If Susan Lieu is performing her one-woman show, “140 LBS: How Beauty Killed My Mother,” you can always count on two things: Throughout the show, there will be audience members who sniffle, wipe away tears and laugh. Then, after the show’s over, people will form a line.
Some wait to share their own stories about loss with Lieu, who was 11 when her mother, Ha Thuy Phuong, died following a plastic surgery procedure. Others want to embrace her, wordless. Whatever it is, something resonates with people who see “140 LBS,” a comedy-drama about grief, family dynamics, spirituality, beauty and Vietnamese culture.
Lieu debuted her play on Feb. 7 at the Theatre Off Jackson in Seattle, where she lives with her husband. The nine-show run sold out, and Lieu returned in July for an encore performance. Now, she is taking her mother’s spirit on a 10-city national tour, with stops in Washington, D.C., Chicago, Boston, Santa Fe, N.M., Pittsburgh and Los Angeles.
“140 LBS” details how the Lieu family grappled with Ha’s death in silence for decades — until Ha’s youngest, most extroverted child starts asking more questions. While studying for her master’s in business administration at Yale University, Lieu begins to dig deeper. The audience watches as Lieu pieces together family stories and court records to create a fuller picture of what happened to her mother, who died five days after going into respiratory arrest during an elective surgery in 1996. She was 38.
Her surgeon, Leslie Moglen, operated legally in California while on probation. Moglen did not have malpractice insurance, but he did have legal representation: Between 1983 and 1997, he was a defendant in two dozen lawsuits. Moglen operated on Ha without an anesthesiologist present in a Bay Area clinic. The state’s attorney general’s office pursued a case against him for negligence. Ultimately, the California Medical Board suspended his license for just six months in 1999.
For the most part, these are facts that members of the Lieu family have known for a long time. But facing these truths as an adult lit a fire in Susan. In “140 LBS,” she reaches for justice but instead finds that a 34-year-old woman can still get to know her mother, even if she’s gone.
Khanh Lieu, Susan’s oldest brother, has his mother’s laugh, people tell him. Khanh, 42, describes his sister Wendy Lieu Hassan as having an “iron fist in a velvet glove,” like their mother.
“She could negotiate anything,” Lieu Hassan, 37, says of Ha, who sold lottery tickets in Vietnam to make enough money to escape with her husband and two sons. In 1981, on their sixth attempt, the family made it to a refugee camp in Malaysia, where Ha gave birth to Wendy. They arrived in California in 1983, and Susan was born two years later. Ha went on to open two nail salons. She sponsored some of her siblings to the United States, making their home in San Pablo, Calif., full but lively. At one point, 13 people lived in the four-bedroom house. “She was a tough person, but she was really sweet, too. She would always fight for what she believed in.”
Perhaps that is the main similarity between Susan Lieu and Ha: When Susan truly believes in something, she’ll push for it.
In 2014, when Lieu first started pressing her family to open up about Ha, she didn’t know it would result in a play. After graduating from Yale, Lieu moved to Seattle, where she mostly worked as a consultant. She married Marvin Kim, who she met in graduate school. In her free time, she dabbled in mountaineering — Kim’s hobby — and pored over the details of her mother’s life and death. Lieu, who had some experience with stand-up comedy, wasn’t satisfied in corporate America.
She felt like a coward: “Deep down inside, I [knew] I was supposed to be a performer,” Lieu says. In 2017, she took a solo performance class. During the first session, students were instructed to tell a five-minute story.
When it was her turn, Lieu said, “I wanted to avenge my mother’s death.” For the first time outside of her marriage, she explained the hairy details of her journey to track down Moglen, Ha’s surgeon, who targeted his advertisements at Vietnamese women. When she discovered Moglen had died, Lieu felt deflated, she told her classmates. Worse yet? Her true discontent stemmed from something else entirely: Lieu didn’t really know who her mother was.
Later that year, Lieu performed an early iteration of “140 LBS” But in order to expand the play, she needed more. Lieu had to ask her siblings — Khanh, Hang and Wendy — and her father to share even more.
From the beginning, Lieu’s persistent questions were “received by some and not welcomed by others,” Khanh Lieu says. “It drew up emotions and feelings that people didn’t want to address again.” Their father begged Susan to let it go, insisting that his wife was destined to die that year. In part because of his Buddhist beliefs, he knew the family couldn’t have done anything to change her fate. “That story has passed, so you have to let it pass,” he told his youngest daughter. “Nobody wants to hear stories that aren’t good, hearing them all the time. It makes everyone not happy.”
