I would also recommend this performance to anyone who is complacent about January 6 or any of the other dark clouds gathering around our fragile democracy. Her story aptly highlights why “populist” authoritarians are bad for the health and well-being of their country.
On Thursday, September 15, 2022, I went to see a performance of Mai Khoi’s “Bad Activist” at Point Park University’s “Playhouse.” Years ago, my significant other and I went to the Playhouse when it was in Oakland, on Craft Avenue, in a re-purposed synagogue. Back then it had a vintage, dusty, homey feel, and I was bummed when they said they were going to relocate to downtown Pittsburgh. When they began building their new playhouse between Fourth Avenue and Forbes Avenue, I would walk past the construction site several times a week because I work in the City-County Building. From the outside, the new theatre looked impressive and modern, definitely far different than its former self in Oakland.
Just like I did with my Mountain Goats review at the Roxian Theatre in McKees Rocks, I’m going to start the review with the space where this performance occurred, the PNC Theatre. I entered into the “playhouse” from the Forbes Avenue side and down a flight of steps. I entered the theatre and immediately found the box office where my tickets were waiting. Across from the box office was an area selling alcohol/mixed drinks (but no popcorn!). There are actually three “theatres/performance spaces” located inside the playhouse. When I entered the PNC Theatre I was immediately taken with the architecture of the space. I’m a sucker for fluid, modern styles, and this theatre had exposed dark wood and roomy, comfortable gold velvet seats. My seat was several rows back from the stage. The acoustics were, as you would imagine, very good. I would definitely see another performance here; the space was very comfortable.
Now, as for the performance, with a large screen behind her, Mai Khoi, who is now in exile in this country through City of Asylum, detailed her life living in Vietnam and how she came to the United States. Most of us only know Vietnam through our war there many years ago – if we know Vietnam at all. I did not know how oppressive the Vietnamese government was. Mai Khoi talked about her father’s forbidden love of rock and roll and how he would play rock music and love songs (which were also forbidden by the government) for her. She said her father wore bell bottoms, which led to an encounter with the authorities that sent him to a re-education camp. She talked abut how only songs about “Uncle Ho Chi Minh” and patriotic songs were permitted. Her earliest love of music began when her father fashioned a piano for her out of odds and ends and taught her to play.
Acceptance into a music school led her to opera, which she said was “boring.” She then sang some opera for us which showcased her beautiful voice and range. Most of the songs she performed that night were in her native Vietnamese with English subtitles projected on the screen behind her. Mai Khoi found her way from opera to pop music and at one time was the biggest pop star in Vietnam. However, even being a “big pop star” did not protect her from pervasive government interference in everything from the choice of songs she sang to what she wore. In fact, persistent censorship is what led her to begin pushing back against the Vietnamese government using her biggest platform—her stardom. Needless to say, the more she pushed, the more the government pushed back. She hoped a meeting with President Obama would help her fight the oppressive Vietnamese government (the government does not permit free speech, freedom of movement or any of the basic freedoms we have taken for granted in this country). She quickly learned that neither President Obama nor any other foreign leader could save her or her country. She tried to run for office and was thwarted. One of the final straws was when Trump visited Vietnam and she held up a sign that said “Piss on Trump.” From that time forward she was hounded and harassed by the government before eventually going into exile.
As Mai Khoi narrated this story, she sang some of the pop songs that made her famous, some of the protest songs that made her a target and songs that highlighted forbidden poetry. Her voice could soar from opera to very guttural screams and grunts – she reminded me at points during the performance of Yoko Ono. She played several Vietnamese instruments and behind her, the band composed of a piano/synth player, a saxophonist and a drummer, accompanied her adding passion to the songs.
However, even being a “big pop star” did not protect her from pervasive government interference in everything from the choice of songs she sang to what she wore.
I was glad that I got the opportunity to see this magnificent piece of art. I would highly recommend anyone going to see her perform. I would also recommend this performance to anyone who is complacent about January 6 or any of the other dark clouds gathering around our fragile democracy. Her story aptly highlights why “populist” authoritarians are bad for the health and well-being of their country.
The International Free Expression Project, is a Pittsburgh-based nonprofit organization that works to advance free-expression rights. Mai Khoi is a member of IFEP’s International Advisory Board.
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