My Own Story—An Interview with Performance Artist Alex Luu

diaCRITICS is pleased to feature the following profile and interview with Alex Luu, a Chinese/Vietnamese who left Viet Nam during April 1975. Today he is a critically acclaimed L.A.-based solo performance artist, workshop facilitator/teacher, and independent filmmaker who graduated from UCLA’s School of Film/Television. Luu has been performing nationally since 1989 and facilitating/teaching the MY OWN STORY (MOS) workshop since 1997. Luu’s autobiographical “performance theater” work addresses themes such as identity, racism, body image/politics, family dynamics and the overall under-representation of people of color (especially Asian American males) in mainstream media & culture. Here Margaret Rhee describes her own experiences with MOS and offers insight into Luu’s motivations.

Luu performs Thursday March 15 and Friday March 16 at Subterranean Arthouse in Berkeley, CA, with an artist’s talk Friday March 16 at UC Berkeley. Details follow the interview.

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Alex Luu's 'Three Lives'

In 2003, as an undergraduate at the University of Southern California, I had the opportunity to participate in My Own Story (MOS), a workshop for Asian American students led by performance artist Alex Luu.  My Own Story was an intensive eight weeks of writing exercises, theatre blocking, and Theatre of the Oppressed praxis, which by the end of the process, participants are transformed.  By the end, Asian American students who felt they could never write, perform, or share, or even had a story, did—it was a beginning for many.  An acclaimed performance artist, Luu’s one-man show “Three Lives” is a raw & compelling inter-generational story of diaspora from Vietnam to America.  A multi-layered portrait of war, dislocation, and redemption that is at once comical and heartrendingly poignant.  As a facilitator he supports participants to dig deep within themselves and share humanizing stories they never knew they had and perhaps were always scared to tell.

With Alex’s vital encouragement, my first performance piece through MOS was about my Father, who at the time was ill in the hospital.  While seemingly stereotypically stoic and oftentimes distant, my Korean American immigrant Father always encouraged my childhood interests in theatre, performance, and art. My parents were divorced, so growing up the rare and beautiful moments we spent one-on-one happened around my performances in school plays.  While seemingly ironic for a “typical” Korean American immigrant father, it was through theatre I could always count on him.  My Father never missed a show.

MOS was the first time I wrote my own performance piece and wrote about my Father.  Through the process of working with Alex and hearing other participants’ stories, I realized how often Asian American stories of happiness, trauma, and pain, are obscured and silenced.  It was through Alex I first learned about the Vietnamese refugee experience through his moving and powerful story about his father and grandfather’s refugee experience, as well as his own.  It was only with Alex’s support that I was able to write and perform my own piece, an important process as my father drifted into a coma during the beginning of the workshop process.  How to begin to mourn?  It was on the eve of our final performance at USC when my father passed away.  And in a small way, I believe he stayed, just until the very end of the show’s run.

I experienced firsthand the transformative nature of Alex’s work.  As an artist, he shares his own experience of the Vietnamese Diaspora while giving the tremendous gift for others to claim their own stories.  Something Asian Americans often never have the chance to do.  Luu has been performing & facilitating/teaching the MY OWN STORY (MOS) workshop nationally since 1989.  Currently he is a visiting guest artist lecturer at the University of California, Davis. Addressing themes of identity, racism, body image/politics and family dynamics, Luu’s performance works have been seen at Highways Performance Space, UC Davis Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts, and this week, The Subterrarean Art House in Berkeley, California.

It’s been eight years since I first worked with Alex as an undergraduate, and I’m thrilled to see him perform in Berkeley where I am currently a doctoral candidate specializing in Asian American Studies.  Additionally, Alex will be performing and conducting a special guest talk/workshop at UC Berkeley this week as well.  We are currently collaborating on an anthology of My Own Story performance piece.  I’m honored for the opportunity to incorporate the MOS stage performances to the printed page—enriching the fabric of what we know as our Asian American lives.  Returning to MOS now reminds me once again, how important our stories are, how human our stories are.

Below is a short portion of an email interview exchange with Alex.  He wrote between his travels from UC Davis to Berkeley, and back to Los Angeles where Alex is based.

For those are not familiar, what is MY OWN STORY?

MY OWN STORY (MOS) is an autobiographical writing/storytelling/performing workshop/course for People/Students of Color that I have taught/facilitated for almost 16 years now. In a nutshell, MOS allows participants/students to come into a safe/creative space that I create, a safe/creative space wherein they can be completely themselves and dig deep, really deep beyond the surface and unearth, explore, discover (re-discover) autobiographical life stories. These are stories that are to a great degree, misrepresented/stereotyped, and often forgotten by mainstream media/culture.

Where have you taught it? How is the experience transformative to students? To you?

I have taught it at theaters, arts organizations, college/high school campuses. Most recently I have taught it at UC Davis, Berklee College of Music (Boston), and for the Ford Theatre Foundation. The experience is completely transformative in that it really allows participants to really tell their own stories on their own terms. It’s also transformative because it is a thoroughly organic process/journey–participants go into the course/workshop looking at certain things one way and gradually, become more and more open to recognizing that they DO have powerful, hilarious, poignant, triumphant, painful stories. By looking at these stories head-on, participants always end up empowering themselves AND go through healing.

