Trieu Tran in Uncle Ho to Uncle Sam
Trieu Tran in Uncle Ho to Uncle Sam
(© Craig Schwartz)

Death has plagued Trieu Tran throughout his young life, but remarkably in his new autobiographical one-man show, Tran found hope. He is spreading that word in this riveting drama, a part of RADAR-LA Festival presented at Kirk Douglas Theatre. Tran survived a harrowing childhood. Born in Vietnam in April 1975, as the Americans retreated and Vietnamese thought to be Capitalist sympathizers were tortured by the Viet Cong, Tran endured in poverty until he escaped with his mother and two sisters to Canada.

Eventually he made his way to Boston, where life continued to be a battleground, with dueling gangs and Vietnamese mobsters haunting him. Tran finds the deck stacked against refugees. Even his choice of high school gangs causes persecution and casualties. The authorities look at Tran and only see a thug, and Tran finds himself limited due to others prejudices.

Tran is a vivid narrator. His 90-minute play relies on few visuals but uses words to pull audiences into the jungles of Vietnam, the claustrophobic "death boat" transporting the family to Canada, the rage-infused violent home of Tran's abusive father, and the teenage gang bloodshed of Boston. Despite portraying a world filled with trauma, Tran's story is never maudlin, because his spirit remains steadfast.

Tran depicts his damaged father, his unsinkable mother, a fresh-off-the-boat immigrant whom Tran befriends, and himself at several different ages without the crutches of makeup or costume. Tran does not mimic these characters' voices in some grandstanding gimmick; he instead gets to the crux of the characters' motivation and their pain and creates three-dimensional people.

Tran's story is so startling because without being preachy, it cements the belief that the best way to avenge a wronged life is not vengeance, which always begets more mayhem, but to live your own life purely and honestly. It is a powerful lesson, one people and even governments often choose not to follow, but it is the only way societies can endure.