Playwright Tuyết Thị Phạm wants you to have more awkward conversations

Published 9/1/2022 6:00 a.m. EDT, Updated 9/6/2022 3:53 p.m. EDT

Tuyet Thi Pham will star in the first play she wrote, Dinner and Cake, at Everyman theater.
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On Sept. 6, “Dinner and Cake” will have its world premiere at Everyman Theatre. This original piece tackles race, politics and all the conversations that can be awkward but necessary. The playwright, Tuyết Thị Phạm, is primarily an actor. Born in Vietnam during the Vietnam War, she speaks about the value of frank and honest political conversations.

This is the first play Pham has written, although she has performed professionally in the D.C., Maryland and Virginia area for over 20 years. She will also perform in the play as Mrs. Trần . During the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Pham felt pulled to write since she was not performing. This artistic pivot has opened her up to more writing opportunities, and she has other plays she’s workshopping now. Here she talks with arts and culture reporter Imani Spence.

Imani Spence: Growing up you wrote plays for fun, and I’m curious what this process is like, you as the playwright, to bring this to life, as a world premiere at Everyman.

Tuyết Thị Phạm: Oh, wow. That’s a big one. I was not a playwright. I was an actor. I was a league gymnast for a long time, and so the idea of performance was probably more comfortable, because it rested in my body as a kid. I was a middle-class actor, so I saw no reason to really change that, but I think a lot of people would agree with me when I say that the pandemic was an opportunity to course-correct. I think I was really comfortable being a conduit of telling other people’s stories. I did regional theater and stage and screen, and I know the process. I’ve workshopped a lot of plays. I’ve been a part of a lot of those processes, and I even proctored plays, but “Dinner and Cake” is the very first play I’ve ever written.

How long did it take you to write this play?

Truth be said, it was probably sitting in the back of my head somewhere for years and years and years. But in March of 2020, when everything shut down in the middle of March, I lost all my gigs. I think everybody in the arts kind of has the same story about that, but about three weeks of just eating nachos — I got tired of that. I sat down with my laptop and then started writing. I finished it in about two-and-a-half weeks.

Wow. Wow. Wow. Wow.

Yeah. It’s amazing. If you are a creative person, you just have to create and do things, right? I think I occupied myself with playwriting because I was isolated and I needed an outlet, so I did that. Paige Hernandez [director] has a huge role to play in this, because she’s a very dear friend of mine. We started acting together as kids [chuckles]. We started in D.C. theater together.

When you say y’all started off as kids, I’m assuming not actual children. Just young people?

No, after graduation and whatnot, we started acting together as young actors in D.C. [in 2003]. I was born in Vũng Tàu, Việt Nam. I was born during the war, and I know that kind of lets you know that it wasn’t that long ago.

No, not at all.

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My family was Catholic and so we were sponsored by the Catholic church and my father fought for the south, and so we were granted political asylum and came to the United States. Our sponsors just happened to be in Nebraska, so I grew up in Nebraska. In Omaha, Nebraska. I moved to Washington, D.C., on September 1st, 2001.

What a time to move to D.C., right before 9/11!

First time at work on Monday, September 10, and I moved out because I got the artistic fellowship at Arena Stage, the Allen Lee Hughes fellowship there at Arena Stage. Some of the folks at Living Stage Theatre Company saw me because I did a workshop at the festival, and they saw me and they’re like, ‘Well, you should apply for the fellowship.’ I did it, as any child does when they’re finishing one school program to the next. You just fill out everything, and after my master’s I was really tired of writing papers.

Yeah. What’s your master’s in?

My master’s is in literature with an emphasis on dramatic lit. I had already started applying for Ph.D.s and I think the fellowship was really a break. I wanted a break from school, because I graduated from high school when I was 16. I was a part of the Living Stage TheatreCompany. It kind of was a perfect blend of politics and art. It was really based on pedagogy of the oppressed. A lot of that kind of image theater, invisible theater and intended for social change. I’ve always kind of been politically and socially aware of the injustices and bits like that.

Yeah. It’s interesting too, because obviously you being born in the middle of a war, you’re seeking political asylum. That’s quite literally an ethic towards understanding the value of peace, the value also of war, what you lose. I’m interested in how you found the more creative side of acting before you found the more literary side of playwriting.

Well, I think I just never saw myself as a writer. It was really strange because it’s what I did. It’s just what I did in school and everything. I think a lot of it had to do with that, in some ways I have always been the performer. I joke that there are three things — you won’t really know a person until you talk about race, religion and politics. If you don’t know their worldview on those three things, you don’t know them. You’re just being polite. So I wrote a play about all three.

That’s what I’m really interested in too, because I agree. I find it to be theater and plays that really allow us to open those small doors into having those conversations, when they’re very unnatural in social situations.

There are two things I adore. Gateways into understanding, and then the awkward conversation that follows. I hope, if it is a gateway or if it is a door opening, it’s us having the conversation of, ‘Okay, so we know we all did some shit, and we all know that some shit’s really unforgivable. We’re going to need to coexist because we need each other as a community, so how do we move forward and how do we come to the table with love?’ I think that’s the really hard part. Coming to the table with love. Meeting people where they are, because I know as a BIPOC that sometimes it seems like you’re meeting people where they are, and they’re not budging.

Tell me a bit about your play, “Dinner and Cake.”

The two older couples, the Trầns, who are the mother and father of the bride. And then there are the Drummings who are the mother and father of the groom. Whatever the politics is, right, it really does start to infiltrate the personal.

Are they the same race?

No, no. The Drummings are white, and the Trầns are obviously Vietnamese, so the daughter is a Vietnamese nationalist, and the son is an American citizen. I play ...Mrs. Trần , so that you understand what I’m talking about.

What is it like to watch other actors perform your work as an actor?

Well, I’ve never done it before, and I think one-person plays or whatnot that the author wrote for themselves is one thing. I wrote a play for other people. It has been fascinating in the sense that people are pulling things from the play that I either did on a very subconscious level, or I didn’t see when I wrote it. They bring in their own ghosts to the play, their own baggage they carry. All the spirits they have to manage. Yeah, so it’s definitely interesting.

I want to ask one last kind of a cheesy question, but do you have any advice for young actors or playwrights?

Work hard, be nice, be on time. Especially if you want to go into film, because of everyone on set, you are the most replaceable. I think there’s something that artists do that they think they’re somehow particularly different or behave differently, and the job is different. Don’t get me wrong. We don’t do nine-to-fives and things like that, but the idea that somehow, we aren’t a part of the collective or that we somehow are above it or anything like that is really strange to me. My family’s in education and medicine, and how dare I think I was more important?

Tickets to “Dinner and Cake” are available now from Everyman Theatre.

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