- Title: Good Morning, Viet Mom
- Written and performed by: Franco Nguyen
- Director: Byron Abalos
- Company: Cahoots Theatre Company
- Venue: Aki Studio at the Daniels Spectrum
- City: Toronto
- Year: Runs to March 3, 2019
Good Morning, Viet Mom is a sweet solo show in which a young man comes to appreciate the strength of his mother – who fled Vietnam alone as a refugee, and then, in Canada, fled an abusive husband to raise two children on her own.
This is playwright and performer Franco Nguyen’s own story – and, while there is a lot of tragedy in his family history, he’s a comedian by trade, so he tells it in an affable, direct style much like a stand-up show.
To kick things off, Nguyen warms up the audience with some jokes about growing up Vietnamese-Canadian in Toronto.
When he tells his white friends that the longest he’s ever talked with his mother, Dieu, is five minutes, they express sympathy at the distance between mother and son. When he tells his Asian friends this, however, they express astonishment at the length of the conversation: “Who’s your mom? Ira Glass?”
Nguyen, as talkative and outgoing as his mother is taciturn and guarded, reveals her background in short bursts of storytelling.
Born on a small sugar farm and raised by a single mother herself, Dieu left Vietnam shortly after the fall of Saigon on a boat, carrying only a little bit of food and a gold chain in a bag with her.
In a refugee camp in Malaysia, she met Nguyen’s father. Franco’s older brother was born there, and then Franco was born in Winnipeg.
The family of four soon moved to Toronto but it was far from happily ever after. Most poignantly, Nguyen recalls the first time his mom tried to leave his father and ran away with her children to Honest Ed’s – a now-defunct department store popular with new Canadians, described here as “if Dollarama had sex with a clown.”
With no English and no resources, she slowly realized there was nothing she could do but return home, as her children played with toys still in their boxes around her. (That detail alone is much more devastating than when Nguyen tries to channel the emotion or distress he felt in certain moments of his life with shouting or tears.)
Also moving in Good Morning, Viet Mom is the video Nguyen shot during recent trips to visit Dieu’s family in Vietnam. He captures the moment that his mother saw her own mother for the first time since leaving the country.
This almost too-intimate footage, along with tear-jerking shots from Dieu’s Canadian citizenship ceremony in Toronto, is projected on screens large and small on Christine Urquhart’s simple, low-budget set. (The show tours next to the Living Arts Centre in Mississauga, then the Spark Festival at the Belfry Theatre in Victoria.)
The trajectory of Good Morning, Viet Mom is from Nguyen finding his mother frustrating – having to translate for her constantly; having her yell “you’re just like your father” when she’s angry; having her resist him moving out even at the age of 28 – to truly appreciating the incredible obstacles that she’s overcome.
This is ultimately not a very compelling arc for an audience: You had us at refugee single mom. The power of the conclusion of Nguyen’s show – that Asian mothers say “I love you” by asking if you’ve eaten – is further diluted by his acknowledgment that he got it from an internet meme. There seems to be a faux naiveté at play here.
Watching Nguyen imitate his parents and their limited command of English, even with love and no exaggeration, I couldn’t help but think of the second-generation Vietnamese-American playwright Qui Nguyen, and the popular recent play he wrote about how his parents met in a refugee camp, Vietgone (which had its Canadian premiere at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre this fall).
Qui Nguyen found a way to give his parents a complex voice for an English-speaking audience by eschewing realism − letting his Vietnamese character speak in modern English and telling their story with hip-hop and kung-fu elements. (It’s the white Americans who speak in dialect in his play.)
It’s interesting that Franco Nguyen, raised by Vietnamese parents one country to the north, has absorbed so many of the same cultural influences; he talks about Jackie Chan movies and watching rap battles on Black Entertainment Television here.
But there’s a limit to what a show can achieve told in the feel-good format he has chosen; as the program note puts it: “Shout out to all the moms out there.” Good Morning, Viet Mom is ultimately the type of youthful, personal play that does gangbusters at a Fringe Festival (as, indeed, earlier incarnations have) but ends up feeling a little slight standing on its own.