It’s transformative for me every time I teach/facilitate MOS because with each group, I myself learn beautiful, tender, difficult stories and I am literally a much more enriched human being after each MOS group.

Can you tell us about THREE LIVES?

THREE LIVES is my full-length autobiographical one-man show that I’ve been performing since ’97. It had its debut that year at LACE in Los Angeles and ever since then I’ve been touring it on and off in different parts of the country. THREE LIVES is a kinetic roller coaster ride that combines performance art, theater, raw/intense physical movement, poetry, and monologue in telling the multi-generational (spanning 4 decades) of my Chinese/Vietnamese’s journey from war-torn Vietnam to America. It deals with dislocation of home, the violent cycles of war (on the battlefield and home), racism, identity, and ageism. It is also a comical & heart wrenching (and heartrending) portrait of the men in my family as they have dealt with the American Dream/Nightmare.

What was your process in writing it?

Since “Three Lives” is completely autobiographical, it can be said that I had basically “lived” with my story for many many years… The writing process was really lightning in a bottle. When I sat down to finally write it, it literally took me no more than 4 and a half days/3 nights! I’ll never forge that experience/process. It shocked me how quick everything came out. By the time I sat down to write the show, my body, thoughts, emotions were completely filled with all the memories/images/sensations/voices/stories of each and every character that it was quite effortless. I literally sat down at my desk and kept on writing and writing and writing… no real breaks, except to go to the bathrooms and eating. Everything just poured out of me, it was a cathartic experience and also bittersweet because I weeped a lot during parts of the writing process.

How was it healing?

It was healing because for the first time really, I was able to channel all of the wonderful (and extremely PAINFUL) stories and memories of me and my family, the most visceral being my relationship with my grandfather, who actually passed during the week that I wrote the show. When he passed, it gave the show even more specificity, focus, and power. I was already giving my grandpa a voice….his voice, because he never had one when he came to the US. It was also healing because I finally had to face some of the ghosts from my past, some ghosts from Vietnam ever since I left in ’75.

Do you find art as healing to the refugee experience?

Absolutely. Definitely for me, because art is the medium that gives me carte blanche to wrestle some of the ghosts/demons of my past, re-look at them face-to-face (sort to speak) and give these themes and experiences their due, even if some of these experiences and memories are negative.

What is significant about Vietnamese Diaspora?

In my opinion, it’s significant because it says so much about colonialism and the uprooting of culture. It is also significant because for better or worse, it is inextricably linked to Europe and America and how that link has affected and transformed so many lives and experiences.

How is it like teaching and performing in the Bay Area? Boston? LA?

Teaching & performing in the Bay Area, well, at least performing, is always exciting. I performed here years ago back in the late 90’s and the overall audience was completely receptive. As for Boston, it’s really become a second home to me, because I’ve spent the most time there performing/teaching there. The experiences I’ve had in Boston have also been interesting and unique because for the most part (and I’m speaking here dating back to late 90’s) there was no real strong presence in the Asian American performance art scene. I remember when I first had “Three Lives” debut there in ’99, so many folks (Asian and non-Asian) came up to me after the shows and thanked me because they said there was nothing like my work in that area around that time… Performing/teaching in LA is somewhat challenging, mainly because there is a lack of space, physical space to do the workshops. So actually, whenever funding/sponsorship comes through for a MOS workshop, I am always quite surprised!!

Who are your mentors?

Definitely Dan Kwong. Without the intensive training I’ve received under Dan, I would not be here doing the work that I am and have been doing since 1989. Other individuals that I have learned from are Shishir Kurup, Nobuko Miyamoto, Luis Alfaro, Rachel Rosenthal, and indirectly Augusto Boal.

Why Theatre of the Oppressed?

Because that is, in my humble opinion, one of the most seminal and real and all-inclusive forms of art/performance/theater. The philosophy and discipline of Theatre of the Oppressed, when I first learned of it and trained in (years ago) spoke to me because it actually gave me the challenge and ultimate reward/empowerment to tell my OWN stories on MY OWN terms. Theatre of the Oppressed also deals specifically with art that not only entertains, but also has as its foundation the tenets/dynamics of healing, liberation, and empowerment, especially for the disenfranchised/marginalized communities.

Alex Luu performs “Three Lives” on Thursday March 15 & Friday 16 at the Subterranean ArtHouse at Berkeley.  Special opening act by Loa Niumeitolu. For more info/ticket purchase, go here.

On Friday, March 16th, 1-2pm, Luu also gives an artist’s talk & mini-workshop in the Barbara Christian Conference Room, Barrows 554, on UC Berkeley campus. It’s free and open to the public.

Margaret Rhee is the author of Yellow (Tinfish Press), co-editor of Here is a Pen: An Anthology of West Coast Kundiman Poets (Achiote Press), and managing editor of Mixed Blood, a literary journal on race and experimental poetics. Currently, she is a doctoral candidate at UC Berkeley in Ethnic and New Media Studies. Her academic articles have been published in Amerasia JournalSexuality Research and Social Policy, and the anthology, Feminist Cyberspaces: Pedagogies in Transition. As a new media artist and digital educator, she is conceptualist and co-lead on From the Center, a feminist participatory HIV/AIDS digital storytelling project for women of color incarcerated in the San Francisco Jail. Please visit  Her second poetry chapbook, The School of Dreams is forthcoming.

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