ORLANDO – Growing up in Portland, Oregon, Tonya Jone Miller said her mom, Donna Miller, would never take her to see movies about war.
“We couldn’t go to war movies at all,” Jone Miller said. “In fact, we hardly went to the movies at all, because if there was a trailer for war movies, she got up and had to leave.”
There was something else her mom didn’t like to do, Jone Miller said, and that was talk about her experience in the late 1960s, in Vietnam.
“I am half Vietnamese, although my mother is American,” she said. “She is a farm girl from Indiana. Growing up, my mom had a few anecdotal stories, but she never really talked about the war.”
For a long time, Jone Miller never talked about it much, either – until a friend raised the subject.
“Someone asked, ‘How did your mom end up in Vietnam?’ and I actually didn’t know how that happened,” she said. “And I thought that was strange that I didn’t know about it.”
Jone Miller would eventually sit down with her mother, who is now in her 70s, and interview her for hours about her time in Vietnam.
What she learned is that in August 1968, this farm girl from rural Indiana stepped off a plane in Saigon, Vietnam. She was held at gunpoint on her very first night in the war-torn country, and ended up adopting an entire family of Vietnamese orphans before she left. It’s a remarkable story, Jone Miller said, one that deserved to be shared and presented to a larger audience – which is why the actress and playwright put it together as “Threads: The True Story of an Indiana Farm Girl in Vietnam,” which will be making its Central Florida debut in May as part of the 2012 Orlando International Fringe Theatre Festival. “Threads” was written and will be performed by Jone Miller as a one-woman show based on a series of interviews with her mother.
“This is the first play I’ve ever written,” she said. “I’ve been an actress most of my life, although I exited it and came back to it in my late 20s.”
That’s when she discovered the Fringe Festival.
“I was touring with another show, and we were on tour in 2009,” she said. The play was performed at Fringe festivals in Canada. Jone Miller suddenly felt like she had been introduced to a whole new, and totally unique, form of theater.
“I had no idea the Fringe circuit even existed,” she said. “Over the course of the summer I saw something like 50 shows, and it opened my mind to what theater could be. So when I got home from the tour, it was very exciting, and I called my mom and said, ‘Steel yourself, I want to write a play and I want to write about your experiences in Vietnam.’ ”
She spent a long time talking with Donna Miller about how she ended up flying to Vietnam at the height of the war.
“We couldn’t do more than an hour at a time,” Jone Miller said. “But her memory is starting to go, so I said ‘We’ll do it now.’ What I found out during the process is some of the stories are ones she had never told to anybody, and it was amazing to hear the stories about how I came to be.”
It all started, Jone Miller said, when her mom found herself inspired by a Buddhist Monk, and decided she wanted to teach English at the Buddhist University in Saigon.
“She had a random experience with a Vietnamese monk, and she ended up going to Vietnam in 1968 after the Tet Offensive,” Jone Miller said, a reference to a military campaign during the Vietnam War in January 1968. The operations were referred to as the Tet Offensive because of a prior agreement to hold a cease fire during the Tet festivities — or the Lunar New Year celebrations — although the Viet Cong broke the agreement and launched an attack campaign that stunned both the United States and South Vietnam. It was considered a turning point in the war, when Americans came to have serious doubts about U.S. involvement in this war.
“She went by herself, and met the monk who was the dean of the Buddhist University in Saigon, and he was on a world peace tour,” Jone Miller said. “She didn’t tell her family or anybody but my dad where she was going. It would be like me packing up and deciding I’m going to go teach English in Afghanistan, and just getting on a plane and going. That’s essentially the equivalent today. A lot of the stories that I tell in my play are about the experiences she had while she was there, and other people she came in contact with who had Vietnam stories as well.”
Jone Miller says the play will do much more than offer history from the Vietnam era.
“The message of my show is you never know how a little transaction with someone can completely change your life,” she said. “It’s pretty extraordinary, the random things that led her there.”
“Threads” will be performed in the Patron’s Room at the Lowndes Shakespeare Center at 812 E. Rollins St. in Orlando’s Loch Haven Park. Show times are 6 p.m. on Friday, May 18; 6:30 p.m. on Saturday, May 19; 12:30 p.m. on Sunday, May 20; 6 p.m. on Tuesday, May 22; 7:30 p.m. on Friday, May 25; 11 a.m. on Saturday, May 26; and 4 p.m. on Sunday, May 27. Tickets are $10 each, with a $2 discount for students, seniors and veterans. In addition to the show tickets, patrons need to also purchase an $8 Orlando Fringe button for admission to Fringe shows.
Jone Miller said she’s thrilled to be a part of this nearly three-week-long Orlando theater festival.
“That’s one of the things that’s so remarkable about Fringe,” she said. “They so inspired me, to do this without forming a big theater company or selling it to somebody. The shows are so wildly different, and I think because of the Fringe circuit, art gets created, because there is this venue out there for it to be seen — and to earn money directly off it, and to be able to earn a living in what you create.”
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