‘The landscape for minority voices is changing, and will continue to change with every story that is added to the global library.’
Summer Rolls is the first British Vietnamese play to be staged in the United Kingdom. The play is a sweeping family saga that examines the Nguyen family’s life in Britain.
There is no way of getting away from the complicated political history that comes with being Vietnamese. The story of the conflict in Vietnam has seeped into popular culture, films, music, literature, and history books. But very few have been able to express what it is like to be a child of that. To be brought up in another country, speaking a different language, with the weight of loss and anger hidden deep underneath layers of determination to survive.
I was not aware of these underlying currents before I became an actor and writer. Self-reflection in this way is a luxury few immigrants are afforded. Now, over 40 years after Vietnamese refugees settled in Britain, I have that privilege and from that Summer Rolls was born.
It will be the first British Vietnamese story on the UK stage, and the next play to join the recent list of East Asian-led stories that have exploded onto the theatre scene.
When I started writing this play over seven years ago, I didn’t imagine I would be the first. I just wanted to write something from the heart and something I recognised. As an actor I didn’t see anything that represented my own experience, and writing was my solution. It has been a long and difficult journey, fraught with rejections, self-doubt, and fear. But it has also been a journey full of learning, overcoming the voices in my head, and facing up to the questions of identity and longing that fuelled my writing.
At the time, I was one of only a handful of British Vietnamese actors working in the theatre. It took me a long time to realise that I had a right to be there, just as much as my white and even East Asian counterparts.
In the British context, our specificity can feel like it’s being erased in a wash of being generic East Asian. One thing that has kept me going was the burning desire to be seen and be heard. My acting training taught me to express my full self in a space without consequences. It also forced me to look deeply at myself, and that included the Vietnamese part of me I tried so hard to dismiss growing up. In the years that passed, I found that this was what made my voice unique, and a source of my power as an artist.
Summer Rolls carves a space for Vietnamese creatives present and future. We have our own distinctive voice and way of looking at the world, and that is reflected in our art. It is very difficult as a minority to see how powerful this can be when the overwhelming majority shuts the door on you. This play has only been made possible by the immense team behind it, predominantly made up of women of colour. This is not by chance, but by necessity as only they recognised the power of this story. It is also them that is making the play into a beautiful piece of theatre.
One of the largest challenges I’ve faced is the feeling of responsibility that comes with bringing the first British Vietnamese experience onto the stage. The play is a family drama about a family living in Britain over twenty years. It follows the youngest daughter’s journey as she navigates her dual identity, and is a story of love, survival, intergenerational trauma, and the burden of secrets. It is one story, from one perspective, which happens to be my story. My primary hope is that it will inspire many more in response. I am excited by the play’s potential to touch, and illuminate.
The landscape for minority voices is changing, and will continue to change with every story that is added to the global library. I don’t think it will ever be easy, and the challenges we face now will still be there way into the future. But I really feel that with more people braving the unknown, the community consciousness will be raised and the voices out there supported.
My name is Tuyen Do. And I am a British Vietnamese actor and writer.
VanThanh Productions in association with Park Theatre presents the World Premiere of Summer Rolls from June 19 – July 13 – details and bookings: https://www.parktheatre.co.uk/whats-on/summer-rolls
VanThanh have organised three special post-show discussions with more details here: https://www.parktheatre.co.uk/whats-on/summer-rolls/extras
VanThanh has collaborated with BEATS with a special ticket price of £10 for the performance, meeting the creatives and post-show discussion on Tuesday July 9th. Find out more about the offer with BEATS: http://wearebeats.org.uk