Written, produced and performed by Susan Lieu, and directed by Sara Porkalob, “140 LBS: How Beauty Killed My Mother” is a soul baring revelation based on the story of Lieu’s life.
The show came to the Nguoi Viet Community Center in Westminster, Calif. in the heart of Little Saigon. There are small reminders of the world that was built in the midst of tragedy and war. Walking into, you’re immediately greeted with bánh cam, fried Vietnamese sesame balls.
As people shuffled in and mentioned their names to check in for the show, you could hear Vietnamese Americans unabashed to say their last names without the accepted Americanized lilt.
Before the show, tissue boxes are prepared, stationed at the front, as though signaling the inevitably of emotions running high. The audience grew jittery, the volume of English intermingling with Vietnamese steadily increasing in the air. However, nothing could prepare viewers for the brilliance of Lieu’s work.
Beauty is often seen as a requirement for women, with imperceptible consequences for not adhering to society’s standards. Friends and family and their nit-picky comments, the feeling of inadequacy for not abiding by beauty’s rules.
Overcome with pressure, Lieu’s mother expected to be beautiful after her series of procedures. She had not known about her plastic surgeon preying on immigrant women, or of his multiple incidents of negligence in the past.
Despite the fact her mother was losing oxygen to her brain, her plastic surgeon had neglected to call 911 for 14 minutes.
The show was originally focused on Lieu’s quest to avenge her mother’s death, to find justice for her family haunted because of her mother’s loss. There was devastation evident in her voice as she recounts the silence she was met with while trying to uncover the incident shrouded in secrecy.
Silence from the plastic surgeon who had passed away years before her pursuit. Silence from her family, refusing to relive the palpable grief. Silence from the plastic surgeon’s daughter, who had promised Lieu answers. Silence from nearly everyone she turned to.
At the surface, her hunt for answers seemed as a means of holding her plastic surgeon accountable. The journey she had sought out makes a discernible change from one of vengeful rage, to trying to understand the mother she never had the chance to know. She sifts through the pieces she had left with her family’s memories.
As she relives her conversations onstage, Lieu expertly oscillates between each unique depiction of her family, embodying her aunt’s accented English, to her sister’s perky platitudes. Her aunt recalls her mother’s conviction for escaping Vietnam in search of a better life in the U.S.
Despite her family’s insistence it was more a death wish than a stroke of luck, her mother successfully arrives, eventually helping to bring her family, and opening up nail salon Susan Nails.
While her memories of her mother seemingly paled in comparison, Lieu is forced to confront their relationship with her family’s tradition of spirit channeling. After repeatedly chanting a reminder: “Don’t cover up the story,” she is flung into a dim sum restaurant in the afterlife for a conversation with her mother.
Lieu in the midst of her performance, becomes overcome by emotion herself, tears falling as she recites her lines. The show ends with questions to her mother that go unanswered. Despite years wrestling with the hatred for her own body, as her weight became a commonplace criticism from her family, she asks for her future daughter, “How could I make her love her body?”
Lieu seamlessly flits between comedy and drama, always weaving through the spectrum of emotions. An effortless joke would give way to moments of raw vulnerability. Throughout the show, it felt as though the audience was holding in a collective breath, too engrossed by the story unfolding.
“Thấy ghét quá trời,” printed on the back of the show’s program, is an affectionate statement in Vietnamese, but directly translates to “you look so hateable” in English. There are moments like these throughout the show, moments that are so unique to the Vietnamese American experience.
In the “mecca” of Vietnamese diaspora, the audience easily laughs when Lieu mentions “Paris By Night,” a popular Vietnamese musical variety show or references other common Vietnamese phrases. Although she does her best to translate the phrases to English, she does leave some translations out as well, the message confusing for those not familiar with Vietnamese.
“My body is a cookie cutter shape of my mom’s body,” Lieu said in a conversation after the close of the show. She’s working to change the laws surrounding plastic surgery, and to dismantle a pervasive culture that exploits womens’ vulnerability.
Her work is devastatingly touching, and leaves a vice like grip on your heart. After a year long journey, Lieu delivers a poignant performance that cannot be forgotten.