Joseph Wandell revisits history in Mekong Joe
Children of war suffer in myriad ways. They witness and sometimes experience violence, suffer hunger and disruption, see their parents helpless and unable to protect them from vast, frightening and incomprehensible forces. Displaced children are a predictable product of conflict. Even for those left physically unhurt, the losses are incalculable and the stain of war persists. Operation Babylift, which spirited some 3,000 children out of Vietnam ahead of the advancing Viet Cong army in 1975, many of them fathered by American G.I.s, was a chaotic event. It included a plane-load of little ones delivered to this country by a cowboy capitalist in defiance of the United States government, military jets that were never equipped for such cargo filled with babies and toddlers, and a drum-beating, nationalistic uproar from the press. One of the planes crashed, killing many of the 300 infants on board.
For six-year-old Joseph Wandell, the son of a Vietnamese mother and American G.I. father, the word "war" meant very little — until his mother placed him and his older brother on a bus heading to the airport. When his brother told him that he would never see his mother again, he tried to climb from his seat and out of the window. It took four people to subdue his struggles. Wandell and his brother were adopted by a military couple whose marriage was tense and conflict-ridden and who had little understanding of the world their new sons had left. Coming from Saigon, a bustling city full of children, they found themselves in an isolated environment where nothing was familiar. Behind the house were "creepy, haunted, Hansel-and-Gretel-are-going-to-die Western woods" that terrified them. Wandell learned how to be an American from television, and William Shatner's Captain Kirk became a symbol of his absent father. In the schoolyard, he discovered race when he was taunted with the words "gook" and "slope." In their twenties, the brothers finally found their mother through an ad in a Vietnamese newspaper; their reunion with her was filmed for a Dateline segment.
Wandell eventually became an actor. Now in his thirties, he's performing a one-man theater piece about his life called Mekong Joe, created with writer-comic Steven Stajich, who got his start decades ago in Denver. In one of the most amusing parts of Mekong Joe, he shares how he was often cast in Latino roles and describes one audition, showing how he became more and more stereotypically Latino at the director's urging until he was transformed into a movie-style gangbanger, complete with thick accent and red bandanna.
Wandell tells his story on an almost bare stage, using photographs, few props and a little music. He is an affable and appealing actor, and his tone is conversational, often humorous. The first part of the play is the most effective, as Wandell communicates the sheer lostness he experienced as a child, showing that even a six-year-old carries with him deep attachments and a world of memories and associations. Though many of us know the broad outline of the Babylift story, he provides details that bring it to life. He explains, for instance, that spoken English comes across to a Vietnamese kid as a whole lot of s-s-s-s-es, and acts out the way he and his friends mimicked that sound as they raced up to G.I.s who — true to the stereotype — would toss candy bars to them. Arriving in the States and told to pick an outfit from a mountain of used clothes, he promptly selected brightly checkered golf pants and a pair of white leather tap shoes.
The piece loses momentum with an unnecessary intermission, and the second act, in which Wandell and his brother reunite with their mother, is wordier and looser, though it has some wonderful moments. But this is a work in progress, and structural problems should eventually be solved.
Wandell is aware that Amerasian children left behind in Vietnam usually fared badly. He knows his mother endured ostracism and a period of time in a re-education camp. And he is grateful for his life in America. Mekong Joe not only sheds a clear light on an often-forgotten corner of American history, it introduces us to a young man who survived a childhood distorted by war with humor, playfulness and resilience.
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