Tuyet Thi Pham reclaims her family origin story in ‘Motherland’ at Atlas

Her mother and father came from Viet Nam to America in 1975 as refugees. "Our own truth is tied to our parents," she says.

What can be discovered if we find the time and ability to have a conversation with our parents about the time before we existed? Think of what we might learn. Think of the unremembered or misremembered pieces of our own selves that become clearer.

And now even more so, with the unprecedented number of over 550,000 deaths in the United States from COVID-19 in the past year. With all the heartbreak that accompanies the loss of a loved one and friends; with a heavy heart, thinking it too late to ask the vital questions that had been stored away…unasked…we wonder.

Tuyet Thi Pham. Photo by Jennifer Knight.

Those thoughts came to mind over the past weeks and months in my conversations with DC-area performing artists Tuyet Thi Pham and Jennifer Knight. I was enthralled to learn about a short video entitled Motherland they were developing for an upcoming premiere at the Atlas Performing Arts Center “Movement on Air” event, scheduled to stream the evening of April 23, 2021.

Motherland is the distillation of hours of conversations that Tuyet conducted with her mother and father in 2017 as “an heirloom” for their grandchildren. (Her mother passed away at the age of 87 in 2019.) These were conversations and parental memories in which Tuyet learned about the “time before,” when her mother and father lived in Viet Nam. And about the days after 1975 when the family left Viet Nam as refugees to come to America. They lived in Nebraska: that was where their family resettlement sponsor lived.

Tuyet also calls Motherland an “origin story”: learning that “our own truth is tied to our parents.” Tuyet and Jennifer worked together to distill the many hours of Tuyet’s taped conversations to produce and perform Motherland. Tuyet performs the role of her mother; Jennifer, that of a questioning daughter.

”I hope the piece inspires people to finally have the conversation they always wanted with the people they wanted to. By knowing our parents’ story we come to a better understanding of who we are, by living our own version of their story,” noted Tuyet. And there is this from Jennifer: “If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we have no certainties. We must seize the moment now, if we can, if we are lucky.”

As for deciding to have the conversations with her parents, Tuyet mentioned that in a relationship there is “a small window when parents and children may be ready to have a conversation, a conversation for reconciliation or resolution that is not easy to navigate.” She asked out loud, “What do you ask your parents in such a vulnerable moment?”

Motherland illustrates a series of questions she asked, such as “What was your life like in Viet Nam?” “What are your fondest memories?” And one moment left me near tears when Mother (as portrayed by Tuyet) said, “Don’t judge me,” just before responding to a question from the daughter (Jennifer).

Jennifer Knight. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Jennifer added that she “felt honored and delighted” to be part of this Motherland project. “Having recently been involved in documenting my own grandmother’s life, I thought it was a lovely coincidence when Tuyet told me she was hoping to utilize family interviews of her mother, and we both had a desire to preserve the stories of our parents and ancestors. (Jennifer’s grandmother and family left China for Taiwan in the late 1940s. Her grandmother is now over 100 years of age).

As our conversations continued, Tuyet and Jennifer wove together stories further exploring immigrants and refugees being displaced by war and moving to new worlds. Tuyet spoke of wanting to preserve her mother’s “accomplishments” and to provide “insights into who we are as Asian women in America with the push and pull of assimilation. The bleak stereotypes of Asian women even as we have endured. We didn’t come to America and find our voice; we didn’t need America to blossom.”

From an early viewing, Motherland is an utterly moving, deeply personal, well-packed nine minutes. The video includes archival and personal pictures along with sounds and voices that add to its staying power.

The video was commissioned by Paul Gordon Emerson, artistic and executive director of Company | E. “I asked Tuyet to be a part of this because I wanted artists who are fearless — unafraid to look their truths in the eye and willing to share what they saw with an audience — to give us the chance to share in, and learn from, them,” Emerson said.

“The fact that she has chosen this path, to speak her mother’s words, to step into her life and to share it in this way, is incredibly bold and inspiring,” Emerson added. “And equally for audiences to have a chance to share them and, if we do our job, come out perhaps just a bit changed by them.”

“I would love for there to be a realization that, for many refugees and immigrants, though we have attained a life here in our country, become citizens, raised families, tasted success and prosperity, there will always be another place that lives within us, a place dense with shadows and longings, perhaps it is a place we once called home,” said Jennifer. “I hope that this inspires families to talk to one another, to keep their stories vibrant and alive, and for people to learn about the origins and homelands of their ancestors.

“We have to tread carefully when probing into these experiences,” Jennifer added. “Every question is charged with the knowledge that, perhaps, we won’t get answers we want, simply because the memories are too painful to acknowledge.”

Let this be your introduction to Motherland. It is joy and humor, pain and love. It is about a life full of resilience. As our conversation concluded, Tuyet’s words remained with me: “I hope the piece inspires people to finally have the conversation they always wanted with the people they wanted.”

Motherland will be shown at the Atlas Performing Arts Center “Movement On Air,” an evening of movement and dance scheduled for April 23, 2021. The video is performed by Tuyet Thi Pham and Jennifer Knight. Tickets, which are free, are available online.

The Motherland program also includes Amikaeyla; Company | E with Robert J. Priore;
Howard University Department of Theatre Arts, performing the work of Royce Zackery;
Movement Theater of Tbilisi, Georgia; and Boris Willis.

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David Siegel is a freelance theater reviewer and features writer whose work appears on DC Metro Theater Arts, ShowBiz Radio, in the Connection Newspapers and the Fairfax Times. He is a judge in the Helen Hayes Awards program. He is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and volunteers with the Arts Council of Fairfax County. David has been associated with theater in the Washington, DC area for nearly 30 years. He served as Board President, American Showcase Theater Company (now Metro Stage) and later with the American Century Theater as both a member of the Executive Board and as Marketing Director. You can follow David's musings on Twitter @pettynibbler.

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