THE FIRST TIME I SPOKE VIETNAMESE ON STAGE // BY DAVID HUYNH
Every night during our production of The Trial of the Catonsville Nine, I got to look into Eunice Wong’s eyes and say:
“Tất cả mọi người đều sinh ra có quyền bình đẳng. Tạo hóa cho họ những quyền không ai có thể xâm phạm được; trong những quyền ấy, có quyền được sống, quyền tự do và quyền mưu cầu hạnh phúc.”
The first language I learned and the only one my parents care to communicate to me with.
So much so that I started my schooling unable to speak English at a level comparable to the other five-year-olds in my class. I had to take ESL (English as a Second Language) classes so I didn’t fall behind more than I already did.
I remember how awkward English felt in my mouth, how my body tensed when I made a mistake, and how my classmates mocked me.
I was five-years-old and ashamed of this gift my family gave me.
It’s December 2018.
We have started rehearsing The Trial of the Catonsville Nine without a script. Daniel Berrigan, a Jesuit priest who became the most recognizable of the Nine, created one before he went into hiding, but our director Jack Cummings is adapting a new one specifically for our cast of three Asian-American actors. For now, our script is elusive; hidden in a mountain of court documents, biographies, opinion pieces, and LIFE magazines we’ve assembled to stitch together the Nine’s story.
For anyone unfamiliar, these legendary nine were people who, on May 17th 1968, raided an office of the Selective Service System in Catonsville, Maryland and with homemade napalm, burned 378 draft records as a nonviolent protest against the Vietnam War (and subsequently served lengthy prison terms as a result). A record of that day lives on through archival footage: they stand in a circle around the burning draft records while reciting the Lord’s Prayer.
I find something in Vietnamese and share it with the room. It makes it into the script. Soon, with Mia Katigbak translating, I get to look into Eunice Wong’s eyes and say:
“All men are created equal; they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights; among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
It’s the first time I’ve ever spoken Vietnamese onstage. It comes as easily as breathing.
I feel the audience lean in when I start, but then I feel them stall when I reveal where the quote is from: Ho Chi Minh’s “Proclamation of Independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam,” dated 1945.
11 years before the American government officially became involved in the Vietnam War.
I wonder if anyone heard the plea in his riff on our Declaration of Independence.
I wonder where we’d be if we had listened.
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