Susan Lieu Feels The Weight of Death and Beauty

Her one-woman show ‘140 LBS’ confronts her mother’s death via plastic surgery malpractice.

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 (with versions popping up at places like The Pocket Theater, On the Boards, and Bumbershoot), 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.

But I always had this itch to be a performer. At my chocolate company in San Francisco, when [they] launched a chocolate flavor called Sriracha Flying Rooster, I created a telenovela where I was a giant chocolate bar falling in love with a giant bottle of Sriracha. So I’ve always been performing, I just never did it formally, in a sense.

I moved to Seattle four years ago, and after I got married, I started thinking about eventually having kids. Would I be able to have integrity with my children to say “Hey, you can do whatever you want” if I didn’t really purse that myself? So I’ve just been experimenting with different mediums.

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. The instructor was like, “Oh, did you do this at The Moth?” And I said, “No, I hadn’t.” 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 think with stand-up comedy I was looking for my voice and I was looking for the content I really wanted to focus on, because I felt naturally in my orbit onstage, but what I was writing about were just jokes I thought would be funny or perverted stuff or Tiger Mom stuff. And now that all I’m doing is truth onstage, it’s just very clear and energizing and motivating.

How did you end up connecting with Sara Porkalob?

I had gone to Dragon Lady [in fall 2017]. I had no idea what it was about, my friends just invited me. I went. I laughed. I cried. There’s a point where she actually invites someone onstage to dance with her, and I was dancing with her and it was really beautiful.

I had an opportunity to do a solo show at The Pocket Theater in November 2017—a 25-minute set. 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. I didn’t think anyone really wanted to hear it, to be honest. But I said, “You know what? Fine.” 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. Sarah McKinley, who owns the Pocket, heard about my work and said, “You know, maybe you wanta reach out to Sara.” And I was like, “Oh, she’s so busy.” And she said, “No, just reach out.” So about a week before that solo show, I had coffee with Sara and she just gave me some gesture coaching. Because even then I was going through about five or six characters onstage. She gave me some coaching, heard my story, and it was great. And then I continued to work with a different director for a few shows. 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.

When the opportunity came to do my full-length show, I had this epiphany moment. I’m a stand-up comic. I’m a woman. I’m a person of color. I have a lot of energy and a lot of comedy. And so does Sara. And because our styles are very similar, I really wanted her to direct. And so I got her on board.

Susan Lieu Feels The Weight of Death and Beauty

How does this version of the show differ from prior ones?

I took a piece of dynamite and blew up the entire show.

It’s more like how I started out in Episode 1.

There’s more scene work and character work. 2 and 3 were primarily direct address; like 90 to 100 percent. And now direct address is maybe playing 15 to 20 percent of a role in the show.

What have been the reactions to prior versions that have helped you get to this version of the show?

What has been amazing about that is this show is not just about me. This show is about creating an opening, a possibility of light, of healing, of reflection for people. Because it’s so specific, it becomes universal. That’s been really great.

Originally, my family didn’t want to have anything to do with the show. They were just like, “Susan, what are you doing? This is crazy.” Because they don’t even talk about my mom. Which you see in the tension of the show—nobody wanted to talk about it. So when I lost my mom when I was 11, I had very little context of who she was and what happened, because nobody wanted to talk about it. And when my sister came to the On the Boards show in June, she was observing all the comments and then she’s like, “Oh, I get it. It’s not about you.” This is about everyone else too. Now that there’s a very clear purpose in my work, I’m so energized, I’m so motivated.

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. Not one, “Hey, how are you feeling? Just want to check in.” Nothing. It was like, “OK, we’ll do all the death rituals; all the Buddhist stuff.” Her picture hangs up in the house at her altar. Death is a very real part of our culture and we see it all the time, but at the same time, there was no processing. So even now, to this day, I still ask my siblings like, “Hey, can you tell me about Mom? Where were you on her last day? How are you doing with it?” And everyone’s like, “It’s cool, Susan. We’ve moved on.” But it’s said in a way where I’m always just like, “Really? Have we moved on?” So is that family-specific? Is it culture-specific?

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.

When you look at Asian women, most of them are petite. The way our traditional dresses are cut—Vietnamese women wear an áo dài, it’s like a really long tunic that’s cut really high-waisted and then there are pants underneath. But you can see like inches of skin, which is considered really sexy. For you to wear that áo dài and look good, you have to be operating at a size 0–2. Anything more than that? It don’t look good on you, and people will let you know that. Part of my commentary is we have a constant fixation as a society, as peers, as family, and we can’t just keep blaming the media. I think it’s about really checking our own judgment and how we’re reinforcing this culture of perfection. Who do you follow on Instagram? What are you liking all the time? Why? It’s pervasive and it floods over and impacts people on an unconscious level.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Since working on the show, I’ve seen a shift in my own family. My dad totally is not coming to the show. He lives in Texas now, and in his interview—there’s a preshow element, a looping video that plays and gives you more context—he’s kind of like This is the last time, Susan. We cannot keep rehashing this. He’s firmly drawn the line in the sand. We’re not talking about this anymore.

My three siblings, on the other hand, two of them are coming to the closing show. They’re flying up from California to come on the 17th. And one brother has actually agreed to do a talkback, and talk about his experience watching the show. And so I’m super-excited about the closing show because 1) I’d like to see what he thought but 2) I think there’s an energetic shift on how they’re seeing the work. There’s one brother that probably is not going to come, and that’s OK. Everyone grieves in their own way, and I respect that. But I’m really excited about two siblings that are coming. I think that could be really interesting for audiences. Real family, real people being impacted.

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? I kind of leave that open at the end. 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.

140 LBS

February 7–17 | Theatre Off Jackson | $25 |

Tags: ,