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Comedy by Collective : Common Experiences Help Club O’Noodles Founder Detect ‘Laughter From the Children of War’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

You’d never guess from looking at him that Hung Nguyen survived four attempts to escape from Vietnam, that he was caught each time and sent to jail, and that he finally succeeded, at 14, on his fifth attempt.

Even now, at 28, the slightly built Nguyen hardly seems rugged enough to have survived the experiences of his childhood. “I’m a boat person,” the performance artist says, speaking as gently as he smiles.

Nguyen (pronounced “win”) had to leave his brothers and sisters and mother behind--she was in a jail in Saigon--not knowing whether he’d see them again; not knowing whether the fishermen who were to smuggle him to Thailand would be attacked by pirates and their boat sunk, a common occurrence; not knowing what might happen in the refugee camps in Thailand, where he would languish for a year before being flown to Los Angeles in 1982 as a political refugee.

But, like the other Vietnamese Americans in his Club O’Noodles performance troupe, Nguyen says, he has transformed past travails into present pleasures through theater. The evidence is “Laughter From the Children of War,” which opens tonight and runs through Sunday at South Coast Repertory.

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The show is “about the personal and collective stories of Vietnamese people who lived through the Vietnam war and its aftermath,” he said in a recent interview at the theater. It blends traditional Vietnamese satire, songs and folk dances with American humor, jazz and modern dance.

“The piece could be called ‘Tears or Pain or Horror Stories From the Children of the Vietnam War,’ ” Nguyen went on, “because it’s about us as war victims, refugees and immigrants.” But they titled the show “Laughter . . .” because, he says, “in the process of writing and performing it, that’s what we found.”

Happily, Nguyen also found it in reality. In 1992 he was reunited with his entire family in Los Angeles, where they now live. His father, a doctor in the South Vietnamese army, had escaped from a North Vietnamese concentration camp and had reestablished himself in a medical career in the States.

“He had to do everything all over again,” Nguyen says. “He worked as a janitor, all kinds of jobs like that, and he went back to medical school. It took him six years.”

A version of “Laughter,” presented as a work in progress on college campuses around the country, was staged last year at the Irvine Barclay Theatre and at Highways Performance Space in Los Angeles. Tonight’s production, billed as a premiere, is the finished work.

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Nguyen, who founded Club O’Noodles with Japanese performance artist Nobuko Miyamaoto, recounts that “Laughter” got its start nearly two years ago when he began writing a fairy tale about the origins of the Vietnamese people.

“I ended up modifying a traditional legend about a dragon prince and a fairy princess,” he says, “characters you will find in the play.”

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But he discovered with each workshop performance that Vietnamese Americans, wherever he went, wanted to participate in creating the show. So in addition to collecting “firsthand stories from these peers,” Nguyen says, he encouraged them to meditate together and chant songs from their childhoods--uncovering many they hadn’t remembered for years, and the memories that went with them.

He also asked them to reenact their experiences. “A lot of painful stuff came out--violence, people dying, seeing people raped, terrible things like that,” he says. “For the longest time, each of us [had] thought our stories were unique. Now we saw how much our stories had in common. There were a lot of tears, but there was also a lot of irony. Everything was so painful it became funny.”

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Their immigrant experience also had its revelations.

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“For the longest time I always felt it was better to be an American than to be Vietnamese. You needed to make yourself belong here because you were Vietnamese, especially. Kids wanted to know if your parents killed Americans. We came here feeling that pressure, that it was our fault that Americans died.”

The fact that this country has had such an intense relationship with Vietnam helps create a dynamic of guilt and embarrassment on both sides, Nguyen says. It’s no surprise that Vietnamese immigrants may relate to Americans “through shame and anger” while regarding America as their savior.

“Laughter” deals with these issues and others--the proliferation of Vietnamese gangs, the conflicts between children who have made the steep cultural adjustment to America and parents who haven’t, the impact of generational role reversal (when parents need children to show them the ropes).

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Half of the troupe considers itself theater professionals. The others are university students they’ve come across, some of whom hope to develop their own companies. The name of the troupe, Club O’Noodles, is intended to convey a sense of creativity and cohesion, as in “use your noodle” or “noodles stick together,” Nguyen explains.

“The piece now has a life of its own,” he adds. “It has gone beyond ‘I am telling my story’ to something with a universal essence in it. Although ‘Laughter’ tells some hard truths, in the end it neither blames nor begs for sympathy. It invites us to celebrate life.”

* “Laughter From the Children of War” is at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Performances today and Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 2:30 p.m. $10-$15. (714) 957-4033.


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