By Keshia McEntire
Elizabeth (liz) Anh Thomson was born in southern Vietnam. Adopted as a baby alongside another Vietnamese child, Thomson grew up with white parents on the northside of Indianapolis. As a child, Thomson was proud of being adopted, yet sometimes felt conflicted about aspects of their identity. While the schools Thomson attended had some degree of diversity, Thomson’s teachers never addressed what it meant to be of a particular race, gender or sexual orientation. Thomson turned to writing to explore questions regarding identity, creating poems and short stories in their notebook.
Thomson’s passion for storytelling only increased with age. Most recently, Thomson penned “Toilet Talks,” a semi-autobiographical play about Thomson’s relationship with their mother. A free staged reading of “Toilet Talks” will take place at 8 p.m. on April 18 at Indyfringe Theater. The production is part of Divafest, a celebration of women playwrights that takes place annually in Indianapolis.
Heartbeat Indy recently had an opportunity to chat with Thomson about the inspiration for “Toilet Talks” and the importance of elevating marginalized voices:
Tell me about yourself. How and when did you gain an interest in storytelling, and what inspired you to write your first script?
I’m a Vietnamese adoptee, who also identifies as bi/queer, gender non-conforming, and with a disability. I was adopted along with another Vietnamese baby into a white family when I was a baby in the mid-1970s toward the end of the war. I was brought from Saigon to the north side of Indianapolis. I grew up on the north side of Indy, which had some racial diversity in the school system, but gender identity, gender expression, and sexuality wasn’t addressed.
I’ve always done some kind of writing. As a kid I would write in my journals and write poems and stories. I started writing this play in March 2018, and then a few months later took a playwrighting class with Andrew Black at Indiana’s Writers Center. Doing eldercare for my mom inspired me. The play format seemed appropriate, since most of the content was dialogue between the two of us. It’s still a work in progress. From the staged reading, I hope I can get helpful feedback. I’d still love to see it fully produced.
Your play is semi-autobiographical and one of the themes it deals with is adoption. As a person who is queer and Vietnamese adopted into a white, American family, how did that adoption play into the way you viewed your identity as you were growing up?
As a kid, I remember being very proud of being adopted. We had a unique “Thomson story” that most people knew. What was missing was the conversations around race. What it meant to be Asian American in a predominantly White community. I knew I wasn’t White. I knew I was Asian American, but I didn’t know what that meant in the bigger picture. Really, the only exposure to Asian culture was Chinese food or the Chinese dancers in The Nutcracker.
In high school, I got bullied a little, and I remember in school someone wrote something anti-Asian on the back of my chair. The teacher just took it away and replaced it with a new one- but never talked about it. Ironically, I think this was in my Sociology class. I don’t think I told my parents. I kept a lot to myself, which wasn’t very mentally and emotionally healthy. I’m pretty sure my depression, anxiety, and suicidal (thoughts) started as a kid. I didn’t feel like I had a safe way to communicate what I was going through. It wasn’t until college where my different identities developed, and I started exploring what they all meant to me.
I think like others, writing and writing for people to hear or read has been a way of self-expression, and honestly, sanity. Usually, after people read some of my writing or hear me speak, they disclose similar experiences and we both feel like we’re not so alone. I’ve realized that the concepts of sense of belonging and community are very important to me.
Tell me more about Toilet Talks. Did a real conversation inspire the events of the play, and was it difficult to write fictionalized versions of real people?
Definitely. Although most of the play is based on our actual relationship, some of it is fiction. Overall, I wanted the play to express the feelings and emotions that I had having these conversations with Mom in the bathroom. I mean, here we are – in this small, intimate, vulnerable, and enclosed space throughout the day (like six times a day). We’re about six inches from each other. She didn’t want me to leave, because she’ll be “done in a minute.” So we start talking about different things to pass the time.
I’m a pretty open person, so it wasn’t too hard for me. Mom might have wanted me to edit some things. I can hear her now saying, “Oh, liz. Why would people want to hear about that?!” She was a little more private, but I think she would have been proud about the play. She knew I was writing it, but never read the final product.
Some of the themes you explore – race, sexuality, police violence – are topics that many people choose to avoid discussing with family and friends. Why do you think it’s hard for us to explore these topics?
I don’t know, but I can only speak for myself. I think as a kid, you just want to fit in and not be different – or not be too different. Not be different enough to be made fun of or bullied. I have grown up with a lot of White people. I know the White people in my family are good people and want to do the right thing. Also, some of the things I heard growing up even with my parents would definitely be considered colorblind or a bit prejudice. How does one challenge people one loves and cares about on these issues? How does one provide them with another perspective in a way that they might be able to digest it?
In some ways, I think doing this with strangers is easier. There’s some distance… and one doesn’t see them at birthday parties, Thanksgiving, and Christmas (ha ha ha). I think everyone has to build trust and rapport and have a relationship that is open enough to compassionately challenge and also have the patience to listen lovingly. It’s hard. No doubt about it.
According to the League of Professional Theatre Women, about 21% of playwrights are women. DivaFest is all about elevating the voices of women. Why do you think it’s important for women and minorities to tell their stories?
I think it’s incredibly important for women and minorities to have agency to tell their stories, because we often have a different perspective. We have a different approach to the material. From our different social institutions (i.e., church, politics, education, recreational activities), people constantly get the perspective of White, heterosexual, Christian, middle class, cisgender males. So having spaces like DivaFest are important as counter-spaces.
What do you want Hoosiers to know about the theater scene in Indianapolis?
Fortunately, my parents were able to expose us to arts and culture in Indianapolis. We went to plays and musicals. Since I’ve come back to Indy, what I’ve appreciated is the theater scene around Mass Ave. with the more intimate venues and contemporary plays. As an adult, I really value the plays that are being told by minority playwrights and those that raise up traditionally unheard voices. These weren’t the kind of plays that my parents took me to.
Since I’ve been back to Indy the past year and a half, I’ve appreciated getting to know the Indianapolis writing, theater, and comedy communities. I’ve experienced that people genuinely want you to do well and have fun. I had taken beginner’s improv class at Second City in Chicago, so one of the first things I did was to enroll at ComedySportz Indy.
What do you hope people who come out to the reading take away from the performance?
Good question. I have a lot of hopes, but I think the two main hopes are around eldercare issues and adoption and race. Providing eldercare is really hard. It’s not just the time and labor, but the emotional aspect, too. People doing eldercare need support from others in different ways. They need to be able to still be the daughter or son of the parent – and not just the personal assistant. For adoption and race, I hope in 2019, people who are adopting outside of their race are being more conscious about race. They need to have a plan to talk about race with their kid as they grow up. We still don’t live in a “post-racial” world, and especially minorities often have multiple, intersectional identities. All of our identities need to be acknowledged and celebrated.
Is there anything else you would like to say?
It’s been about six months since Mom passed away, and I miss her a lot. Although it was hard to do eldercare, I’m glad I had the time with her and was with her the day she died. I have some regrets that I’m still dealing with. Some of the times I’d get annoyed or frustrated- not with her, but with the situation. Right now, I’d give anything even for that. One more hug. One more kiss.
I hope people support all the plays in DivaFest, and I would encourage folks to check out the Toilet Talks Facebook Events page! I’m posting some fun things leading up to the staged reading. People can get to know the actors, share their own stories, and learn some fun facts!
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