There’s only one problem with her decision. Standing there at the orphanage, she hears gunfire. Then Donna is held at gunpoint, as soldiers search the school — hardly your standard introduction to a new place of employment. She looks bewildered, even shocked, and starts wondering what she got herself into. But looking around, she notices the children seem used to the chaos around them. They eagerly surround the young American teacher, a novelty at the school.
Donna’s problem, you could say, is twofold: timing, and location. It was in August 1968 that this farm girl from rural Indiana stepped off a plane in Saigon, Vietnam. Quite randomly, she had met a Vietnamese monk, who convinced her to leave the United States and relocate to Saigon, even though that was at the height of the Vietnam War. At the time, Donna admits, it didn’t seem like such a crazy decision.
”It’s only later, when you think about it, that you realize how weird it was,’’ she admits.
Donna Miller’s remarkable story of her life in Vietnam from 1968 until 1975, just before the tragic fall of Saigon, is chronicled by her daughter, Tonya Jone Miller, who happens to be a very gifted actress and playwright. While acting in an ensemble show at the Winnipeg, Calgary and Edmonton fringe festivals in 2009, Tonya got the inspiration to craft a play based on her mother’s experience.
”I began videotaping interviews with my mother about her time in Vietnam – how she got there, why she went, what she did,’’ Tonya wrote in the playbill for the final product, “Threads: The True Story of an Indiana Farm Girl in Vietnam,” which is now making its Central Florida debut as part of the Orlando International Fringe Theatre Festival. ”I was surprised by the scope of her experiences, and knew immediately I was on to something; these were stories that begged to be told.’’
Tonya was right. There’s no better illustration of that than when she reenacts the absolutely gripping, and harrowing, night when her mother, now eight-months-pregnant, tries desperately to get on a plane out of Vietnam, even though she’s lost her identification papers. She knows that if her child is born in this country, that baby might never get out of Vietnam. Tonya, a superb actress, performs the frantic race to find a plane she can board on a bare stage, and is so powerful that she places the audience right there in that Vietnam airport. We feel the rush of anxiety as the window of opportunity to escape this country starts closing, faster and faster, and is looks almost hopeless. It’s a scene so overwhelming that it haunts for long after the show is over.
“Threads” is performed entirely by Tonya, on a stage in the Patron’s Room at the Lowndes Shakespeare Theatre with nothing more than two red suitcases as props. She carries us back to 1962, when Donna graduated from college and set out to find opportunity. She ends up in Bloomington, Indiana, but not for long. By 1968, she’s decided to accept an offer to teach English at the Buddhist University in Saigon, where the students and faculty laugh out loud at her first attempt to speak Vietnamese – which she later learns accidentally came out as ‘Please don’t marry me.’’
The school is hopelessly bland, colorless, and is designed and decorated with no personality.
”Everything is white,’’ Donna says. ”No toys, no music, no laughing – nothing.’’
But the war going on all around them provides a sharp contrast to that school. And it isn’t that Donna had no clue the war was going on, in the year when both Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King were assassinated. As Donna notes, she started becoming more political that year when her brother Chuck became an American soldier sent to fight in Vietnam. She knew what he was going through. Why go to the same horrific place?
”Why go to a country where my brother almost died and people die every day?’’ Donna asks herself. And quite simply, she answers, ”Because they need teachers.’’
‘’Threads’’ is a one-woman show that’s captivating for the entire hour, in no small part to Tonya’s spellbinding performance, but also because she was right: this is a fascinating story that takes us back to a highly polarizing time, seen through the eyes of a woman armed with idealism and hope, but a highly unrealistic expectation of what she’s getting herself into.
Her story might never have been told. Theater, fortunately, provides the perfect vehicle for a true story like this one, and ”Threads’’ is one very powerful, emotionally riveting journey to take.
“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. There are performances on Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 11 a.m., and at 4 p.m. on Sunday, May 27.
Contact us at FreelineOrlando@Gmail.com.