Say the word “immigration” these days and you might trigger a political argument.
But for Vi Tran it’s not an abstract policy question, it’s reality.
As a Vietnamese-American whose family fled his home country in the 1980s and embarked on a long, circuitous journey to become Americans, the well-known Kansas City actor/musician sees himself as the living embodiment of the original American story: the quest for a better life.
“I was born in Vietnam and raised in southwestern Kansas,” he said. “I am the definition of a refugee immigrant.”
His family’s saga, the epic journey that took them through refugee camps in Cambodia, Thailand and the Philippines, is the subject of a new theater piece, “The Butcher’s Son.” Tran said it’s his personal story. But he also sees it as a universal tale that could resonate with people from virtually any ethnic background.
“I’ve always had these stories in me,” he said. “And for as long as I can remember, since I showed an ability to write and create art, my family has been pressing me. They said, ‘You need to write our story, you need to write our memoir.’ I wrote a short story about my dad that got into our high school literary journal and they were like: ‘You’ve got to write a book.’”
Tran chuckles when he tells the story because at the age of 16, he knew there was no way he was going to write a book in the foreseeable future. But the urging planted a seed.
“I held on to their request,” he said. “I put a pin in it. But what I did as I grew up and got more experience, both as a person and an artist, I began creating actionable chunks.… I’ve been writing that so-called memoir a song at a time, a short story at a time, an essay at a time.”
He has worked on it for about 15 years. He realized it wasn’t a book. Not yet. But he had created material that could become a book eventually.
“The Butcher’s Son” begins previews Wednesday at the Buffalo Room, a new venue in the Westport Flea Market that Tran is managing. Tran expects the performance to run about 1 hour and 45 minutes with an intermission. The show has been assembled from songs, monologues and dialogue scenes, with music performed by the Vi Tran Band (Tran, Sean Hogge, Ben Byard, Jonathan Lloyd Schriock, Margaret Hanzlick-Burton) and arrangements and underscoring by musical adviser Eryn Bates.
Actors Ai Vy Bui and Erika Crane Ricketts — both of whom performed with Tran in the MET production of “M. Butterfly,” in which he played a cross-dressing spy in the Peking Opera — will play his mother and sister, respectively. Directing is Mackenzie Goodwin, who happens to be Tran’s fiancee. She was an assistant director on “M. Butterfly.”
The story follows the journey of his family from Vietnam to Kansas, where Tran’s parents took jobs in meat-packing plants in Garden City. His father, who eventually became a minister, died in 2008. His mother and sister live in Georgia.
“I just finished it, and there are 33 chapters,” Tran said last week. “And I said, ‘Man, I should have just written the book.’”
Tran calls the show a performance memoir.
“In my process, I’ll write a song to inspire myself to write a story, or I might write a story to help me write an essay,” he said. “The performance memoir itself will lead to what I hope may be that long-form narrative in book form. This production is just the first step in that process, and it’s only the first iteration of a piece I will continue to revisit.”
As he began to work on the project in earnest, Tran said, his mother and older sister kept coming to him with more stories and memories.
“It’s cathartic for a family to share its story, and that’s kind of the point of the whole piece,” he said. “While it’s very specific in its Vietnamese-American journey, I want it to be universal. While they’re enjoying our specific journey, I want them to say, ‘Oh yeah, that’s like my mother; that’s like my sister.’”
Tran is co-producing the show with the Westport Center for the Arts, a nonprofit organization that has produced plays and readings and sponsored concerts and art exhibits. The center’s involvement has allowed Tran and Goodwin to stage the show with a proper budget. They have a design team as well as a Vietnamese language consultant. Tran declined to offer specific figures but said the budget was comparable to what the Living Room or the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre might spend on a show.
Goodwin she has conceived the show as something like radio theater.
“With the space at the Buffalo Room, I thought it would be very interesting for it to be a sort of live radio play, but with Vi being the narrator and the framing device taking us through the play. It would … make it a little simpler to produce, especially on a smaller stage, with less tech and more actor focus.”
Goodwin said she also wanted to emphasize in her staging what she described as “talisman props” — physical objects with a special significance, including a Bible, a cane, handmade toys from the refugee camps and a letter written by Tran’s father.
Goodwin grew up in Parkville, although she spent her teen years in Nebraska. She and Tran both were theater students at Kansas State, although at different times.
Goodwin agreed with Tran that their shared goal was to create a tale anyone can relate to. She hoped the play would speak “to a part of every audience; that everyone can see their own family in a story like this. It’s a family like any other family. It’s about how families tell their stories and how stories become family legends. One of the highest aims of theater is to foster that sense of empathy and seeing yourself in what’s onstage.”
The Buffalo Room occupies a space at the Westport Flea Market formerly used by Comedy City. When the comedy troupe relocated, the room became available. Tran said he was approached by Joe Zwillenberg, owner of the Flea Market, about the possibility of running the venue.
Tran agreed, named it the Buffalo Room and gave himself the title of curator. The space can seat 100 to 200, he said. Seating for “The Butcher’s Son” will be closer to 100.
Tran envisions it as a venue that will accommodate musical performances, readings, theater — and anything else that seems like a good fit.
“My concept was creating an artists salon, but with a Midwestern twist,” he said. “It’s in the back of a burger joint, and I can’t be doing high-concept art projects in a burger joint.”
To some extent, he said, he wants to model the Buffalo Room on Fishtank Performance Studio, where a range of original work can be seen.
“My model isn’t going to be like a theater company with a season,” he said. “My goal is to provide a platform for producers who have a want and need to produce. That’s why I call myself curator. I am not producing everything happening there. I am facilitating events.”
“The Butcher’s Son” begins performances Wednesday and runs through Aug. 18 at the Buffalo Room in Westport Flea Market, 817 Westport Road. Tickets are available at BrownPaperTickets.com.