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Author, playwright and director plays all the roles in her plays

Nguyen Thi Minh Ngoc, a well-known writer, director, playwright and actress, in an act at the University of Phan Thiet, the central province of Binh Thuan last month. Ngoc held a mini-tour of her monodramas around three universities.

Last month, Nguyen Thi Minh Ngoc, well-known writer, director, playwright and actress returned to Vietnam from the US, where she lives with her family.

As she has done earlier on such visits, Ngoc joined a couple of projects as playwright and director. But this time, she also brought home a mini-tour of her monodramas that did the rounds in three universities in Ho Chi Minh City, the Mekong Delta city of Can Tho, and the central province of Binh Thuan. The last show of the mini-tour took place at the home of famous music professor Tran Van Khe.

During the May 25-29 tour, Ngoc, as the sole performer, played ten different roles in each show, including that of a poor blind child, and an actress married to a foreigner to save her family from financial troubles and then ends her life in pain.

In one act, the 58-year-old artist was Ho Xuan Huong, one of Vietnam's most famous female poets, and a distressed concubine. In another, Ngoc was a stately general leading her army to fight against invaders.

This was one of the rare times such monodramas were staged in Vietnam, and Ngoc's histrionics dazzled the audience.

Khe said he was "amazed at the versatility of Ngoc's acting skills."

"To be able to take such different roles within such a short time calls for great ability, experience and creativity," he said.

Prof. Khe said Ngoc's performance reminded him of Ngu bien performances in Vietnam's traditional theater operas, where an actor plays many different roles.

"However, this kind of performance isn't popular because it requires greatly honed acting skills."

Tran Van Thanh, vice president of Phan Thiet University in Binh Thuan Province, said: "This was the first time I watched a monodrama. I was really surprised at Minh Ngoc's skills.

"Her liveliness evoked many different feelings. I felt sad for a moment and happy right after that. Sometimes her characters were very thought provoking."

This is not the first time Ngoc has pulled off this solo performance.

About ten years ago she received an invitation to perform a play in Jordan, but because of financial limitations, she couldn't ask other actors and actresses to join her.

"I had to think some way to introduce Vietnam's theatrical arts, even though only one actor was available," she said. "I wrote a story where I played different roles. Unexpectedly, the audience was greatly supportive of my performance."

Since then she delved deeper into the art of monodrama. Over the years, at festivals and conferences on theater and education in countries like the US, UK, Australia, and Norway that she attended on her own, she used monodrama to make her presentations more convincing and livelier, Ngoc said.

Ngoc said she now returns to Vietnam twice a year mainly to implement projects in cooperation with international organizations like UNESCO. One such project introduces traditional theater to drug rehabilitation centers.

Lonely, but not alone

A lot of the time, Ngoc's works deal with the travails of Vietnamese women and the sacrifice and fortitude they display in facing them, whatever background they come from.

Her novel Ky su nguoi dan ba bi chong bo (The story of a woman abandoned by her husband), and plays Hay khoc di em (Please cry, darling), and Co dao hat (The singer) have won her acclaim, and vindicated her sympathy for the plight of Vietnamese women.

"Of course, there are many Vietnamese women who are successful and happy, but it seems that those who suffer sad fates are more," Ngoc said.

"I sympathize with unhappy women. I write about them as their representative asking for equality and goodness."

Her latest play "We Are," which was staged at New York's famous West End Theater, one of the Off-Off-Broadway theaters, in March, featured an international cast from Vietnam and North America. The bilingual play introduced five different female characters in five chapters named - Thuy Kieu, the female protagonist of Vietnam's famous poem Truyen Kieu (The tale of Kieu) by Nguyen Du; Ba vu (Nanny); Ba ngoai (Grandmother); Thi Mau, a female character in Vietnam's folk tale; and Diem Quyen.

In a recent interview with The Thao & Van Hoa (Sports & Culture), Ngoc said most of the characters in the play, which also uses the cai luong (southern Vietnam's folk opera) genre, marry or work abroad just like her. She married a Vietnamese American in 2005 and has lived in the US since.

"I want women who live far from home like us to know that though we are lonely, but we aren't alone," she said.

Even when women are close to committing suicide, grievously wronged and "even when there's no one around us, we are still able to sing Dung tuyet vong, toi oi, dung tuyet vong (Don't lose hope, me, don't lose hope - a line from a famous Vietnamese song)," Ngoc said.

In 2008, Ngoc had staged a play called Nguoi dan ba bi that lac (The missing woman) at West End Theater. The play had already garnered a lot of praise at an international theatre festival in the Philippines in 2003. Both "We Are" and this play were staged at the invitation of the New York-based Pan Asian Repertory Theater, which initiated the Vietnam Project that aims to present Vietnamese professional productions on a New York stage.

Women facing hardships and misery are also the focus in upcoming Ngoc Vien Dong (The Far East Pearl), for which she worked as a playwright.

"The writer Luu Quang Vu (an acclaimed writer and a close friend of Ngoc who was killed in a traffic accident in 1988 with his wife and his child) once told me: "˜Minh Ngoc, you will be successful if you focus on Vietnamese women, because as a woman, you will understand their feelings well,'" Ngoc said.

"I am glad I am able to give voice to women destined to suffer a lot of pain."

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