My name is Tony Aidan Vo. My real name is actually Tony Vo; Aidan was recently added for stage name purposes. I’m a second generation Vietnamese American. I was born in Johnston City, New York, and after a year, my parents and I moved to Stockton and then Sacramento, and when I was about 6, we moved to Boulder, Colorado. I currently live in New York and work as an actor and musician. In my spare time, I enjoy baking sourdough bread, riding my bike around Brooklyn, and chilling with my cat Bella.
This year has been really interesting because I have been in this industry for about 7 years now but it hasn’t been until recently that I have been meeting a lot of Vietnamese artists, specifically actors, and getting involved in a lot of Vietnamese-centered projects and being more aware of Vietnamese narratives that aren’t typically told or seen in mainstream media. But now, being a part of Queen Sugar has inspired me to be more educated about my heritage. I recently sat down with my mom and talked to her for over 3 hours about her journey here; we had had a casual conversation about it around 6 years ago, but I didn’t have the state of mind at the time to fully absorb it or handle it.
My mom arrived in the States in 1989 as part of the last wave of Boat People. She had lived in Saigon since she was about 7 years old, and after her first failed attempt to escape at age 16, she was finally successful at age 18, fleeing south into Cambodia and then taking a boat up to Thailand. On her journey, she met my dad, one of the people in the group she was escaping with. As the boat was reaching Thailand, everyone had to jump out and swim to shore since boats couldn’t dock there, but my mom didn’t know how to swim so my dad helped her and my mom’s youngest brother, my Uncle Daniel who was 6 or 7 at the time, reach shore safely. They were all in the same refugee camp in Thailand for about 8 or 9 months. My mom actually had an in to the States because my grandfather had worked for the CIA as a driver, and my father was able to come to the States with my mom. I was actually conceived in the camp but my mom kept the pregnancy a secret because a pregnancy can lead to issues in the paperwork processing. My mom actually named me after the person who approved her application.
Growing up in California until I was about 6, I was around a lot of Vietnamese people, but then we moved to Boulder, which is predominantly White. I was very lucky because my mom wanted to make sure I was connected to my Vietnamese roots and so I went to Vietnam for 1-2 months every summer between 2nd and 8th grade. I would only speak Vietnamese there and I remember coming back to the States and dreaming in Vietnamese. I remember mixing up Vietnamese and English words when I started back at school, which unfortunately led to me being sent to ESL in the 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade in order to “fix” me. But I also remember complaining a lot about going to Vietnam because at the time all I wanted to do was to stay home, go to the pool, and hang with my friends. I also remember an incident in elementary school when my mom packed rice and eggrolls for me for lunch and me yelling, “I don’t want that! I want a sandwich or Lunchables!” I just wanted to fit in. Now looking back, I am so pissed off at myself for feeling that way. If I ever have kids, I’m going to pack them the most Vietnamese lunches ever and tell them to be proud of it. So in terms of my identity, I felt kind of split because there is a Vietnamese community in Colorado but it is nothing like the ones in California or Texas - it is very small and insular. I didn’t really feel in touch with my heritage except when I went to Vietnam or when I spent time with my family friends. And when I was about 10, my parents got divorced, which was pretty rare for Vietnamese families. It caused a big rift in our family and I actually haven’t really spoken to my dad since I was 13.
It wasn’t until high school that I started feeling ashamed of being Vietnamese and when I began trying to ignore that part of my identity. I grew up around a lot of White kids and I remember forgetting sometimes that I was Asian. The only other Asian kids in my school were exchange students who always stuck together, and I was one of those Asian kids who had some White friends and was pretty assimilated, and so it was easy to forget that I was Asian until someone singled me out and cracked jokes about Asians at me. It was hard not to internalize what they said or let their words mess with my sense of identity, especially in high school when everyone is trying to figure themselves out.
