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KCUR's Gina Kaufmann brings you personal essays about how we're all adapting to a very different world.

Vi Tran fled Vietnam as a child. In Kansas City, he's finally learned to stop running

A man with a stocking cap and long hair wears a light jacket and is leaning against a tree looking off camera. He's got a slight smile on his face.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Vi Tran, a former refugee turned Kansas City actor and playwright, says the pandemic forced him to reevaluate his relationship with work.

Even at the height of his professional success as an actor, playwright and venue owner, Vi Tran struggled to pause long enough to enjoy his achievements. Since the pandemic hit, he's grown clearer about what it takes to live well as an artist — and he's started to demand it.

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A few years ago, at the height of his pre-pandemic busy-ness, Vi Tran took his mom to a run-through for a TEDx Talk. She came to Kansas City to spend time with her son, but he had a lot going on.

"I was on an acting contract and we were moving into tech week, which is when you add all the lights and the sound and the costumes," Tran recalls. "It's basically a black hole of long hours."

As Tran flew swiftly out the door between one rehearsal and another, his mom grabbed him to slow him down.

"And she said, 'Hey, hey, stop for a second. What are you doing?' And I was like, 'I'm going to my tech rehearsal.' And she's like, 'No!'" Tran recounts, his voice gaining intensity. "What are you doing?'"

Tran's mom was baffled by the frenetic whirlwind that seemed to envelop her son, wondering aloud why he was still trying to prove himself this way in his late 30s. "She was just like, 'You did it, you don't have to prove anything to me, to anybody.'"

Then she tacked on a joke, to lighten the mood: "If you're gonna be this miserable as an artist," she told her grown son, "then I do want you to go to law school or med school."

After all, that was the original plan.

'Seek truth and be honest'

Vi Tran was born in southern Vietnam in 1980. His parents and much older sister had just endured the hardships of the Vietnam War and its devastating aftermath.

Shortly after Tran's birth, his family decided it was worth the risk to join the torrent of refugees pouring out of the country. So when Tran was about one year old, the family started heading north through Cambodia toward a refugee camp in Thailand, where they spent two years waiting to be assigned somewhere to go.

The Tran family ended up in Kansas by coincidence. While pleading for sponsorship, Tran's father made an offhand comment saying he and his wife would do anything: "We'd be farmers."

Tran recounted that incident when we talked for the first time in 2014. "The clerk's eyes lit up," he told me, "and they said, 'There's farmland in America.' And so they shipped us to Wichita, Kansas."

Of course, Wichita doesn't have much farmland; it's the biggest city in Kansas. The Trans, who didn't yet speak English beyond the few phrases they'd learned in the refugee camp, struggled to earn enough money for food and rent.

Eventually, through word of mouth, they found work at a beef-packing plant in Garden City — a known landing place for immigrants, then and now.

As a small child, Tran picked up English quickly. Adjusting was harder for his parents, and especially his sister, then an adolescent, who'd missed years of school while fleeing Vietnam. The family's hopes for a better life quickly focused on Tran, a self-described "recovering gifted kid."

Julie Denesha
KCUR 89.3
Vi Tran in 2018.

Tran worked hard at maintaining a 4.0 GPA in school, envisioning scholarships, an Ivy League school of his choice, then law school or med school after that. The scarcity and insecurity he'd grown up with would be defeated, once and for all.

Then he lost his perfect grades. "I thought my life was over," Tran confides. "So I went out for a play and I started a band."

It turned out, he really liked those activities. "What the arts allowed me to do was seek truth and be honest with myself," Tran says.

Tran's parents supported him in that shift, lending encouragement when Tran decided to go to Kansas State University to study theater, instead of pursuing the more lucrative dream they'd once shared.

"They bucked cultural norms and gave me their blessing to go out there and try to strike a path as a performer," Tran tells me. "So I doubled down on being hard on myself and that legacy burden. I said, 'You gotta crush it.'"

In Kansas City, Tran started his career at the Unicorn Theater in Midtown, where he scored his first major role in a play, as an Asian baseball pitcher. He got a job as a singing waiter and learned how to land commercials, voice-over work — the stuff that pays the bills.

Laura Spencer
KCUR 89.3
Posters of previous productions adorned the walls at the now-closed Buffalo Room in the Westport Flea Market.

