Vi Tran’s journey has taken him from Vietnam to refugee camps in southeast Asia to Garden City, Kansas, and finally to a burger joint in Kansas City, Missouri, where he began telling his story and created a space for others' stories in all types of formats.
Past a row of pinball machines, at the back of the Westport Flea Market Bar & Grill, is a large room with concrete floors, black tablecloths draped over round tables, the smell of burgers and a bare-bones stage.
It's the Buffalo Room, a performance event space where Tran is the curator. He's also an actor, musician and playwright who performed parody shows in the space when it was home to Comedy City. When that improv troupe decided to acquire its own space, Flea Market owner Joe Zwillenberg reached out to Tran about trying something new.
Tran says Zwillenberg gave him a blank slate to make whatever he wanted.
"And so we did," he says.
Tran and his wife, MacKenzie Goodwin Tran — who's also an actor, director, and writer — opened the Buffalo Room in 2014. At first, Tran says, they toyed around with the idea of a club or a theater.
"She quoted one of her favorite directors who said, 'Anything can happen in a room. And that really helped to shape our vision," he says.
"So there’s this fake, brick façade that is very identifiable as that comedy club kind of feel, but really when the lights go off, you know, it becomes about what’s on stage," he notes.
Named for Tran's high school mascot, the Buffalo Room now hosts comedy, theater, music, burlesque, private parties, and fundraisers. The venue launched with Tran's own show, "The Butcher's Son."
"'The Butcher’s Son' is a folk musical memoir about my family’s escape from Vietnam and our resettlement in the cattle country of southwestern Kansas," he says.
Tran's family left Vietnam in the 1980s when he was about a year old. Their journey to the United States took two years and included stops along the way in refugee camps in Cambodia, Thailand, and the Philippines.
His family settled in Garden City, Kansas, where his parents got jobs in meat packing plants. When he was a teenager, Tran's mother started encouraging him to write about it.
"I would write those stories, a poem at a time, or a song at a time, an essay at a time," he says, drawing on his own early memories, as well as anecdotes from his mother and his older sister.
"The Butcher’s Son," what he calls a performance memoir, became a musical, with the title track about a boy meeting a girl and chasing their dreams.
After its premiere in Kansas City, the show toured through central and southwestern Kansas, including Garden City. Most recently, in February, they took the show to the Chicago Musical Theatre Festival.
"As a theater artist and, in the arts in general, there’s such a lack of representation for Asian American performers," Tran says. "And here I was sitting on this great story that had great Asian American roles."
One exception is the current show at the Unicorn Theatre: "Vietgone" has an all-Asian-American cast. Playwright Qui Nguyen's parents fled Vietnam in the 1970s, and met in an Arkansas refugee camp. Tran plays the role of Quang, the playwright's father, as a young man.
Tran says there are similarities in plot, but differences in tone.
"My show was very pastoral and kind of chamber folk-y," he says, "and Qui Nguyen has such a sharp and bombastic sense of humor. And it’s much more flashy and kinetic."
Tran says he hopes his own show will continue to be performed in other cities. Until then, at the Buffalo Room, he’ll keep devoting his entrepreneurial spirit to curating a space for others to create.
This story is part of the KCUR series “Taking a Risk,” exploring the stories of immigrant entrepreneurs in Kansas City and the challenges of starting something new.
Laura Spencer is an arts reporter at KCUR 89.3. You can reach her on Twitter @lauraspencer.