I started becoming more aware of my Asian identity when I started college. I studied acting at Ithaca College in upstate New York and I was the only Asian male in my program. Being an actor, you have to be more aware of what you look like and in my sophomore year, I realized that I was a type and that I would always be type casted; for example, being the only Asian male, I was assigned a scene in M. Butterfly, a show that BD Wong won a Tony Award for, and I played Song Liling. Later that year for my first regional theater job, I played Chip Tolentino in Spelling Bee. Chip is a Boy Scout who has this unfortunate erection and that role is typically cast as an Asian character. This was the second time that I was given a role because I “fit the type” and I recognized the pattern.
I had always identified as Asian American, but this year was the first year that I really started to be proud of being Vietnamese. A year and a half ago, I was up for a TV show where a supporting character was Vietnamese. I didn’t get it, but it was the first time that seeing a big Vietnamese role in a major TV show and it just made me so excited and happy to see that this narrative was being told. This year I did No-No Boy, a show about the Japanese American experience after World War II, at the Pan Asian Repertory Theater. We had an all-Asian cast: 3 Filipino Americans, 1 Chinese American, 2 Japanese Americans, and 3 Vietnamese Americans. It was the very first time that I had worked with other Vietnamese actors and immediately we just had this bond. It’s crazy that it took me 5 years in the industry before having the opportunity to work with other Vietnamese folks. After this, Queen Sugar came along and I got to work with even more Vietnamese actors like Vivien Ngo and Elyse Dinh. So everything in this past year has led me back to my roots and it has been so thrilling. My mom has just been so excited and proud to see me coming into my heritage and my identity and having a real interest in learning more. I even got into The Sympathizer, a Pulitzer Prize Winning novel by Viet Thanh Nguyen, about a Vietnamese Spy turned Refugee. It was really neat to read a book that I identified with so much, and one that is now a popular book in mainstream literature.
My very first time acting was in second grade when I was 7 years old. The University of Colorado was doing a production of South Pacific and they had an open call looking for 2 Asian kids to play the children, Jerome (who I played) and Ngana, in the show. So my first introduction to theater was this very production. I remember this being such a fun and cool experience and I had the best time being a part of it.
I started getting into music in middle school. I distinctly remember seeing this talent show and there was this kid who played a drum solo and I thought it was just the coolest thing. I took piano lessons when I was younger and decided that I wanted to be badass too and play the drums instead and so I begged my mom for a drum set. I was into punk rock music at the time so I formed a couple bands with my friends. So my introduction to music was playing in punk rock bands with my friends in suburbia. Bless my family for putting up with the loud music during those years!
I played sports and music during the first half of high school, but in my junior year I got tired of wrestling because of the toxic masculinity. I was in an acting class for the credits and they were having a Thespian Ice Cream Social and my drama teacher, Gwendolyn Lukas-Doctor, was like, “Come, have some ice cream!” The ice cream got me in the door and they encouraged me to audition for A Christmas Carol. I looked up a random monologue online, memorized it, and got the part as Businessman #2, the man who talks crap about Mr. Scrooge after Mr. Scrooge dies. At that point I had to choose between wrestling and theater but because I was so miserable in wrestling and the people in theater were so nice, it was an easy decision to make. Then I got bit by the theater bug - I joined choir, auditioned for the musical later that year, and started acting in community theater. The transition felt so natural, so new and exciting, and it still does, which is why I’m still acting now! Also, with everything else I had been doing at the time - music, the punk rock scene, sports, wrestling - I felt like I was putting on a mask, pretending to be someone I wasn’t, which I know is ironic since I’m an actor! It’s really amazing how my drama teacher shifted so much for me, and I’m so grateful to her for always encouraging me and for changing my life.
In terms of Asian American or Southeast American media personalities to look up to growing up, I was really inspired by Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan. It sounds cliche but they were the only two Asians you would see in movies. The only other person that comes to mind is Kenny Choi from Daphne Loves Derby, an indie pop punk band from Washington. Kenny is a Korean American and he was the only other Asian musician I saw, and a pop punk one at that. It was awesome to see an Asian American as a frontman.