He fronted his own band, Vi Tran Band, playing danceable music with subtly nerdy lyrics. And in 2014, Tran and his wife opened a performance venue called the Buffalo Room in the back of the Westport Flea Market.

But Tran's crowning achievement was a work of his own called "The Butcher's Son" — an autobiographical play telling his family's story.

'Can we rest?'

Before the pandemic, Tran knew he needed to slow down. But again: He had a lot going on.

He'd just landed the coveted Generative Performing Artist Award from the Charlotte Street Foundation. The award was supposed to provide seed money to take "The Butcher's Son" to bigger theater markets.

Tran received enough interest from out-of-town venues that the time came to get on planes and meet with people: "We were so close."

Then everything screeched to a halt. Not only did Tran grieve "The Butcher's Son" losing momentum, he lost work — shows scheduled at the Buffalo Room couldn't happen, and acting gigs dried up. That meant losing both income and identity.

The whole situation made Tran feel once again like "that refugee kid" — unsure if he was safe, unsure if he was going to be OK.

"All the different parts of me were just so exhausted, you know? And in such pain," Tran says. "Like the artist in me, the musician in me, the playwright in me."

Tran explains he kept up energy just long enough to do some fundraising and re-jobbing for the Buffalo Room staff, since COVID-19 had put the performing arts on indefinite hold. "When I knew that our staff was safe, all those parts of me were like, 'Can we rest? Can we stop?'"

A man with a stocking cap and long hair wears a light jacket and is sitting on a park bench. He is leaning forward with his hands clasped and looking toward the camera.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Vi Tran had just won a coveted award and was shopping around his play "The Butcher's Son" to bigger theater markets when the pandemic hit, and everything screeched to a halt.

Suddenly lacking the excuse of a busy schedule, Tran decided to get serious about self-healing. He played video games, just to let himself be frivolous.

"Some friends were like, 'Oh, are you gonna live stream it?' And I said, 'No! No, I am not going to live stream it,'" Tran proclaims with an adamant laugh. "Because the minute I say I'm gonna live stream it, the producer in me is going to be like, 'OK so we need this lighting and we need these microphones and we need this interface. And we also need to launch a Patreon for it. And then we need need a six-month launch plan. And then it's no longer play."

Tran taughtvirtual storytelling workshops, delving into the therapeutic benefits of the practice for the storyteller.

But mostly, he used the time to take a hard look at his relationship with work. "I finally had the time to talk to my boss — who was me — and renegotiate," Tran says. "I'm more selective about the things that I do, especially in multiple industries that run on either real or systemically baked-in, manufactured scarcity."

As the performing arts returned, so did requests for Tran's participation in all kinds of projects and events, and he did in fact say "no" — a lot. Sometimes that even meant declining to donate performance time to otherwise worthy causes.

"I had to really put my foot down and say, 'No, I'm not in a position to give, not right now,'" Tran acknowledges.

Close-ups image of a man with a stocking cap and long hair wears a light jacket and is standing looking directly at the camera.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Actor Vi Tran has started to appear on posters around town again, promoting new shows, but he's also saying "no" to things more.

These days, I'm once again seeing Tran's picture and name around town — promoting new shows that he's in — but that's not what excites me.

Tran has been speaking out in a new way. Not on a stage, as a character, but as himself. He's letting Kansas City know what his services require.

Instead of trying to defeat scarcity, he's making sure he gets what he needs. It's a gratifying evolution to watch.

"I come to the table with much greater conviction," Tran says.

I can attest to that first hand. It took me a year to get an interview with Tran, who initially turned me down last April. Tran told me he needed to conserve energy for himself, and wouldn't be able to tell his story for an audience.

He knew I'd still be there later, when he was ready for it. And he was right.

For this interview, 12 months later, Tran directed me to an online calendar set up specifically to ensure he had time to breathe between obligations; when I click on a chosen appointment time, the ones immediately before and after disappear.

All I can think about is Tran's mom telling him to stop trying to prove himself.

Mama Tran, if you happen to be reading this: Your son appears to have taken that message to heart.

People don't make cameos in news stories; the human story is the story, with characters affected by news events, not defined by them. As a columnist and podcaster, I want to acknowledge what it feels like to live through this time in Kansas City, one vantage point at a time. Together, these weekly vignettes form a collage of daily life in Kansas City as it changes in some ways, and stubbornly resists change in others. You can follow me on Twitter @GinaKCUR or email me at gina@kcur.org.
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