Joe Wandell’s rollercoaster life comes into focus in ‘Mekong Joe
By Carl Kozlowski 08/30/2012
Some of the most unforgettable moments of the Vietnam War came as the city of Saigon was falling into communist hands and American forces airlifted the mixed-race children, born from American servicemen and Vietnamese women, out of danger. These children were heading into new lives in America that might have been uncertain but were at least safer than the options they faced at home.
But even as people were sent on to build lives in a free society, the young innocents were forced to adapt to lives without at least one parent and in a completely new culture. Joe Wandell was one of the thousands of children who faced those challenges, but he handled them so well that nearly 40 years later he is starring in a solo storytelling show about his life, called “Mekong Joe,” at 8 p.m. Wednesday at the Fremont Centre Theatre in South Pasadena. Wandell keeps a rigorous schedule, performing in seven cities over the next six weeks.
“Talking about my life is freeing, because it’s told from the perspective of honoring my mom,” explains Wandell. “I speak of my mom, and I tell everyone about my story. That’s the difference in it — connecting with people. I’m not just sitting there telling my story.”
While Wandell is a formally trained actor and had an active career working in Hollywood films and TV shows, he now lives in Switzerland as a stay-at-home husband and father to two children, ages 2 and 3. He fathered the first child as part of a promise to help a lifelong friend conceive, but then found he loved her and the kids too much to stay out of their lives.
“I never knew my biological dad, and my stepfather was military and never really there,” says Wandell. “That’s how I grew up. Just having kids myself has given me a better perspective, especially through my mom’s eyes. Being a parent, I totally understand what she went through and respect it even more.”
To bring the story of his life to the stage, Wandell teamed up with writer/director Steve Stajich, for whom he had acted in the past, over a three-year period to work out different versions to see which connected the most with audiences. The core of the show features Wandell talking about Vietnam and covers both his childhood there and the trauma of leaving the only home he’d ever known with his brother, while worrying about how his mother could take care of them on her own. Ultimately, he was adopted and faced different challenges with his new family.
“It’s about adoption housing, the good and bad of it, and then moving out and living their own lives, as Joe became an actor in Hollywood and we have clips of his work inside the play,” says Stajich. “With his Amer-asian looks, he was one way or another processed by Hollywood as a Latino gangbanger, and that’s what this is about.”
The play also focuses on the amazing unpredictability of Wandell’s life, starting with the fact that Joe and his brother narrowly avoided dying in the “baby lift” itself. Due to coincidence, the two siblings narrowly missed the flight they were supposed to fly aboard to America — only to learn that their scheduled plane had crashed, killing all 300 children aboard.
“Now you’re getting a sense of how this play works. (It’s) one remarkable event in Joe’s life, followed by another and another,” says Stajich. “The show has a strong emotional wallop. This is so much about identity and what happens when people are put in one box or another, and that he came through this fine. Life doesn’t have to be sad or cause a person to end up feeling anything but great about their experience of life. It’s identity, with him wanting to know who he was. Because he was 6 years old, he had memories of Vietnam that he shares but wonders if they’re real. But his memories were verified, and he knows who he truly is and where he came from.”
“Mekong Joe” is performed at 8 p.m. Wednesday at the Fremont Centre Theatre, 1000 Fremont Ave. , South Pasadena. Tickets are $15-$20. Call (626) 577 or visit fremontcentretheatre.com.