The very first show I got cast in was These Seven Sicknesses at the Flea Theater in downtown Tribeca. The Flea Theater is a company that was formed by Jim Simpson and co-founders Kyle Chepulis, Sigourney Weaver, and Mac Wellman, and their mission was to bring in these young and scrappy actors and create a joyful hell in a small space. The show was a modern adaptation of all 7 of Sophocles’ Greek tragedies. It was an epic 4-hour show with 2 intermissions, and the cast consisted of 34 non-union actors, an acting company called "The Bats.” There was a chorus of singing nurses, it took place in a hospital, and it had a really festive atmosphere. The director, Ed Sylvanus Iskandar, wanted the audience to get warmed up in the lobby so he asked the cast to see if anyone played instruments and could help create this fun energy as they walked into the theater. A few of the actors volunteered: our music captain for the show Tommy (Crawford) had a guitar, his friend Will (Turner) had a guitar (Tommy and Will jammed together while they were both at Yale), Alex (Grubbs) had a mandolin, and Eloïse (Eonnet) and I had percussion instruments. The rest was history - we started jamming in the lobby and played every day before each show. People really vibed with our music and even after the show closed, we continued to perform together, playing the gamut from one off dive bars gigs to opening for other bands. It was a lot of fun but at one point we thought about how we were also all actors and ways we could utilize all our skills.
SeaWife came about because 3 of my bandmates went off to Sag Harbor near the Hamptons to play at a benefit. The house they were put up in was purportedly haunted by a sea captain named William Johnson Rysam. Because our acoustic folk sound blended well with sea shanties, we started kicking around ideas for a nautical ghost story concert show. The script and musical is all original. We were really inspired by Herman Melville and Coleridge. We collaborated with two other people. Seth Moore, who is the playwright, was also an actor in These Seven Sicknesses with us and so we already had a relationship with him. We had started asking around for playwrights who were interested in this crazy nautical ghost story and it randomly turned out that Seth had actually written a 30 minute radio play about a haunted ship. What were the odds? Well, it gets even crazier. During These Seven Sicknesses, Seth, who was one of the main characters in the show, had actually had a heart attack about 2 weeks before the show was closing. We had to stop the show and the ambulance came, but because we have a hospital set and singing nurses, a lot of people thought that this was all part of the show; we had to tell everyone that it was indeed real and life threatening. He received CPR and ended up in a coma for 2-3 days, and a lot of the castmates went to visit him while he was in the hospital. Eloïse, who is also one of my The Lobbyists bandmates, gave him a notebook as a get well gift and the first couple of pages of SeaWife were in that notebook. How full circle is that? We also worked with Liz Carlson, our director and developer. She helped orchestrate a lot of the narrative and was an instrumental voice and leader for us.
My favorite song in SeaWife would probably have to be “Fins ‘n Teeth.” I actually wrote the chord progression for this song. Our songwriting is really collaborative and with “Fins ‘n Teeth,” the song came in at a very dramatic moment in the middle of the play and so we needed it to have this kind of heavy weight to it. Will and I went away and I brought forth this chord progression that was inspired by my background in metal and influences like Nirvana and Metallica, and Will, who was inspired by Tom Waits, wrote the lyrics using that Tom Waits nursery-rhyme style. I love this song because it still has this folksy acoustic sound but sounds like a rock song; nothing is plugged in or distorted - just a guitar, a mandolin, a fiddle, a cello, a drum set, and a tambourine. There’s also this really sick cello solo performed by Raymond Sicam III where it sounds like he’s playing an electric guitar. We’ll play this song for old folks and they’re always surprised because they feel like they’re suddenly at a rock concert. I love that this song bends the genre and defies people’s expectations.
In terms of the Drama Desk nomination, what a surreal moment for us and an absolute dream! There is no submission process for the Drama Desk nomination process, just a committee of voters and judges who see as many of the shows as possible, but the thought of a nomination never crossed our minds. I remember waking up that morning to a text from my friend Kara Kaufman, our stage manager for SeaWife, saying “Omg! We’re nominated!” I couldn’t believe it. We were emotional and there was just pure jubilation. It was crazy to see our names next to Sara Bareilles (Waitress), Michael John LaChiusa (First Daughter Suite), Andrew Lloyd Webber (School of Rock), and Steve Martin and Edie Brickell (Bright Star), all these heavy hitters and people I looked up to. It was also really validating because we had just finished SeaWife and were kind of struggling to figure out what was next for us, for SeaWife, for The Lobbyists. So this nomination helped us realize that we were doing something right, that we had to keep creating as a group.
