMBOYANT
Don Nguygen's award winning play RED FLAMBOYANT opens April 24th at Anderson Hall at Calvary St. George's.
Based on the true story of Mrs. Pham Thi Hue, who runs the RED FLAMBOYANT Group (which is supported by the US organization Vietnam Relief Service Organization), a small group of women who are all living with HIV/AIDS, in present day Vietnam. Bricks smash the windows of their small house. The locals fear they will be infected by the women. Mrs. Hue is forced to seek help from a stubborn government official to protect her group.
This unique theatrical work tells its story with single bungee technology (aerial), puppetry, and straightforward acting in the round, unlikely heroes emerge both in this world and the next as these poor women reach new heights of courage.
Tell me about Mrs. Pham Thi Hue and the women RED FLAMBOYANT? They based on real people? How did you decide to begin writing about them?
DON NGUYEN: Pham Thi Hue is indeed a real person. She’s a woman living with HIV in Haiphong, Vietnam. I first read about her in a New York Times article when I was a playwright in the inaugural Emerging Writers Group at the Public Theater in 2008. I was struck by her courage to start the very first support group for HIV/AIDS in Vietnam, even in the face of overwhelming prejudice. The stigma of having this disease is so much greater in Vietnam than it is in America. Many people in Vietnam believe that those who are infected, run around stabbing people with needles. The government categorizes having HIV/AIDS as a “Social Evil” right along with drug use and prostitution. This is what they are telling the public. People living with HIV/AIDS oftentimes are even shunned by their own families, and rarely does anyone show up to the funerals of those who have passed away from the disease. But beyond the stigma, I was truly struck by the group’s simple mission statement of being there for one another so that no one dies alone. It was a story that intrigued and terrified me at the same time. Even though I was born in Vietnam, I grew up in Nebraska, where I was completely removed from my own culture. Most of that was my own doing, since I grew up trying to conform to my surroundings, as one sometimes does when you’re an immigrant in middle America. Who am I to be writing about a culture that was so foreign to me, and a group of women I knew only from a newspaper article? There were elements of the group that came through the article that I really loved, such as their gallows humor and their complete acceptance of death being so close to them. But failing to know what story I wanted to tell with these women, I quickly filed it away as something to work on down the road.
Tell me about the Trung Sisters badassery?
DON NGUYEN: This is actually what helped me to start writing Red Flamboyant. I’d always known about the Trung Sisters legend. They were a group of female warriors in 40 AD who fought to liberate Vietnam against Chinese rule. Being a child of the Vietnam War, these themes of liberation was something that had always intrigued me, so I initially thought I would write about the Trung Sisters as an allegory to the Vietnam War. So I filed that story away for a later date. But I kept thinking about Mrs. Hue and her story. I would wake up in the middle of the night and jot down some notes about her and then go to bed. And I’m not sure exactly when it happened, but at some point the two stories intersected in my mind and I thought “of course! Mrs Hue and her group are essentially modern female warriors who are fighting to be recognized as human beings, similar to the Trung Sisters who fought to be recognized as a country.” The moment I made that connection, I knew the story would be this epic story of heroism contained inside a more intimate story of survival.
What has it been like seeing the play staged with with single bungee technology? And how/when did this come about in the process?
DON NGUYEN: I always pictured the Trung Sisters flying. This probably came from growing up watching my parents watch these Kung Fu soap operas where warriors had the ability to fly, with no explanation as to why. They just did, and it was completely accepted by the audience. So, from day one, the Trung sisters flew in my play. Of course, flying is a very complicated and expensive effect to achieve on stage. I knew I didn’t want it to look like Peter Pan, where you have actors in harnesses flying stage left to stage right with riggers backstage doing all the lifting. I was working on a separate aerial project about flight attendants with Karen Fuhrman and her company Grounded Aerial. I saw Karen’s aerial work on video and essentially stalked her until she agreed to work with me. Amongst all the different aerial apparatuses that Karen introduced us to, it was single bungee that really stood out to me. This is a bungee strapped to a single point on a flying harness. What it does with the body is incredible. You have this amazing range of motion, you can literally leap in a single bound, or glide smoothly across the stage. It’s like dancing and fighting in mid-air and I knew that’s what we needed to make the Trung Sisters fly in Red Flamboyant.
Tell me about the design of the show? The puppets?
DON NGUYEN: Designing the show is a gargantuan task. There are so many ambitious elements in the play that would prove challenging even on a Broadway caliber production. The fact that we’re doing it on a showcase code is pretty impressive and terrifying. Not only do you have the Trung Sisters flying, you have bricks falling onto the stage, you have shadow puppets, masks, elephants, complicated sound and lighting effects. Stephanie Levin, our costume designer, has a difficult task of putting our actors in beautiful flowing traditional Vietnamese dresses, as well as integrating these bulky aerial harnesses into the design. Also, because of the unique theater space we’re in, the play will be performed in the round. This is truly exciting because the action will be in your face. But it also means there’s no place to hide in terms of the complicated theatrical effects like flying. Everything is out in the open, so the show has to boldly acknowledge the inner workings of these elements rather than conceal them as you would in a traditional space. Our set designer, Ann Beyersdorfer, has designed a set that is stunning in it’s simplicity as well as it’s functionality. Especially since the set has to be struck after each performance, the fact that Ann has designed something that beautifully encompasses the entire space and is still portable, is truly miraculous. In terms of the shadow puppets and masks, I’ve only seen a glimpse of it on paper, but what I’ve seen is beyond my wildest dreams. I can’t wait to see all these elements come together during tech, and I definitely can’t wait to share this with our audiences in performance.
What does it mean to be a hero?
DON NGUYEN: I think a hero is someone who acts selflessly to overcome something that is seemingly insurmountable. This is very true about Mrs Hue and the people in her group. It is also true of our cast, production, and design team. Everyone is so ready and willing to work together to bring this seemingly insurmountable story to the stage. They are certainly not doing it for the money. They are doing it because they believe in the story and they believe in Mrs Hue. And at the helm of this arduous challenge is our director Laura Savia, whom I haven’t mentioned till now, because I wanted to save the best for last. She is simply the best and her tireless work ethic on this project is truly heroic.