By Jenn Nguyen, Asian Studies Center Communications & Media Intern
On Friday, January 10th, the Vietnamese Student Association (VSA) at the University of Pittsburgh had the honor of welcoming Susan Lieu, a Vietnamese-American playwright, activist, and actress, to campus. Lieu is currently on a 10-city nationwide tour for her play “140 LBS: HOW BEAUTY KILLED MY MOTHER,” which tells the unfortunate true story of how her mother passed away during her childhood due to plastic surgery malpractice. The play, performed in the Charity Randall Theater, had the most minimalistic setup possible. The bare stage used a white projection screen and one wooden chair. This simplistic setup wasn’t unique to the Pittsburgh show – Lieu uses only these two props to ensure that her trek across the country is as light as possible. Nevertheless, her quick scene changes aided by background music and videos and photos propped on the projection screen keep audiences attentive.
The show talks about more than just the death of Lieu’s mother. It explores Vietnamese folklore and the cultural practice of spirit channeling, the consequences of strict beauty standards, how Lieu’s family attempted to conceal the death from conversations and questions, and Lieu’s own thoughts on motherhood, as she is currently pregnant with her first child. Spirit channeling, an aspect of Vietnamese culture I was unaware about, is the practice of people summoning deceased loved ones to communicate with those still alive. It gives a sense of comfort and reassurance to those missing their loved ones. If I could describe the play in one word, I’d say “vulnerable.” During the show, there was crying and sniffling from both Lieu and audience members. Sometimes, there was genuine laughter at small jokes included in character dialogues. I loved the show for its rawness and authenticity. Lieu did not attempt to portray herself as a tough person who trudged through her mother’s death nor was she afraid to hide how scared she was to soon be a mother herself. I’m glad I was able to attend the show, which made me think about my own experiences as a Vietnamese-American.