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The Leavers , study for ACT ONE

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The Leavers , physical creation with actors, New York, April 2024

PROJECT:  THE LEAVERS

 

THE LEAVERS is a theatrical work that examines the UNIVERSAL refugee experience through the prism of the Vietnamese diaspora and its unlikely splinters –from "TedToks" to Mr. Olympia and the Trail of Tears.

 

10 years ago, artist and producer David Raymond and I embarked on a film project to document the stories around the weeks when my family left Vietnam as fleeing war refugees in 1975. With a working title of DONG, we traveled across the United States and interviewed the 10 remaining members of my family that left together on the last day of the American-Vietnam War. As we never spoke of it to each other in great detail during our lifetimes, the film focused on the ways history and narrative intersect, and how they are disrupted by the trauma, forgetful nature and futileness of memories.

For a number of reasons, the footage we obtained felt incomplete and incapable of telling the story effectively as we had hoped. Too many details and secrets remained unlocked. With a shared interest in surrealism, we nonetheless made a trailer using surrogates for my family, expanding on the universality of the immigrant experience, unbound by blood or basic ethnic resemblance. They spoke authentic words from the interviews, but the visual rupture found better alignment with the conceptual turn our project was taking. Even the song in our original trailer is not quite what it seems – a Vietnamese rock and roll tune produced in the 60’s, but here sang by a Detroit indie band (Saturday Looks Good to Me) who spoke zero Vietnamese.

 

In 2021, a devastating flood in New York destroyed the majority of my stored family archives and artworks. This swift “disappearing act” resembled my family’s unchosen decision to leave Vietnam at the end of the war. They took almost nothing and left behind everything. Just like theirs, my small chapter in history was smeared away in the blink of an eye, beyond one’s control.

 

But paradoxically, in order to recover history, THE LEAVERS necessarily approaches it from the vantage point of "erasure". 

 

In 2018, while living in Ho Chi Minh City, my partner Celine Alexandre, a Belgian art historian and former stage actress, produced a short theater piece called Exile, based on the diasporic novel Ru by Kim Thuy. Overlapping in many ways with my own experiences, Thuy's is a Canadian-Vietnamese immigrant’s account of the same postwar period, one of the all-too-numerous tales of forced adaptation and assimilation. Exile's poetic two-person performance incorporated soliloquies from Ru and dance choreographed by Linh Rateau. I produced a number of animations that were used as projections in the performance. Because of its sensitive subject matter, according to the Vietnamese government, Exile was banned in Vietnam and only performed privately at the French school and also in Hong Kong at an Amnesty International Festival (2018). Its importance and relevance were evident.

 

From a distance, Exile was a slice of the story that I also longed to tell. Through discussions with both David and stage director Brian Rhinehart, I decided to resurrect the DONG project in an alternative vein and eventually bring it to conclusion on stage, in collaboration with both these friends.  

DONG trailer (2014)

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The Leavers , studies

CONCEPT

Conceived as a stage performance that incorporates theater, movement, installation art, and new media, THE LEAVERS weaves a narrative of seemingly unconnected fragments in unusual ways, from personal archives and modern newsreels, to the aesthetics of 'TedToks', bodybuilding, right wing protests, and old Renault car ads. Mining the relatable and warped experiences of the migrant and refugee, THE LEAVERS conflates personal narrative with sweeping societal conflicts. The base material comes from the recorded video footage made 10 years ago, and expands into a broader story within the Vietnamese diaspora, framing a universal struggle where the tentacles of “RE-colonization” and institutionalized violence come home everywhere to root, from an overcrowded boat to the weekend sports arena.

 

Through the usage of “surrogates” and revisionism, approximately 10 actors will assume roles interchangeably through the run of performances, confusing gender, ethnicity, and authenticity. DONG partially takes verbatim content from the material recorded a decade ago and combines it with fictional texts and scenarios that are delivered through multiple mediums and narratives, such as a “3-dimensional shadow” or an embodied Confederate statue. Employing also projection, animation and sculptural objects that double as set design, DONG purposefully alludes to the shiftiness of memory in contrast to a more (seemingly) concrete present. 

I do not come from a theater background, and having lived in the United States, Europe and Vietnam over the last 15 years, it is essential that THE LEAVERS eschews the platitudes of political correctness and tropes of intersectionality. The playscript examines the plight of the immigrant experience as a prism splintering into surreal yet parallel spaces, from a Mr. Olympia contest to the Trail of Tears and Renault car commercials. One scene might depict a border checkpoint with no clear distinction between who is going where or for what purposes. Another scene blends a skewed “TedTok” with the incursion of a rightwing mob carrying “Yellow Power” signs. Emphasis is placed on a fluid reckoning of history, where the wilful ignorance of the present meets a faulty memory that imposes its sense of revisionism on the past. Set-wise, I intend to treat the entire stage as a projection screen and art installation, where spectres of the past are beamed from digital video and slide projectors, to co-exist with the actors, while the props double as sculptures that would feel equally at home in an art gallery context.

TIMELINE / LOGISTICS / OUTREACH


The THE LEAVERS playscript is slated to be completed by September, 2024.

Trong will be working on the playscript while in residence this spring at Walden (Menerbes, France) and in the fall beginning the physical stage creation while in residency at Boghossian Foundation / Villa Empain (Brussels, Belgium) with Brian Rhinehart. At the production stage, 
THE LEAVERS projects to work with a group of about 10 actors and dancers.

SUPPORTING MATERIALS


We will continually add to this page as the process progresses. 

 

Below please find various video snippets of previous works, performances, links, and short texts of various projects by Trong Gia Nguyen that are intended to indicate the direction and breadth of the DONG project. For David and Brian's works, please connect with their website links above.

Nhà (House). Trong did the scenography for this dance performance choreographed by Sebastien Ly / Kerman (2018), performed in Vietnam and subsequently traveling in France.

Studies for a performance utilizing The Diabolical series of paintings, in situ at Trong's solo exhibition In Perpetuity at La Patinoire Royale, Brussels, Belgium (2022).

Teaser for The Last Letter Writer, a quasi-documentary about a day in the life of the last public translator in Vietnam (2022), which premiered at Black Mountain College in 2023.

Exil (Exile), Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam (2017). Theater dance performance by Céline Alexandre and Linh Rateau, based on the novel Ru by Kim Thuy. Trong created the projected animations for this work, which was censored in Vietnam and eventually performed in Hong Kong. 

Ready Set Sail (2007) was a mixed-media performance that took place in Berlin at the Super Bien Greenhouse for Contemporary Art, in collaboration with Dance Gang (Kennis Hawkins and Will Rawls), and musician Jeremy Linzee. Channeling the author Alain de Botton (The Art of Travel) and explorers such as Alexander von Humboldt, Hannibal, and Ulysses, Ready Set Sail incorporated dance, theater and music to investigate the phenomena of locomotion and discovery.

ALL YOU'LL NEED IS LOVE, ISE Foundation and L'Orange Bleu, New York City (2006). A multi-space, real-time speed dating performance inspired by The Dating Game, William Shakespeare, and The Da Vinci Code. A collaboration between Dance Gang (Will Rawls + Kennis Hawkins), Art Hijack (Trong Gia Nguyen + Elana Rubinfeld), and musicians Jeremy Linzee (Summer Lawns) and Fred Thomas (Saturday Looks Good to Me), AYNIL attempted to create a love connection between four local contestant-participants  while employing less direct modes of simultaneous communication, including improvised dance, poetry, and songs composed on the spot. 

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