Before The Lobbyists, I did have a little bit of a background in folk music. As I previously mentioned, I was into punk rock in middle school and into metal at the beginning of high school, and once I got into theater, I got into acoustic music. I learned a lot of pop songs and emo songs on guitar at first, and then I started playing more folk music, especially as I got into college. It is interesting because it’s not every day that you see an Asian American man in a folk band, but not everyone is surprised - it really depends on the audience. It certainly is changing a lot now, especially with musical acts like Kishi Bashi and Thao & The Get Down Stay Down. If we’re performing in NYC, no one bats an eye, but in places with a whiter demographic in the New England Area like Connecticut or Massachusetts, I have been approached by older folks who are pleasantly surprised.
We are currently working on a project called The Golden Spike. We are often inspired by historical themes and stories rooted in history and finding parallels in the modern context. The Golden Spike is about the stories of the Irish immigrants and Chinese immigrants who worked on the Transcontinental Railroad in the 1800s. We are still workshopping the show right now, but we are exploring themes like immigration, the Chinese Exclusion Act, and assimilation, how this huge technological endeavor which was supposed to bring the country together actually divided the country as well, and how the Railroad catapulted the country into a new age of technology and innovation but also split us in terms of racism. It was also the birth of corporations and unions. We are super excited to be working with Don Nguyen, a Vietnamese American playwright. We are hoping to premiere sometime next year, which will actually coincide with the 150th anniversary of the Golden Spike and so be timely for a number of reasons: the debates over immigration, what it means to be American, the legacy of our country, who helped build our country. There is actually this one famous photo of the Golden Spike where you see the 2 trains, the Central Pacific (going East to West) and the Union Pacific (going West to East), meeting at Promontory Point, Utah. The Irish and Chinese immigrants had worked their asses off to get the job done in time but when it was time to take the photo, only the railroad tycoons and the white workers are in the image. So with The Golden Spike, we are trying to take that photo and peel back the layers to see what’s underneath. There’s still a lot of work to be done, but we are super excited.
There is definitely a responsibility that comes with doing historical plays. In No No Boy, the play explores Asian identity in the context of the immediate aftermath of World War II and Japanese Internment. A lot of the themes in No No Boy are still relevant today, such as the debate over the constitutionality of internment and the “Loyalty Questions”:
Question 27: “Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States on combat duty wherever ordered?"
Question #28: "Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America and faithfully defend the United States from any or all attack by foreign or domestic forces, and forswear any form of allegiance or obedience to the Japanese emperor, or any other foreign government, power, or organization?"
These were both trick questions that had devastating consequences and the weight of them often ripped families apart. If you answered yes to #27, you risked being separated from your family, but also had to consider the fact that you would be fighting for a country that saw you as the enemy, stripped you of your citizenship, and interned your family and entire community. And if you answered yes to Question 28, it could be interpreted that you had actually been loyal to Japan and thus proved the validity of internment. But answering no to these questions could result in imprisonment or being sent away to a labor camp. Most of the time, many of these Japanese Americans were born in America and had no real connection to Japan except by appearance and through their parents.
I am not Japanese American, but being an Asian American actor, I do get cast in roles that are not necessarily reflective of my actual ethnic identity. For me, if I get a role where I have to speak a specific language that isn’t English or Vietnamese, I would hand that role over to someone with that background because they would be able to bring a level of authenticity that I would not be able to do. There was no Japanese spoken in No No Boy so it was more about me playing a character that I was able to portray and being able to tell their truth because I was able to relate to it. I played a teenager named Taro who hates his brother Ichiro because Ichiro said no to both questions and got sent to federal prison. Taro believed that Ichiro had to fight for the country, to prove their loyalty to the U.S. and that they are actually Americans. These two brothers had polar opposite opinions and so for me, the responsibility was to authentically tell the story from Taro’s perspective and tap into his determination and belief that the only way out was to do everything possible to prove his loyalty. It’s crazy because we were able to have the Japanese Citizens League (JACL) come and see the show, and there were veterans, actual internees who were born and raised in the camps, Japanese Americans who had family members who were interned. I remember hearing from many of these younger Japanese Americans that their parents would never talk about their experience so seeing this play was really cathartic for them. So this whole experience was not only validating for me as an actor, but also so fulfilling because it was so humbling to be able to portray these true stories on stage, to honor the individuals and the community who lived through these experiences.
