The first time I had chicken salad, I was a teenager and it was at a restaurant. I wanted something light, so I ordered what I assumed would be a healthy option: a chicken salad sandwich. The name suggested chicken encased in lettuce surrounded by bread. When the chicken salad actually came, I was revolted: a goopy white concoction of mayonnaise, chicken, and…was that celery? “How is it you’ve never had chicken salad before?” my friends asked.
Questions like this have followed me throughout my life: How is it you’ve never seen an Alfred Hitchcock film? Never watched Nickelodeon? Never read Chekhov?
Because I’m an immigrant. As a kid who moved here from Vietnam when I was 2, who spoke a different language at home than I did at school, my frame of reference has never been the same as my friends. Instead of eating fish sticks for dinner, we had pork and egg braised in sweetened fish sauce. Instead of watching MTV, I watched “Paris by Night,” a Vietnamese-language variety show. When a friend asked if I had seen a certain mainstream film or TV show, I would fake knowledge, or feel ashamed, or—grimacing—eat the chicken salad sandwich. It was as if I was tacitly being told: This is what you need to do to be “normal,” to be “American.” American chicken salad was normal, phở was not (until some white hipster says so).
The first time I saw myself and my experience reflected onstage was in 2015. It was at a reading of a new play, Vietgone by Qui Nguyen. Seeing the Vietnamese characters criticize fried American food, or not quite understand what white Americans were telling them, I felt seen—it was as if my personal story, and the story of my family, mattered. It also made me realize that white Americans feel this way all the time! They don’t have to pretend to understand something, or transplant themselves into another person’s body. They can just exist in the theatrical space, unencumbered, as themselves. I longed for that. I still do.
As the musical Hamilton made clear: “Immigrants, we get the job done.” We built the railroads, picked the produce, and worked in the factories. But you’d be hard pressed to find much evidence of that on America’s mainstages, where the white upper middle class and its anxieties still reign supreme.
As you peruse the May/June issue of American Theatre, themed “Stage Migrations,” you may notice signs of a change. As Misha Berson writes in her critic’s notebook, there is a wave of plays about the first-generation immigrant experience, including Vietgone and Mfoniso Udofia’s “Ufot” Cycle. Immigrants and refugees are taking an active part in the telling of our own stories, as told in stories by Simi Horwitz and Theresa J. Beckhusen. Those who cross the borders into America are usually met with indifference or hate, made to feel like parasites, told their stories don’t matter. What these articles show is that for immigrants and refugees, “seeing their experiences reflected and hearing their language onstage is affirming.” I know what they mean.
As Jose Solís, who is from Honduras, notes in his story about theatre artists who are undocumented, the presence of immigrants onstage also poses the question: “What is it to be American?” From its inception, America has been a constant experiment in multiculturalism, of different people learning to live beside each other, and the conflict and growth that arises from that proximity. An American theatre that doesn’t showcase that history—that tells certain groups that their stories aren’t worth telling—is an American theatre for the very few.
Sure, there’s always room in the American theatre for the chicken salad of storytelling. But let’s make room on the table for tamales, kibbeh, curry, and phở too. Trust me, it will make for a more delicious meal.