REVIEW: Good Morning, Viet Mom Does Good By Vietnamese Motherhood
Christine H. Tran reviews Franco Nguyen’s Good Morning, Viet Mom, at the Aki Studio Theatre:
Playing at the Aki Studio Theatre, Good Morning, Viet Mom directs a sympathetic spotlight to the oft-maligned bogeywoman that is Asian motherhood. In his self-performed solo biography, writer and performer Franco Nguyen puts cinematic sensitivity to good use. What results is a visually memorable addition to an oncoming wave of Vietnamese creation and representation on Toronto’s stages.
Put in simplest terms, Viet Mom is the story of a man who repeatedly fails to sustain a conversation lasting more than five minutes with his immigrant mother. The generational gap between Nguyen and the “Viet Mom” in question—Diệu—feels chasmic, courtesy of linguistic and emotional barriers from both the Vietnam War and gendered wars at home. In 55 minutes, Nguyen remediates his progenitor’s journey from a talented woman of “fashion” in Vietnam to an abused wife in Canada. Just as he acted as his mother’s translator through the perils of eviction and immigration in Canada, Nguyen now translates her to this Canadian audience.
In this pastiche of film and live performance, Diệu’s story is in good hands with her son. Viet Mom’s biggest strength is its script, where Nguyen adeptly flexes his sensitivity to how language (like money) rules everything around us. As the second-generation son iterates repeatedly, he sucks at Vietnamese. Unfortunately, his mother lives in Vietnamese. Forced to act as Diệu’s medium to the Anglo-Canadian world, utterance like “eviction” and “last notice” come to occupy his tongue before his brain can comprehend the power structures behind them. Nguyen situates himself onstage as ensnared by estranged parents, but also by the bewildering and arbitrary tyranny of language itself. “I’m a child!” he sweetly declares while swinging his arms in an impersonation of his young self caught in the middle of parental and linguistic imperialisms. In effect, the show carves Vietnamese motherhood itself as a prism through which to read the self as a subject of perpetual translation. Wordplay becomes word “work”: Nguyen shockingly spirals a knock-knock joke routine into a raw call-out against his father for his failures both as a dad and as a husband.
The importance of Viet Mom’s empathy towards Asian moms cannot be undervalued. Are there any Asian archetypes drawn with more contempt than the Stern “Oriental” Matriarch? With few exceptions, older Asian women in North American media are resigned to the role of caricaturized “tiger moms,” who circle around their eager-to-assimilate second-generation Asian children with flinching lips and unforgiving tongues. At their “kindest,” these mothers are faded “cherry blossoms” crushed by barbaric patriarchs for the satisfaction of voyeuristic westerners. Alternatively, Asian mothers might not even be present at all. Redemption for Asian dads seems viable this season, but where are the mothers? Recall fu-GEN’s double bill of Fine China and A Perfect Bowl of Pho earlier this season at Factory Theatre, where Vietnamese motherhood was either sidelined or literally invisible. Viet Mom enters to supplement this lack with maternal representation, albeit through the self-conscious gaze of her son. Impressively, it’s also very funny and just nice to look at.
The show benefits from an inventive technical team. David DeGrow’s mesmerising light effects complement the deceitfully simple set design of Christine Urquhart. What results are some of the most memorable dances between projected image and prop that you will see on stage this season. A grey table does quadruple-and-then-some duty as a TV screen, a suitcase, a picture frame, and more. Constantly reinventing the stage, the show gracefully gestures to the artwork of all diasporic families—including that of trained “fashion” woman Diệu herself—who become stage managers of their domain, rearranging their trauma into fleeting signifiers of home.
With its minimalist staging and heavy reliance on film projection, Good Morning, Viet Mom risks being too smugly satisfied with its artifice for its own good. Luckily, Byron Abalos’ direction brings everything together smoothly. The show is a gracefully choreographed exchange between Franco’s live performance and media clips, which help to temper the danger of a singular male narrator’s authority over this very female story. Likewise, the projection design of Kevin Matthew Wong dazzles in the show’s stunning opening moments: a film montage (from Nguyen himself) of a baby in Vietnam making their first steps is projected onto the screen, accompanied by Chance the Rapper’s D.R.A.M. cover of the lullaby, “Special.” The show’s bold opening title card then superimposes itself upon this patchwork of memory, media, and culture. I was sitting in a particularly interactive audience that day; as we were informed of the show’s next tour locations, someone yells out “Netflix!” With its sensitivity to popular music and film cues, Good Morning, Viet Mom seems incubated for cinematic reinterpretation.
On the note of musical choices: the show would do well to further weigh the (not always pleasant) dialogue between Asian settlers in North America and African American culture. Viet Mom has clearly been influenced by Black artists in both its aural and aesthetic cues. Indeed, Nguyen positions his early aspirations to rap artistry as a prime source of tension between himself and Diệu. At one point, his interest in the rappers on TV overrules Diệu’s motherly demands for another translation, leading to the play’s most explosively painful moment of mother-son conflict. In moments like these, it is Nguyen’s vulnerable performance that makes Viet Mom feel authentic. Surely, the show’s emotional authenticity makes future performances well-equipped to more critically examine its creative debts, both to mothers and to fellow “others.”
Christine H. Tran is a Scarborough-born settler, writer, and scholar of Vietnamese descent. She holds a BA from the University of Toronto Scarborough and a SSHRC-funded MA in English from York University. Her relationship to technology—a fickle, passionate, and endless talk—continues to inform how she writes about race, affective labour, and popular culture in the virtual economy. Her writing has been featured in alt.theatre, untethered, Train, and ATB Publishing’s Outside In anthologies. Most recently, Christine’s work investigates Let’s Play videos and other modes of game spectatorship as automedia. She is entering PhD studies in Fall 2019.