Looking over Susan Lieu’s résumé, one would never guess that she makes her living in the performing-arts sector. With a B.A. in social studies from Harvard, an MBA from Yale and having co-founded Socola Chocolatier, an artisanal chocolate company in San Francisco, Lieu presents as the type of woman who should be at the head of a boardroom, not at center stage.
But after taking a solo performance class in Seattle in 2017 that helped her confront the circumstances surrounding her mother’s untimely death more than two decades ago, the Ivy League-educated Lieu, whose headlining show “Over 140 LBS” premieres Feb. 6 as part of the ACTLab Solo Fest, knew that acting was the right next step for her career.
When a prompt from the instructor caused her to blurt out the phrase, “I want to avenge my mother’s death,” it sent her on a trajectory that resulted in her first full-length production (both written and performed by Lieu), “140 LBS: How Beauty Killed My Mother,” which debuted in February 2019 to a sold-out run at Theatre Off Jackson.
“I was trying to just get back into performing,” says Lieu, who had previously performed stand-up comedy across the country in cities including San Francisco, New York and Seattle. “I wanted to make space and time for my dreams. The original intent wasn’t to make it into a full-time career, but the more I performed the more I felt alive and I realized that my audience was benefiting, too.”
In “140 LBS: How Beauty Killed My Mother,” an experimental show comprised of monologues, video interviews and projected photos, Lieu delves into the story of how her mother, Phuong Ha, went to a plastic surgeon for a tummy tuck and died on the table after losing oxygen to her brain. The doctor had waited 14 minutes before calling emergency services. Lieu was just 11 years old.
“I didn’t have that many memories of her,” she says. “No one in my family wanted to talk about it, everyone just wanted to move on.” She admits that there was likely a sense of shame surrounding it. But Lieu carried her mother’s death for decades and refused to let it be swept under the rug. “In a way the show was an act of retribution, a way to get some answers.”
Lieu’s parents were immigrants who fled Vietnam during the war, and she notes that the writing and performing process has helped her work through and better understand her experiences with intergenerational trauma.
“It’s been a discovery process,” she says. “It’s made me realize that when it comes to intergenerational trauma, I can’t change the generation that comes before me. I can influence them with stories, and I can live my life differently and hopefully be a role model in some sense, but based on the hierarchy of Vietnamese culture, it’s hard to change the older generations. The best thing I can do is change all of the things that didn’t serve me and not pass them on to my child.”
Lieu doesn’t have to wait long to impart these positive changes on the next generation — she’s expecting her first child at the end of March. In 2019, she launched a self-funded 10-city tour of “140 LBS: How Beauty Killed My Mother” that was ultimately financially profitable; for a relatively new and little-known theater artist, it’s a huge success.
“Over 140 LBS,” directed by local theater superstar Sara Porkalob, is one of four shows being presented over the two-weekend ACTLab Solo Fest, an inaugural theater festival that brings together four local artists looking at pressing social and political issues.
As Lieu explains, the production is a continuation of her first show — a mashup, in a sense, that includes about 40% new material. Seeing the first iteration is not necessary to understanding the current one. Both titles deal with the same story and issues including family, intergenerational trauma, beauty standards, grief and healing. But it’s no longer just about her own journey.
“I call it therapeutic theater,” Lieu says. “When I do this show, I create a portal for people in the audience to look at their own vulnerabilities and traumas, and it becomes a space of collective healing.”
“Over 140 LBS”: 7:30 p.m. Feb. 6-8 and Feb. 13-15, 2:30 p.m. Feb. 9 and 16; ACT Theatre, 700 Union St., Seattle; $28; 206-292-7676, acttheatre.org
This story has been updated with the correct ticket price.