In a theater cycle full of joy (yippee — almost an entire season of watching live theater again), nothing may top the elation of hearing Vietnamese words spoken on stage and the reaction of those in the audience able to follow along.
But it isn’t just the occasional words that make Song of Me (written by Mai Lê and Đạt Peter Tôn, now playing at Stages) something to celebrate. It’s the 360-degree nature of the whole production. Written, directed, and starring Vietnamese artists, Song of Me tells the story of modern-day Vietnamese 30-something siblings living in Houston.
With the second-largest Vietnamese population in the United States right here in Texas, you’d think we’d have seen a show or two like this before. After all, isn’t theater supposed to reflect and tell the stories of the communities we live in?
Yes, we had a production of Qui Nguyen’s terrific Vietgone back in 2019 at the Alley. But it’s been crickets before and after, and we’ve certainly never had a homegrown show hit our stages. To say it’s about damn time is an understatement.
To finally break this spell, Lê and Tôn have created a sweetly funny two-hander family dramedy with a delicious added touch.
Siblings Philip (Sergio Mauritz Ang) and Luci (Mai Lê) are reunited at Philip’s loft on the eve of his wedding to make eggrolls for the 60 or so expected guests. A small wedding, we learn, because while Philip’s fiancé Nathan has invited his whole family, Philip has been estranged from his parents for quite some time, much to Luci’s chagrin.
As the pair make traditional Vietnamese eggrolls on stage (the scrumptious smells from the working kitchen will have your stomach grumbling all show) they reminisce about the challenges of growing up with immigrant parents, laugh at past antics, dissect their love lives and figure out how identity, heritage, and family will define their next moves. And what that will ultimately mean for the sibling’s relationship.
If that sounds like a familiar plot structure, it is. Cooking aside, Song of Me doesn’t push any narrative or structural boundaries. But it’s in that comfort zone that the play does something quite wonderful. It allows the siblings to talk about Vietnamese customs, family dynamics, clothing, food and occasionally speak the language while being both inclusive and instructive.
The feeling of pride and warmth seeing your culture on stage was humming all throughout the audience. As was the connection of learning something new about your neighbor while recognizing the story’s relatable humanity.
It may sound simple, but that’s a lot of weight to carry for a production. Especially when you’re the first to do it and you’ve waited such a long time for the chance.
It’s no wonder then that amidst this easy-to-warm-to-show, there’s a hint of indulgence in some of the writing, direction, and performance.
At around an hour and a half, the show feels somewhat draggy in places. The cooking and comedic banter between the siblings is fun to watch, but it takes too long for the show to build conflict.
Similarly, once things are resolved, we get about four different closing scenes including a musical moment that while cute in theory, tests our patience when it outlives its welcome. There are a lot of ideas crammed into the final bits of the show. All good ideas in theory, but when tossed together the effect is inelegantly bumpy.
Directing theater in the round is a beast at the best of times, throw in the cooking element and you’ve got added challenges. Tôn (who also directs the show in addition to co-writing) keeps things moving, which helps with sightlines (no one wants to look at actors’ backs) but at times loses the flow.
Direction that calls for Philip spinning slowly in a chair while talking so he’s visible to all, or the pair trying to show off a photo so everyone can see feels awkwardly unnatural. As does the amount of time he has the pair boisterously twerking or pelvic thrusting for comic effect.
There’s a broad element to the comedy in the show, which either is or isn’t your cup of tea. But when Tôn allows his cast to slow things down, take a pause and play to the more serious or naturalistic elements of the story, the whole play elevates.
It’s that same broadness that works for and against Lê, whose excellent comic timing we’ve seen again and again on Houston stages. But in both writing and performing Luci, Lê doesn’t give herself a lot of room to branch away from her usual, often physical, comic shtick.
Save for the final serious moments, which Lê leans into just fine, it feels like we’re getting more of the same from this talented performer when range is what we’d hoped for when she finally held the reins.
It’s a Stages, and possibly Houston, debut for Ang as Philip, but hopefully not his last. We instantly fall for his easy manner, occasional silliness, and concentration in the kitchen. When Philip talks about falling in love with Nathan, our hearts are happy he’s happy. When we see the hurt the family rift has inflicted on him, those same hearts break.
It’s Ang that brings subtlety to the show in all states of emotion. It may not be the flashy role, but it’s the one we warm to most.
It’s rare for a newly birthed play by emerging playwrights to be issue-free. But while Song of Me has some kinks to work out, there’s no question that it’s a full-hearted triumphant premiere on multiple levels. Ground has been broken here and community connections have been made.
Let’s hope that more theaters realize that our mouths watering at the eggrolls cooking was just as much about wanting to see more voices like this on and behind Houston stages as it was about the smell of the food itself.
Song of Me continues through June 12 at Stages, 800 Rosine. For more information, visit stageshouston.com or call 713-527-0123. $15 – $79.