By Marcy Arlin
This past July, actor Susan Hyon and myself, as represented by Immigrants’ Theatre Project (and funded by a Theatre Communications Group/International Theatre Institute Travel grant and a Project Grant from CEC
ArtsLink) began the first part of a two year theater project: East/West/East:
Vietnamese Immigrants Out of War, by going to the Czech Republic to interview
maybe about 20 of the 70,000 Vietnamese immigrants living in the Czech Republic.
The resulting two plays, written by American Aurorae Khoo and Czech Radmila
Adamova, will be based on the stories of our Vietnamese and Czech interviewees
in the Czech Republic and the United States, in three languages (Czech,
Vietnamese, English), and performed by my Immigrants’ Theatre Project and the
Czech theater company, Divadlo Feste (Jester’s Theatre). Productions will be in
New York, at the Firehouse Theatre in Richmond Virginia, and in Brno, Czech
Republic. This will not be a docudrama; it will be two real, dramatic (or
comedic) plays that will do what ITP does best: creating plays about universal
issues—love, courage, freedom, power—based on individuals from immigrant
The Vietnamese are the first very visible, very sizable immigrant group in the Czech Republic (arriving there in the 70s during the Vietnamese/American war as “communist brothers”). For us it was interesting to
watch the familiar American immigrant story play out as a new phenomenon in a
fairly ethnically homogeneous eastern European nation.
We visited homes, warehouse districts, workers’ dorms, theatre studios, karaoke bars, social service offices, restaurants, private homes, where we met Vietnamese from every walk of life imaginable: contract
workers from Vietnam, whose agency fees were often paid for by an entire
village; a schoolteacher from Hanoi; a physicist/entrepreneur, students at
university studying business and banking, high school kids almost completely
acculturated who spoke better Czech and English than Vietnamese. We learned of
the talent the Vietnamese had for finding opportunities in even the tiniest
Czech village. We introduced the idea of the hyphenated person, the
Chinese-American, the Jewish-American, the Cuban-American, the
African-American. We made the conjecture that our interviewees who are settled
in the Czech Republic might think of themselves as Vietnamese-Czechs.
The Vietnamese are much more accepted than the Roma people, who have been in the country for centuries. Susan (who is Asian American) and I (white Jewish American) spoke with Czechs and Vietnamese of cultural
idealizations and misconceptions coming from both sides of the Czech/Vietnamese
cultures, ranging from discussions of work ethic, familial obligations and
expectations, flat out bigotry, and a general feeling that life in the Czech
Republic is better than in Vietnam. Most of the Czech immigrants come from the
North or the Middle, regions of Vietnam experiencing deep economic problems,
Still, they have a deep love and connection that these immigrants feel for
their home country, and most travel back once every three or four years.
The second leg of this project involves Aurorae and myself interviewing Vietnamese Americans in Richmond, Virginia. Then, armed with photos and tapes from the interviews in nations, Aurorae and Radmila will write
plays- Aurorae’s to go to ITP for development and Radmila’s to Divadlo Feste.
Special thanks for this project go to Susan Hyon, Jiri Kocourek, Barbora Dolezalova, Ervin Hodulik, Aurorae Khoo, Klub Hanoi, Masaryk University, and the Arts & Theatre Institute of Prague, Linh, Natasa, Viet, Lenka/Duc, Martin, David and our interviewees in letting us into their lives.
By Marcy Arlin
(The photo is of our translators Linh and Nataša who did the translating for us in the factory workers' dorm in Mlada Boleslav, Czech Republic).