Review: Vân-Ánh Võ’s ‘The Odyssey: From Vietnam to America’ at The Kennedy Center

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Vân-Ánh Võ’s The Odyssey: from Vietnam to America conjures, to a Western audience, images of Odysseus, returning from victory at Troy, being punished by the gods, losing his army, his loot, his victory.

Vân-Ánh Võ plays traditional Vietnamese instruments.
Vân-Ánh Võ plays traditional Vietnamese instruments. Photo courtesy of The Kennedy Center.

Võ’s multimedia Odyssey, however, is a voyage wholly other.

In 1975, the Vietnam War ended; America and her allies were defeated. Vietnam was now unified, but it had been decimated by millions of tons of bombs, napalm, and Agent Orange. Additionally, the United States put crippling sanctions on the country.

A humanitarian crisis struck, particularly in 1978 after Vietnam invaded Cambodia ousting the genocidal Khmer Rouge, but causing Cambodia’s ally, China, to invade Vietnam and the US to increase its economic sanctions.

An estimated 1.2 million Vietnamese fled the country by boat between 1978-79; another million plus fled by other means.

Võ’s The Odyssey, performed by the VA’V, gives shape to that exodus, focusing specifically on the “boat people”, those who ventured into treacherous waters in overcrowded small ships to face storms and pirates. An estimated 500,000 boat people died at sea.

Divided into 5 movements, Võ’s piece takes us from the ancient city of Saigon to Little Saigon(s), any of the numerous ethnic enclaves that now dot the American landscape.

She begins in her Nước (country), during and immediately after the 20-year war ended.

The Odyssey begins in intense pain and suffering and anger.

Percussionist Jimi Nakagawa plays the taiko drums like he was on the battlefield, with his rhythmic arms raised above his head and pounding the earth with eternal life.

Alex Kelly’s cello is equally visual, with the intricate movement of his bow bewitching the audience as much as his melodic rhythms.

Dan Cantrell adds accordion and vocals, as well as a piano (it must have been tiny) and a musical saw (yes, the sounds this quartet produced were eclectically riveting. Whenever his accordion joins the mix, feelings of joy erupt.

Of course, Vân-Ánh Võ and her vast assortment of traditional Vietnamese instruments dominated the show, as she moves graceful from the đàn Bâu (monochord), to the đàn Tranh (the zither), to the đàn T’rung (bamboo xylophone), to her voice.

Ms. Võ’s combination of a fiercely passionate musicianship with a delicate, even tender touch of finger to string, makes a compelling experience.
The Odyssey incorporates a few live testimonials with recorded voice and video, which helps to put “faces” on the boat people, if not their suffering. Ian Winters created the visual design.

Philip Blackburn created an electronic environment for the production.

To be sure, this story needs to be told.

We are a world in turmoil, awash in the suffering generated by war, during and after, with millions of people fleeing violence in the Middle East, in Mexico and Central America, in Africa. Vân-Ánh Võ’s music adds a beautiful, engaging voice to that all too prevalent 21st century phenomena.

What is most ironic about Võ’s The Odyssey, however, comes not from the music, but from the visuals: in movement five, Little Saigon is depicted through sounds and images of immigrants rebuilding their lives by singing “cheesy” Las Vegas style nightclub songs.

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Photo courtesy of The Kennedy Center.

When experienced in contrast to the intense pain of their journey, and the deep richness of the music of VA’V itself, I was a wash in sadness for their cultural loss.

That feeling of loss carried over after the intermission when the VA’V performed six compositions and an encore, all beautifully arranged. From Vân-Ánh Võ performing solo a northern traditional opera, Luyên Năn Cung, to the VA’V captivating rendition of Porgy and Bess’s “Summertime,” the wonderful synthesis of styles and traditions was a musical feast.

Included in the feast were two commissioned works, Osam Ezzeldin’s Day Dream and Matthew J Fountain’s The Cycle.

Running Time: 2 hours, with an intermission.

Vân-Ánh Võ’s The Odyssey: from Vietnam to America played March 11 and 12, 2016 at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater – 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For information about future events, call the box office at (202) 467-4600, or (800) 444-1324, or go to their calendar of events.

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Robert Michael Oliver
Poet, Performer, Theatre Artist, Playwright, Educator, Writer--Robert Michael Oliver, Ph.D., has been involved in the DC arts scene since the 1980s, when he co-founded The Sanctuary Theatre in the old sanctuary of Calvary United Methodist Church. Since those fierce days in Columbia Heights, he has earned his doctorate in theatre from University of Maryland, raised two wonderful children, and seen more theatre as a reviewer over the last two years than he saw in the previous thirty. He now co-directs, along with his wife Elizabeth Bruce, the Sanctuary's Performing Knowledge Project, which organizes a host of writing and performance workshops, plus Mementos: Poetry and Performance for Seniors, a yearly literature-in-performance Fringe Festival show, as well as Performetry--a monthly poetry and prose performance event at DC's community arts & culture center BloomBars.