In 2017, Susan Lieu was sitting in a solo performance class in Seattle. The instructor asked everyone in the room to tell a five-minute story. When it was Lieu’s turn, she began hers by saying, “I want to avenge my mother’s death.” Lieu’s mother had died when Lieu was 11; her mom had gone to a plastic surgeon for a tummy tuck, among other procedures, and had died on the table after losing oxygen to her brain. The doctor had waited 14 minutes before calling 911.
The loss has haunted Lieu ever since. “I just wondered about the man that killed my mom—how did he get away with it?” she says. “How did he never give us money? How do people like him just continue to exist?” That event, and Lieu’s journey to gain closure after her mother’s death, grew into the basis for her solo show 140 LBS: How Beauty Killed My Mother, directed by Seattle artist Sara Porkalob, a local celebrity.
Lieu first performed 140 LBS earlier this year in Seattle, and is now taking it on a 10-city tour around the country. When we spoke, Lieu had just finished the first two cities on her tour: New York City, as part of the New York International Fringe Festival, and San Francisco, where she performed in a funeral home. On the day we spoke by phone, she was heading to her OB-GYN for a 19-week ultrasound.
Yes, you read that right—Lieu is traveling the country performing while pregnant. “It’s definitely living on the edge,” she says with glee. Despite her visible baby bump, Lieu seems to have endless amounts of energy. After I saw 140 LBS in New York, I met Lieu immediately after her performance for coffee, and she regaled me with stories about going mountain climbing with her husband. So risk taking isn’t new to her. As this article goes up, Lieu is performing in Washington, D.C., at Joe’s Movement Emporium and will next head to Chicago’s Den Theatre. The tour ends in Pittsburgh, after which Lieu will bring the show back home to Seattle’s A Contemporary Theatre for a Feb. 6-16 run, as part of the theatre’s inaugural Solo Fest.
In fact, it was Lieu’s anxiety about becoming a mother that gave her the kick she needed to start performing again—something she had dabbled in but put away in favor of business school and a Yale MBA. “I had a lot of anxiety not having a mom and being a good mom,” she recalls. “After getting married I just felt like a coward. How can I raise children and have this belief that they can do what they want in life, if now, based on the sacrifices of my refugee parents, we’re able to come here and we can pursue our own dream but I’m not—I’m not really pursuing my dream?”
Lieu hadn’t intended to dramatize her own family’s traumatic history. But from the first time she told her story in that solo performance class, Lieu realized that she was scared of telling it in its complicated entirety, especially because her own family refused to talk about it. “If I’m scared there’s something interesting here,” she remarks.
In 140 LBS, Lieu talks about the doctor who killed her mother—she tracked him down, only to learn that he had died—but also the pressures that led her mother to plastic surgery. Lieu’s mother was 140 lbs. when she died; in Vietnamese culture, where being small and delicate is valued, being heavier is considered shameful.
“Does it make you feel sad when I hate my body too?” Lieu asks her mother in the play. “If I have a daughter, how can I make her love her body?”
In the process, the audience learns that Lieu’s mother, Hà Thúy Phường, wasn’t simply just a victim. In fact she was a dynamic, courageous woman who had orchestrated her family’s escape from Vietnam after the war. After they settled in America and opened two nail salons, she became the breadwinner.
“If you look at the context of Asian American theatre and writing, and especially the Vietnamese refugee experience, how many pieces do we have to point to?” Lieu asks rhetorically. “Miss Saigon makes people tense. Now we have Vietgone, great. What else do we have?”
When Lieu first performed 140 LBS earlier this year, the idea was just to tell the story and to prove, “I was not a coward.” But when the nine-performance run at Seattle’s Theatre Off Jackson sold out, and then a seven-show run in San Francisco sold out, Lieu realized she had something that was both specific to Vietnamese immigrants but also universal in its exploration of grief and trauma. Lieu recalls a white woman who had lost her husband, who brought their daughter to the show. A Vietnamese man whose father had just died came with his siblings.
“Asian Americans are not equipped with these tools on how to emotionally process things, because our parents don’t model that for us,” Lieu notes. “They were able to have an intense car ride home afterwards and process what they saw,” she says of that Vietnamese man’s experience with his siblings. “Yes, it was specific to him, but he didn’t have to be Vietnamese to do that.”
How does someone without any theatre training go from local artist to a nationally touring artist? One answer: Lieu’s brain always seems to be looking ahead to the next step. When she realized there was an audience for 140 LBS in Seattle and San Francisco, her next thought was to take it to more cities. She considered going the traditional route of finding a presenter, hoping they would say yes to funding her show, then waiting a year or two to perform. Lieu didn’t want to wait. When she got pregnant over the summer, she realized she had a small window to make a tour happen.
“I have this very short runway where I need to make as much money as possible with this piece, because I have business school loans to pay, I have a mortgage to pay, and then I’ll have a child,” she explains. “I couldn’t be like, ‘Please give me a stipend.’”
So she realized the best way to “maximize profits” from touring was to put it up herself. Lieu took the reserve money she made on the Seattle and San Francisco runs of 140 LBS and used that to fund her bare-bones tour. Through some ingenuity with space rentals—including in non-traditional spaces, like the aforementioned funeral home, which charged a very small fee—the whole thing cost Lieu about $10,000 upfront. Because it’s a solo work with minimal tech beyond a few projections, Lieu is able to carry everything needed for the show in a suitcase.
The formula seems to be working: Just three cities in, she’s sold almost 50 percent of the tour. It’s not too shabby for someone who this time two years ago had never written a play before. “I think if I had all that theatre training and knew how everyone else had done it, maybe I would have snapped to that [traditional route],” she says with a chuckle. “For me I don’t know better.”
What Lieu does know is she wants to bring awareness not only to her family’s story, but also to the larger issue of medical malpractice. In California, the cap on a medical malpractice suit is $250,000. So if a doctor, like the one who operated on Lieu’s mom, harms a patient, the most the victim and their family can ask for is $250,000 (34 states have similar malpractice caps). To Lieu, $250,000 is too little in return for the value of a life. “My mom was 38, she was the breadwinner of the family,” Lieu says passionately. “We had a 13-person household and we had two nail salons, two kids in college, two kids not in college. That’s not a lot of money when you think about it.” (In a further twist, her family received that payment from a nurse at the clinic because she had malpractice insurance, unlike the doctor, who was on medical probation at the time for negligence.)
Lieu is going to be part of an initiative to raise the malpractice cap in California, which will be put up to a public ballot vote in 2020. She’s also looking into “scaling” the story up—to a podcast, a book, or a film adaptation. That’s the business side of her brain again. For now, Lieu is just looking to build a support network of people who’ve seen her show and will support its future life, wherever it leads. Lieu didn’t quite get to avenge her mother’s death, but she was able to ensure Hà Thúy Phường was not just another nameless victim.
“There are years after she died where I didn’t acknowledge her death anniversary for her birthday, I just let it gloss over, and I didn’t have a relationship with her,” laments Lieu. “I feel so close to my mom now. Before every show I will look in the mirror and ask my mom to come work with me tonight and be with me tonight and make sure it’s a great show.”