There’s a tendency in some to believe that certain pieces of art demand specific audiences. There’s a grain of truth in that. Naturally, certain stories and pieces are made with a particular target in mind, a demographic divided on certain lines from other subsections of society. A gulf exists between something aimed towards children and something all ages could appreciate, though that does not make one or the other superior so long as the end results are both quality products. However, I’ve never accepted the excuse that someone’s displeasure in a story or other type of art is solely the fault of them not being a part of the target audience (aka not “who it was made for”). Quality works can elicit strong responses from any viewer, regardless of their background, because they can feel to the emotions behind the pieces even if they cannot relate to the scenario or those involved. Art is a necessary force in our world as it connects the unconnected through defining the undefinable.
A Girl Named Sue, written by local Austin actor Christine Hoang, is a new play that follows Sue Nguyen, a young Vietnamese-American college student, and those she encounters regularly at a local cafe as they utilize the medium of poetry to tie together their discussions on race relations, love, friendship, and generational divides.
Now, I should mention here that I attended a stage reading of A Girl Named Sue (then titled A Girl Named Soo) last October, prior to its textual alterations. While the bulk of the script remained as I had remembered it, there were a few noticeable changes that are worth noting in time.
The crux of the production comes from the titular Sue (Uyen-Ahn Dang) and the poetry that surrounds and flows through her. There’s a great deal of charming innocence from Dang as she reacts towards her surroundings with the sort of optimism that most of us wish we held onto from years past. When told certain truths (or untruths) about how the world works, be it in matters of romance, race, or art, there’s an honest curiosity in her countenance when she asks ‘why?’ This is not to suggest that Sue (or Dang for that matter) is seen as an unknowing individual, but rather as an idealist in a world that sees such hope as childish. Perhaps it is best to view her through her relationships with those around her.
Talisa (Toni Lorene Baker) is Sue’s closest friend and café study buddy, as well as the individual responsible for convincing Sue to read some of her poetry to an audience, thus kick-starting the plot. Baker plays as the confident pragmatist counter to Sue’s naivety while maintaining that similar sense of lightheartedness that shines through their friendship. There’s certainly a genuine bond between these two characters as they look to/for the best in each other, and Hoang’s dialogue recreates that specific vernacular that friends share. My concern with Talisa’s character come from her role in the plot. While she is instrumental in initial affairs she doesn’t seem to maintain much significance throughout the rest of the production. There are moments of strife involving her character that feel hastily resolved, and self-evaluation as a black woman in hypocritical American society which, while strong, never seems to lead anywhere. Baker certainly owned the role; I just wish we could have seen her fleshed out more. Cash (Matrex Kilgore), the open-mic poetry host at the café, is naturally down-to-earth, and yet is hard to pin down in regards to his intentions. He carries himself with the airy gait of a poet, yet seldom hesitates to be blunt in any matter should the need arise. Much as with Talisa, Sue and Cash carry on naturally and you can feel the connection between them. Kilgore creates this sense that Cash has accepted the reality of the world they’re in while Sue has yet to fully believe it, and this tension adds nicely to their relationship.
Peppered throughout the production are live songs written and performed by musician BettySoo (as herself). It is publically known that BettySoo’s music was a key inspiration for the creation of A Girl Named Sue, and the inclusion of her work certainly suggests that. Her songs are lovely and match the tone of the scenes which preceded them, but the manner in which they come and go without ploy context muddies the pacing a tad. BettySoo is tied in to the play more directly later on, but I feel there could have been a way to interweave her throughout in as a more defined character in the script. Similarly, Rashad (Jeffery Da’Shade Johnson) is an excellent performer who felt under-utilized throughout. As the café’s owner, he often appears in the background of scenes, but really only has one scene with Cash and a poem, expertly recited, to shine. It’s hard to consider these faults of the production, but there gaps were certainly felt they could have filled.
One of the strongest, and subtlest, themes throughout A Girl Named Sue is generational divide, and the strength our ancestors hold over us. Sue’s mother, Mrs. Nguyen, is portrayed by the play’s author, Christine Hoang, in a version of the role which was expanded from the staged reading. I recall from the read through last October that many audience members wished to see an extension of Mrs. Nguyen’s role, particularly in regards to her late husband’s poetry (a key recurring topic of discussion for Sue), and the result was the play being bookended by Mrs. Nguyen and her husband’s poems. Sue speaks at length about the role of parents in a Vietnamese household, particularly about how one expresses familial love, and this is clearly depicted in Hoang who maintains an air of stern reliability throughout the production. Through her physicality and terse tone she depicts an individual who would do anything for her daughter, even if she appears cold. And I’ll always have respect for actors who can successfully communicate to an audience while speaking a different language (Vietnamese in this case). Sue’s discussion of the English and Vietnamese languages translating one another through her mother’s language brings the aforementioned generational divide front and center. Sue, Cash, and Talisa are all aware of how their differing races effect their relations with individuals of the same or different race, yet they often ponder on why they think the way they do. There’s this sense that the older generation, not through acts of malice but rather of uncertainty and unfortunate experiences, have influenced the younger generation more than they would like to admit. Thus, the oft-depicted past vs. present debate takes an untraditional turn by giving us insight into the characters’ thoughts as they struggle to simultaneously accept and rebuke their own hypocrisies.
Ultimately, what really struck me with A Girl Named Sue was how lighthearted it felt despite the subject matter. No one is ‘the bad guy,’ ‘wrong,’ or ‘the one who needs to see the error of their ways.’ There’s sincere friendship felt that rises above the negativity. It’s the depiction of a small group of people who acknowledge the confusion and hypocrisy that comes with being human, and how an artistic medium (poetry in this case) can act as a universal language for one another. All of the characters have loved and struggled differently in the past, yet what’s important is that they can know, recognize, and share those similar sensations. That’s what comes across in A Girl Named Sue, a mutual respect for our differences paired with an understanding of our innate similarities. Could it use some polishing? Certainly, but Christine Hoang’s new inclusion to world of theatre is welcome addition that I’m glad to have seen at its world premiere.
A Girl Named Sue by Color Arc Productions continues playing at the Trinity Street Theatre this Thursday-Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 5pm.