By Andrew Hamlin
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Susan Lieu, creator, performer, and mastermind of the “140 LBS” live show, was only in grade school when her mother died. Her mother went in for what was supposed to be routine plastic surgery, and did not come out.
Lieu recalls feeling numb at first, and disenchanted with childhood. She watched other kids playing and felt no desire to join them, no kinship.
She got on with her life. She earned a bachelor’s degree from Harvard and an MBA from Yale. Her mother would have been very proud.
“But you see, I didn’t grieve,” added Lieu. “I channeled it somewhere in a positive way, yes, but I didn’t grieve. It wasn’t until I was in college that I started doing personal growth workshops and silent meditation retreats where I started to grieve. I recognized the feelings of abandonment and lack of nurture. That led me on a spiritual path where I began a search for who I am, what I believe in, and how I needed to structure my life to be the person I wanted to be.”
She always earned top marks in school, but she did not prioritize live theater, at least not formally. Looking back, she remarked that she’d been doing forms of theater, informally, her whole life. It took performance chops to entertain customers at her mother’s nail salon, hoping and praying they wouldn’t leave for some other salon. She spent several years of middle school doing the public address announcements over the speaker system. Later, she co-founded an artisanal chocolate company, and found herself deeply involved with marketing.
Still, even after moving to Seattle, she had no clear intention of telling her mother’s story. “The story found me,” Lieu avowed. “I took a Solo Performance class at Freehold Theatre in Seattle in summer of 2017. On the first day of class, the assignment was to tell any 5-minute story. When it was my turn, I began, ‘I wanted to avenge my mother’s death. I’m not trying to sound like a Greek tragedy or anything. It’s just the truth.’ I began to recount how I spent the last few years researching my mother’s killer and how I wanted to seek justice for her.”
And she had been, for years, researching her mother’s case, the doctor, and what went wrong. But it took Freehold, and its lessons, to transform that research into drama.
She’s always played all the parts, and the current version of the story finds her playing eight different people.
“They do not wear different physical costumes,” she elaborated about her onstage personas. “They wear different physical gestures, voice, mannerisms, objectives. I’ve had to explore my family members as the three-dimensional beings that they are. This has been an intensive process for me to take myself to their perspective, so I can humanize them onstage. Needless to say, this play has made me feel closer to them!”
She performed the story in three “episodes” at first, then began to work with local director Sara Porkalob to render a full-length version of the tale. She met Porkalob after seeing the latter’s own one-woman show, “Dragon Lady,” and became fast friends.
Porkalob, said Leiu, “Loves working on her feet… We talk, then we do. We learn, then we iterate. I enjoy this fast-paced prototyping process. I don’t dwell on specific word choices. Rather, I explore and create worlds fully and then start making choices based on intuition and what I’m learning about the story itself through my process. It’s extremely iterative and I love that.
“She’s also been crucial as a mentor. She has paved a path before me and helps me understand the industry, how to produce shows, how to craft characters. She also gets me dim sum before some rehearsals. This woman knows the way to my heart!”
It wasn’t easy, she concedes, creating her own mother. Her family, for the most part, didn’t want to talk about what happened. Lieu had hoped to watch her mother on some family VHS tapes, but those were either destroyed by the humid Vietnamese climate, or lost during the family’s many moves.
“Like many Vietnamese families, we did not externally express our grieving or do family counseling,” she mused. “Our way was with death anniversary celebrations, and praying to my mom at her altar… Some [family] eventually opened up and some may never. Everyone’s process in grieving is their own path and not mine to judge.”
When asked about the future of her performance, Lieu said that she’d like to take it to Portland, San Francisco, Santa Fe, and other towns. “I think this show could tie-in to Asian American Studies programs at universities around the country,” she concluded. “I’d like to take it on tour and am starting to plant the seeds to do so. But first, the show!”
“140 LBS: How Beauty Killed My Mother” plays Feb. 7-17 at the Theatre Off Jackson. For prices and showtimes, visit theatreoffjackson.org/event/140-lbs.
Andrew can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org