Little by little, each one of Lieu’s family members made their own concessions. Her father agreed to talk only about their life in Vietnam and the boat experience. Khanh revealed snippets Susan wasn’t privy to growing up. (It was Khanh, then 19, who made the decision to take Ha off life support.) Lieu also tapped into the auntie network. They shared early stories about Ha, a fierce hustler who took big risks, and helped their niece retrace Ha’s last days.
Despite these insights, Lieu hit a wall when it came time to imagine her siblings’ thought processes. (In “140 LBS,” Lieu portrays 12 characters, including her immediate family members.) After their mom died, there was no counseling or therapy. Life simply went on: Lieu joined the 1,000-page club at her local library before growing bored and returning to school. Her aunts moved out of their home. Wendy, then 14, became her mother figure. Khanh and Hang went back to college, coming home on weekends.
“We didn’t talk about our feelings and check in with each other,” says Lieu, who has seen a therapist on and off since college. To this day, her brothers and sisters don’t revisit their mother’s death in conversations. “My siblings are my lifeline, but it’s complicated with all of them. … Together as a unit, we’ve weathered the waves of life together.”
Although the play stirred up some unwanted emotions in the Lieu family, it has helped others.
In early October, Michael Lai and Lee Lo, both 26, saw Lieu perform an excerpt of “140 LBS” at SEARAC’s Southeast Asian American Equity Summit in Sacramento. Moved by Lieu’s performance, the couple drove to San Francisco’s Columbarium and Funeral Home to watch the full 75-minute show. This time, Lai brought his two sisters — Jennifer Lai, 25, and Tiffany Le, 14 — and Jennifer’s partner, Kevin Bautista, 26. For Michael Lai, the play captures what it’s like to lose close family members, then deal with the aftermath. A year ago, the siblings lost their father. Like Lieu, they come from a Vietnamese family, and some are Buddhist. And like Lieu’s older brother Khanh, they had to make tough decisions about their father’s medical care. Their mother, aunties and uncles don’t want to talk about their father’s death, Jennifer Lai says. “They do miss my dad, but they don’t want to remember anything. They just kind of keep to themselves. That’s why [Lieu’s] story is so similar.”
“We’re here to process a lot of these feelings together and help put into words feelings and emotions that we may not even know how to articulate ourselves,” says Lo, who is also a policy associate at SEARAC.
It’s this type of audience reaction that puts Lieu Hassan at ease. Her family’s private life might be on full display publicly. She might still get texts saying, “You got portrayed like a bitch” or “I didn’t know this happened to you” after people she knows have seen one of Susan’s shows. But the play “needed to exist,” Lieu Hassan says.
“You could sub out my name, you could sub out my parents’ names. But the story of what happened: It could apply to so many people. [Susan’s] work had such an impact on people who were trying to heal, [and they] could do it through watching this play. This is meaningful work,” adding with a laugh: “It’s not just Susan trying to get attention.”
By the time Lieu wraps up her national tour in February, she will be eight months pregnant with her first child. Her final shows will have another bonus: She’ll also perform 20-30 minutes of stand-up comedy about her journey to motherhood as part of ACT Theatre’s inaugural solo performance festival in Seattle. Like “140 LBS,” the comedy set will touch on body image expectations, particularly during pregnancy.
After getting married, Lieu and her husband agreed to put off having a baby. Lieu needed more clarity, more time to figure out how to live the life she wanted. “140 LBS” propelled her forward. Now that she has momentum, Lieu doesn’t want to stop. Her vision for the future includes a podcast, a Netflix show and policy change: Ahead of 2020, she’ll use her story to advocate for the Fairness for Injured Patients Act in California. The ballot initiative would raise the current cap, set at $250,000 in 1975, on damages for families affected by medical malpractice.
Today, Lieu feels like less of a coward: “I have fully stepped into my fear and my demons, and I am not afraid.” But there’s still a part of her that is keeping motherhood at an arm’s length, mostly because of the unknowns. “There’s some fear around dying before my kids,” she says. “I’m out of control. ... I don’t know what’s going to happen.”
But now, she has added support.
“For the longest time, I felt alone and abandoned,” Lieu says. “By writing this show and asking my mom to come with me on trips [to do the] shows, we do the work together. We are closer than we’ve ever been before.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story said Khanh Lieu’s age at the time of his mother’s death was 20. He was 19. We regret the error.