The images and words portrayed the United States as a nation under attack, a dangerous country where death loomed at every corner.
In September 2001, Joe Wandell was living in Los Angeles, far from the sites of the terrorist attacks of September 11. But Wandell’s birth mother knew that her two sons — both of whom who’d been airlifted out of Saigon in the last days of the Vietnam War — were in the same country where the Twin Towers and the Pentagon were burning. She watched the fallout of the attacks through the lens of the Vietnamese media, and she panicked for the children she had to give up as a young woman.
“From her point of view, it looked to her like America had blown up,” Wandell recalled. “To her, it was, ‘My god. Everything is going to hell.’”
That panic would be the impetus for a tearful and emotional reunion in Vietnam. Three decades after Joe and his brother Tony had evacuated Saigon on the eve of Viet Cong occupation, the pair returned to the country of their birth. That story of separation, culture shock and reunion is the grist for “Mekong Joe,” a one-man show that slated to run at the Aurora Fox theater this month.
“I would point out that this is a positive show about all of the things that cause us to stay in life and care about life, even as life is handing us a raw deal,” said Steve Stajich, the Los Angeles-based writer who helped adapt Wandell’s story for the stage. “That was the situation with Joe and his brother. The way they pulled through it, they have come through this whole process with a grace and an understanding (of) who they both are.”
The show came about after the tearful reunion in Vietnam, after Joe Wandell made several return trips over the course of four years to reconnect with his mother. The writing process began after the brothers’ story had already been featured on “Dateline NBC,” after the pair’s mother died suddenly and unexpectedly from a stroke in 2006.
“There was a lot of, ‘Let’s just start talking.’ What I did was tape record a series of interviews with him. There was at least three hours of him telling all of this and remembering things as he did,” Stajich said. “From those tapes, I transcribed a narrative.”
The show played to test audiences in Los Angeles before coming to Colorado last year. Stajich, who had roots in the local theater and stand-up comedy scene, brought the show to the Avenue Theatre in Denver. A year later, they worked with local director and No Credits Productions founder Donnie Betts to kick off a short national tour in Aurora.
“I think it’s an important show to do. People don’t talk about the human side of the Vietnam war. I think this is a way to humanize the war through someone telling their life story,” said Betts, who is co-producing the show in Aurora. Betts added that the show aligned with a larger mission to include more minority voices in local theater. “It carries on that mission that I’ve taken on, and (that I’m) trying to put it into full force. The Fox is very receptive to that. They want to be in the forefront of that. It puts our money where our mouth is, so to speak.”
Born to a Vietnamese mother and American G.I. father, the brothers were among the throngs of men, women and children who were airlifted out of Saigon at the close of the Vietnam War. Their mother made the decision among the chaos and panic of the city’s siege, hoping the children would find a better life in the United States even as she was forced to stay behind. A military couple in Baltimore adopted the pair, and 6-year-old Joe Wandell (born Tran Than Hai) began a long and sometimes painful process of self-discovery.
For Joe Wandell, it was a struggle linked to his early work as an actor. After leaving his adopted parents’ home, he headed to L.A. to pursue his acting career. He found success, but in a form that would raise questions of identity and belonging.
“They were all jobs that were casting me as a Latino. That was the only kind of work I could get,” Wandell said. “That was fine at first, but I realized that I was faking.
“It was hard; it made me feel even more a sense of loss and confusion.”
At the height of that confusion, Joe’s brother came with earth-shattering news: They’d found their birth mother in Vietnam. She wanted to reconnect, and the opportunity would serve as a vital step in the brothers’ healing process.
“I was basically a first-generation immigrant. My whole point of view, being a Vietnamese American in the post-war 1970s, I had a lot of trouble in school, alcoholism at home, culture clashes at my own house with my parents,” Wandell said, adding that the reunion with his mother capped a long period of searching. “At the height of my confusion and loss of identity, I went through this whole journey. I came back from those trips a different person.”
Now a father of two living with his wife in Switzerland, Joe Wandell says the show captures that dramatic transition. Still, the piece doesn’t veer too far from the actor’s creative roots as a stand-up comic and improvisor. There’s a strong sense of humor and brightness in the account, Wandell said, an optimism that marks his everyday habits.
“Nowadays, I’m a happy, healthy American living abroad, confident with myself and able to transfer that to kids for the next generation,” Wandell said. “Reuniting helped heal the hole. I’m not trying to be anyone else anymore. I’m not chasing that pseudo-Hollywood B.S. I’m happy.”
“Mekong Joe” runs at 7:30 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, and 2 p.m. on Sundays on Aug. 10, 11, 12 and Aug. 17, 18 and 19 at the Aurora Fox theater, 9900 E. Colfax Ave. Information: 303-739-1970 or aurorafoxartscenter.org. Tickets start at $20.
Reach reporter Adam Goldstein at [email protected] or 720-449-9707