In terms of The Great Leap, I had been aware of the project for awhile because it had been workshopped at New York Stage and Film, a program that produces Powerhouse Theater Festival at Vassar College every summer. Lauren Yee, the brilliant and gifted playwright who I had known from Ma-Yi Theater Company, invited me to audition for The Great Leap at the Denver Center. I actually didn’t get a callback, which was disappointing since I had loved the script. Then I found out that the Atlantic Theater Company was producing the show and in my mind, I had no chance since it is such a prestigious company and they usually have their own shortlist of actors and celebrities. Then in January during the run of No No Boy, my agent sent me the audition appointment for The Great Leap and I got real excited, I got my second chance! They also had hired a new director, Taibi Magar, and not only did we just vibe in the callback, but she also apparently had seen me in a show at The Bushwick Starr a year prior.
I found out about the rest of the cast a couple months later, and when I heard that BD Wong was attached to the project, I flipped my shit. BD Wong was the first Asian actor to win a Tony Award for Acting and he is someone who has paved the way for so many other Asian American actors. He is such a great role model and so inspiring. I remember searching him up after I performed M. Butterfly in college and realizing just how many movies and tv shows he had been in. I also saw him give the keynote a year and a half ago at an event for the Asian American Performers Action Coalition, an organization in NY where they gather the stats of Broadway and off-Broadway shows and look at how many roles are Asian American, Latin American, African American, Middle Eastern, and White. And now I had the privilege and honor to be considered his colleague and act alongside him. Ned Eisenberg who plays the coach and Ali Ahn who plays my cousin are both wonderfully gifted actors who have been in the biz for a long time. They are such pros and it was like a master class working with them. And Lauren and Taibi created such an open and nurturing atmosphere to work in. The whole cast and team was an absolute joy to work with and that is not always the case on certain projects.
My bandmate saw the casting call online and noticed that it was the second time that it had gone around, and told me to take a look. I forwarded it to my agent who said that since it was based in LA, my chances were pretty slim but that I should still submit a tape. I wanted to try since it was super specific and it felt like they were looking for someone just like me:
“[BAO PHAN]Seeking an actor, 18 - 24, to play Trinh Phan's younger brother, BAO* PHAN. He's been raised by a doting sister in this close knit Vietnamese family. ACTOR PROFICIENT IN VIETNAMESE IS A PLUS. Recurring”
*Name later changed
I didn’t actually know much about the show or the Vietnamese American community in New Orleans until after I got cast. Vivien actually reached out to me and told me about the documentary “A Village Called Versailles” and I went out and rented it. I had no idea that there was a Vietnamese American community out in Louisiana because usually people only know about the ones in California, New York, and Texas. I was blown away and started doing a lot of research, learning about the refugee camps that were set up near the area, the similarities between the climates and the fishing industries in Louisiana and Vietnam. I unfortunately haven’t had the chance to visit Versailles yet because of the hectic filming schedule, but I would love to check it out if the opportunity arises.
I love that Queen Sugar is including this community in their show because the Vietnamese American community in New Orleans is such a big part of the history and culture of the area. The creative team led by Kat Candler, the showrunner, has done a great job working with the writers to make sure that everything is as authentic as possible. They would ask Elyse Dinh, the actress who plays my mom on the show, if certain things are pronounced correctly, or if the set design is actually something you would find in a Vietnamese American home.
We hope that more people will come and watch us, and any kind of support on social media would be super appreciated! The more people talk about the show and express their love and excitement for the portrayal of a multidimensional Vietnamese American family, hopefully other shows and networks will realize that there is a need and a market for more representation on screen. #QUEENSUGAR #PHANCLAN