When I first saw Qui Nguyen’s Trial by Water: A Gook Story Part One – in a college workshop production at Ohio University in 2001 – what struck me most was how young the two brothers at the center of the play were. This was a play about cannibalism, post-war Vietnam and the slow-poisoning of a soul, and yet here was one brother – Hung Tran, 15, a boy charged to be an adult far too early – flashing a nudie photo to his antsy brother – Huy, 13 – to chill him out. It was something you might see on a TV sitcom, except the boys were sitting in the hull of a boat, crowded among threatening strangers in a muck of rotting fish guts. It was a coming-of-age story set on the edge of sanity, in which Hung’s loss of innocence would have earthquake intensity.
But the real shock came in 2006 when I talked to Qui in connection with a March-April production of “Trial by Water” at the Culture Project – the play is based on the experience of Qui’s cousin, the real-life Hung Tran, who, at age 10, made a harrowing crossing from Vietnam to the Philippines, on which 58 of the 110 passengers/cargo died, including Hung’s parents and older brother. Adrift for 37 days without food or water, the passengers and crew killed and ate each other. Hung survived by sleeping among the dead bodies in the boat’s hull. All this in 1988.
Many may have heard of the “boat people” of Indochina – the Vietnamese, Laotian and Cambodian victims of Cold War intervention in Southeast Asia who, for more than 20 years, turned to the ocean to deliver them from political reprisal, social turmoil and, sometimes, starvation to the promise of safety and opportunity in the United States, Australia, France and other countries. Maybe fewer would know (I didn’t) just how desperate conditions in Vietnam were after the Vietnam War, when the Communist Party of Vietnam brutalized ethnic minorities and perceived political enemies, and, in 1975, the U.S. imposed a crippling trade embargo. Existence could be so hopeless that hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese chose to pay exploitive fees for the chance to cram themselves and/or their families onto often-decrepit boats and risk starvation and pirates on the open ocean with nothing more than a little food and faith in the compassion of the international community (which usually came in the form of political asylum and relocation to a Western country after years of confinement in Hong Kong and Filipino refugee camps).
But history lessons are intellectual and, at best, emotionally once-removed. For Qui, writing “Trial by Water” was deeply personal, and was a coming-of-age story of its own. He was 13 – born and bred in Arkansas – when he sat across from his younger cousin eating a hamburger, not long after his family had brought Hung to America from the Philippines. Hung, a devout Buddhist, had always been a vegetarian.
“I thought, ‘Holy shit, you didn’t eat meat, and now you’re eating meat’ ” Qui says. “That kind’ve sprung the whole thing. You just do the math and realize that for him to survive the trip, he had to …”
And even at the age of 11, Hung looked beyond his sheer physical and emotional scars to what the experience might have done to his soul.
“It was little kid saying it to me – and I was a little kid at the time, too – but it stuck with me: ‘Everyone died.’ ” Qui says. “And since I was a little kid, I looked at him and said, ‘Well, you’re not dead.’ And it wasn’t until I was much older and working on the play that I realized there are no survivors.”
And that’s the real journey the play charts, a soul’s ordeal, a boy navigating through choices no one should ever have to make, at any age. Hung’s story – and Qui’s story about Hung’s story – brings home the fundamental consequence of mass population displacements, the refugee-making that always seems to accompany natural disasters and violent politics from the Balkans to East Africa to the Middle East, and even our own Katrina victims: what refugees leave behind is often much more than possessions, or even people.
“I always knew I wanted to write a play about a kid who lost his soul,” Qui says. “I can’t say I always knew that the play was going to be the way it is right now, but I knew that that was the thing I was exploring.”
This trial is by water, but it could just as easily be by plain, mountain or desert. It reminds us that refugee journeys – forced, foreign, dangerous – aren’t simply transition-points between two spots on the map, but can be lands of their own, where travelers of all ages and kinds are born into a new life, live, potentially die, and – in a thousand different ways, on earth or somewhere else – are re-born.
Trial by Water: A Gook Story Part One by Qui Nguyen, produced by Ma-Yi Theater Company in association with Queens Theatre in the Park and directed by John Gould Rubin, runs March 12 – April 9 at the Culture Project – 45 Below, 45 Bleecker Street (at the corner of Lafayette Ave.). Tickets: $18 – $38, at (212) 352-3101 or www.theatermania.com.
Justin Boyd is a playwright, screenwriter and co-editor of the Theater section of the Rail.