Operation Babylift, which flew hundreds of babies out of Vietnam after the 1975 fall of Saigon for adoption in the United States, has faded from national memory. But for actor Joe Wandell, born Hai Tran Thai and the son of a Vietnamese woman and a GI, it remains the central fact of his life. And for performer-playwright Steve Stajich, who was looking for script material when he met the actor, Wandell's story was the inspiration he'd been seeking: "I said to him, 'So many people do one-person shows and don't have anything to say, and you -- you have an embarrassment of riches.'"
Mekong Joe, the result of the two men's three-year-long collaboration, opens at the Avenue Theater tomorrow.
Fearing for their safety under the incoming Communist regime, Wandell's mother put him, then six, and his nine-year-old brother Tony up for adoption. The exodus was organized in haste, and the plane on which the boys were scheduled to fly -- and from which they'd been evicted for lack of space -- crashed into the sea, killing some 180 children and adults. The brothers eventually landed safely in Baltimore, were swooped up by a Midwestern couple and began their struggle with homesickness and culture shock. According to Stajich the adoptive parents weren't particularly well-suited for their role: The father was away a lot, the mother a little too fond of wine. They thought of their new children as "lovely ivory bookends."
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When Wandell became an actor in his early twenties -- he has appeared on such TV shows as ER, CSI New York, and 24 -- he found himself cast again and again as a Latino, which only exacerbated his shaky sense of identity. Eventually, an opportunity arose for him to return to Vietnam and be reunited with his birth mother.
Mekong Joe explores the realities of the war as well as Wandell's personal search, with the actor revealing the mentality of the GIs who'd "go to bars, get drunk and say gutsy things, but -- alone with a woman -- find themselves crying over the contradictions they experienced." For Stajich, who protested the war, working on the piece presented an opportunity to "process Vietnam, especially now that America is involved in two wars. This is a thing that happens in war: the creation of children who become dust. We think in terms of shock and awe, like all star wrestling or something, but it's not. It's human lives rent asunder and then someone trying to put it back together and decide who they are. Joe says his memories were like bits of tissue paper: Is that real? Did I do this?"
Eventually, Wandell was able to go revisit the places of his childhood and rebuild his memories. But, adds Stajich -- who has worked with Politically Incorrect, Reba, Daddy-O and The Prairie Home Companion -- he and Wandell also worked to make the show "a little lighter on its feet, to get it to be a positive uplifting thing."
See Mekong Joe this weekend on Thursday through Sunday at 7:30 p.m., with an additional matinee performance on Sunday at 2:30 p.m., at the Avenue; admission is $20. Call 303-321-5925.