A hugely moving debut drama about exile set in a Vietnamese restaurant has become a surprise hit at the world’s biggest theater festival, with standing ovations every night and the audience in tears.
“Saigon” by Caroline Guiela Nguyen – whose family fled what is now Ho Chi Minh City in 1956 – has been hailed for shining a light on the suffering and sacrifice of Vietnamese emigres, whose fate has long been enveloped in silence in the U.S. and France.
Despite playing in a small venue at the Avignon Festival in southern France, the near four-hour family saga has had critics reaching both for superlatives and their handkerchiefs.
“This is a play like no other,” the French daily Le Monde said, comparing its bitter-sweet melancholic nostalgia to Wong Kar-wai’s classic film “In the Mood for Love”.
“The play ends with the line, ‘This is the way we tell stories in Vietnam; with lots of tears.’ Well, we love these tears that French theater has been so long deprived of,” it added.
“Saigon” tells the story of the heartbreak and longing of Vietnamese who were torn between France and their homeland when French colonial rule collapsed after the Battle of Dien Bien Phu.
“The play is framed by two dates – 1956 and 1996,” Nguyen told AFP.
A scene of the play. Photo by AFP/Anne-Christine Poujoulat
“1956 was when the last of the French soldiers and colonists left Vietnam. But many Vietnamese who had French nationality left with them (below decks in steerage). They were called the ‘Viet kieu’, literally the foreign Vietnamese,” she said.
They would not be allowed back for another 40 years, having to wait until 1996 when the U.S. lifted its embargo against Hanoi. When the teenage Nguyen went back a few years later with her mother she began to see the depth of her loss.
Bargaining with some fruit sellers in a Ho Chi Minh City market, the women could not stop laughing at the quaint way her mother spoke. Her Vietnamese no longer existed, a relic of an all but forgotten past.
Like every one of her 17 cousins who grew up in France, Nguyen does not speak Vietnamese. “Our parents so wanted to integrate that teaching their children Vietnamese was for them going backwards. They were afraid it would hold up our French.”
She remembers the divisions in her own extended family about whether to return or not.
“Some of my aunts and uncles never wanted to go back, while others longed to end their days there.”
Haunted by lost world
Nguyen, who spent two years flying back and forth to Vietnam gathering stories, insisted that her own family history was “only a starting point” for her play.
“We gathered testimony but also sounds, images and atmosphere, and from all that our fiction was born.”
The play takes place in a Vietnamese restaurant in Paris in 1996. Some of the 11 actors speak Vietnamese and others French. All are haunted by a world that no longer exists.
Dan Artus (L) and Phu Hau Nguyen as they perform during a rehearsal of the play “Saigon” directed by French director Caroline Guiela Nguyen at the “gymnase du lycee Aubanel” in Avignon during the 71st international theater festival. Photo by AFP/Anne-Christine Poujoulat
Growing up, Nguyen said she was always aware of the gulf between Vietnamese parents and their children. Later while researching the play a Vietnamese-born mother told her, “My son is my Number One foreigner.”
Like the double agent hero of last year’s Pulitzer prize-winning novel “The Sympathizer” – whose father was a French missionary priest – Nguyen’s characters are caught between cultures, between pity and suspicion.
Unlike that scorchingly brilliant satire by her namesake Viet Thanh Nguyen, her subtle, elliptical script eschews politics, even though her own family is almost a case study of French colonization in Asia.
One of her mother’s parents was Vietnamese, the other from Pondicherry, a former French outpost in southern India. Her father’s side are “pieds noirs”, French colonists in Algeria.
“Clearly the question of colonization is always there, but to stop there would be a bit lame,” Nguyen said.
“What interested me was to look at people whose fates have been decided by colonization, to see what it left in their bodies and in their hearts.”