Award-winning author and playwright Hoa Pham’s new production, VIVID, centres around Khanh (Chi Nguyen), a Vietnamese-Australian woman with schizophrenia. Khanh sees visions of her grandmother, her Bà (Moni Lai Storz), who guides and comforts her ‘from the other shore’.
When we first meet Khanh she is in hospital, suffering from strong feelings of paranoia and delusion. She has visions of refugees being tortured in Australia’s off-shore detention centres, and believes that she and her family will be detained and sent back to Vietnam.
She repeatedly tells her boyfriend, Khoi (Jamie Vu), that she can’t separate reality from the imagined. ‘If I think about it, it becomes real to me,’ she says.
The chemistry between the actors is tangible, particularly between Nguyen and her nurse, Craig, played by Joshua Monaghan. Storz in particular shines onstage, providing improvised moments of comic relief.
Khanh tells Khoi that she is going to protest at the Maribyrnong detention centre, alone. He tries to dissuade her, asking her how she alone is going to be able to change anything. She gets angry at him, and here we get the sense that Khanh is addressing the audience, too. She condemns the complicity and wilful ignorance of Australians in the government’s systemic torturing of asylum seekers.
It should be noted that, at this stage, Khanh is still unsure about whether or not the torture of refugees is real, or is another symptom of her paranoia. It is not until she sits with Craig that she finds out that refugees are indeed being abused offshore by the government.
As the story develops we come to understand how Khan’s paranoia parallels the feelings of paranoia refugees experience: ‘this is like real life for refugees where the government is trying to persecute them,’ Pham says in an interview with Liminal.
This realisation causes Khanh to think back to her family’s journey by boat to Australia. She begins having violent visions, experiencing her mother’s memories of suffocating in the bottom of a crowded, shallow boat as she fades in and out of consciousness. We learn that she never knew her mother, who committed suicide when Khanh was four years old. Yet, so much of Khanh’s trauma seems to be that of her mother’s.
Khanh herself begins experiencing suicidal thoughts, and Bà appears to her. She tells her that their family had fled their home country so that Khanh could live a long life, and Khan decides that she must pretend to be ‘sane’ to be allowed to go home.
Bà later says that if they lived in their home village in Vietnam, Khanh’s schizophrenia would mean that she’d be revered as the village medium who could communicate with ancestors long gone.
Through the layered storyline, Pham deftly addresses how thin the line between sanity and madness can be, and how madness is not necessarily always something to be portrayed in a negative light.
VIVID is an important, must-see production that address inter-generational trauma, cultural perceptions of illness, and makes a timely critique of Australia’s detainment and abuse of refugees.
VIVID is showing from 22-25 November at the Footscray Community Arts Centre. Book your tickets here.
Playwright: Hoa Pham
Director: Wolf Heidecker
Performers: Chi Nguyen, Moni Lai Storz, James Vu, Josha Monaghan
Sound Design and Production Tech: Richard Lyford-Pike
Stage Manager: Lana Nguyen