There’s no easy way to lose a parent, especially for a young child. Susan Lieu’s mother passed away when she was just 11. But the circumstances of her death made the whole ordeal a complicated mess that the Seattle performer has been wrestling with ever since. Lieu’s mother died at the hands of doctor malpractice after going in for an elective cosmetic surgery. The pain of the event, the harsh lack of processing grief, our culture’s beauty standards, and how that all ties into her Asian American background are explored in Lieu’s new one-woman show, 140 LBS. She’s been honing versions of the show since late 2017, and now — under the direction of local performance powerhouse Sara Porkalob (Dragon Lady) — Lieu’s ready to share her family story during a two-week run at Theatre Off Jackson (Feb. 7–17).
To get a handle on 140 LBS we chatted with Lieu about the show and the tragic paths of beauty, grieving, and fate.
How do you describe 140 LBS to people?
It happens all the time with Lyft drivers or people I haven’t seen in a while. They’ll be like, “Oh, what are you up to?” And I’ll be like, “I took a career change and am a performance artist now.” “Oh… well what?” “I do a one-woman show about how my mom died from plastic surgery malpractice.” And then it gets really quiet. Then they’ll go, “Are you shitting me? Is this true?” “Oh yeah, it’s totally true.” If they want to keep going, I say it’s about body, beauty, and death. It’s about the pressures that we have to be beautiful from society and our own family. It’s about kind of dealing with our own mortality. And it’s also about advocating for our own bodies in the medical system; looking at the background of your doctor.
What is theatrical background and how did it get you to the point of doing 140 LBS?
I started in stand-up comedy seven years ago in San Francisco. I headlined at the Purple Onion and eventually did sets at Caroline’s on Broadway. I was also an improv artist at Jet City Improv. So I have a heavier comedy background.
I took a solo performance class at Freehold Theatre in summer of 2017. And the first day of class, the instructor said tell a five-minute story. And the first line of my story was I wanted to avenge my mother’s death. And I started talking about how I was trying to track down the killer. And that was kind of the beginning of the journey of turning this into a show. Because I just never really knew my mom, you know? I’ve been doing more research about her death and about her, and now it’s turned into this show.
I had an opportunity to do a solo show at The Pocket Theater in November 2017. Originally, I was actually going to do absurdist Andy Kaufman comedy. I never wanted to turn this into a show because I thought I’d be airing my family’s dirty laundry or this would not be honorable—it’s a shameful thing to do. When I was preparing for the show, I was working with a coach and she kept teasing the family story out of me and said it was really impactful.So two weeks before the show, I changed the story. I wrote the show—it was called Dr. X: How I Avenged My Mother’s Death. In March 2018 at 18th and Union I did a version called Episode 2. I was at On the Boards’s Northwest New Works in June—that’s Episode 3. And then I combined Episodes 2 and 3 for a 60-minute show at Bumbershoot in August.
How does this version of the show differ from prior ones?
I took a piece of dynamite and blew up the entire show.
When you say that you hesitated about doing the show because it’d be a shameful thing, do you feel that’s a general familial thing or does it have cultural ties too?
Whenever people ask about my family, like if someone wants to move from acquaintance to friend zone, they’ll eventually ask about your parents and where they live. “Well what about your mom?” “Oh, she’s dead.” And they go, “Oh, of what?” And there have been so many times where I wish she died from something more honorable. Like cancer. Oh, you couldn’t have prevented it. Or a car accident. Oh, what a terrible thing to happen. But plastic surgery malpractice is complicated, because it’s elective. She chose to do that. But at the same time, the doctor himself had 24 lawsuits against him, on probation, sanctioned by the medical board twice, no malpractice insurance, unaccredited. So this wasn’t a fluke accident on his part. But the thing is he got away with it.
But speaking for Vietnamese culture, we don’t express our emotions though words, we process through eating. My mom died when I was 11, and we did not do family grief counseling. We never talked about it. Not once.
I think Asian people in general, like my parents’ generation, they’re not going to be like, “I’m proud of you. I love you.” We don’t do that. So you can insinuate how we talk about death is just different. And because I’m Asian American and I have this need to process, then I’ve always felt incomplete about it. I think that’s the duality of growing up Asian American: You’re trying to navigate two cultures and do well in it, but you’re always not American enough or not Asian enough.
So then does that duality play into the beauty perfection standards?
100 percent. That’s the thing. I talk about it in the show: Throughout my entire life, my family has reminded me that I should lose weight. And at the point I was like a size 4 or size 6, and now I’m a size 8. “No one’s going to ever love you. No one’s ever going to marry you. People are judging you all the time.” This was always a part of my life, and it’s still a part of my life whenever I see my aunties. It doesn’t even matter that my mom died from wanting to get a tummy tuck. And it’s been very hurtful, because it makes love very conditional.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
The final thing is there’s a deeper element beyond the obvious themes of body, beauty, and death. There’s another question that surrounds destiny and free will. In Vietnamese, we have a word for it, called số. Vietnamese really believe in fate, a lot. So it’s kinda interesting. Why would you have a bad fate? It’s so tragic the way my mom died. I guess what I want viewers to think about is do they have a destiny too or is there free will? Because is it my destiny to do this show because my mom died? So was she then destined to die because I had to do this show? Or is there free will, because I was just like it’s total bullshit what this man did to my family, and I want to raise awareness about medical accountability and redeem my family? I think that’s a pretty open question.