Alumna co-created and starred in a Houston stage play highlighting the experiences of first-generation Vietnamese Americans
Story by Robbie Goodrich '82
Mai Lê '13 has always loved the art of storytelling. As a child, she constantly watched movies and TV shows and devoured books. But it wasn't until she was 13 years old that a random audition for a school play set her on the career track she's following today — one that finds her making waves in the performance and film industries.
"My English teacher at the time wanted to put on a school play," Lê said. "I don't remember the title, but I remember it was a really sad play about four high school kids who passed away when their school bus crashed, and now they're in limbo, thinking back on their lives and who and what they would miss on Earth."
She said her monologue was written to be heart wrenching and delivered as one of the last in the play. She didn't have training beforehand, but for a week, she went over her monologue every day after school.
"The day of the audition comes, and I get up in front of the class and perform," Lê continued. "I was the opposite of popular in middle school, so I wasn't surprised when I heard people laughing and mumbling under their breath during my monologue. But when I finished, everyone stood up and clapped for me. That's when I realized they weren't laughing — they were crying, and some people were audibly impressed by my delivery.
"I think that's the first time it clicked that I could do this — that I can partake in the delivery of a story for other people to see. Here we are, almost 20 years later; I have worked so many different jobs in my life, and I have searched so thoroughly for something I understand and find as gratifying as acting. But in a way, I'm still that 13-year-old."
Of all her accomplishments, Lê is most proud of her recent work and collaboration on "Song of Me." She created and co-wrote the two-person show with Đạt Peter Tôn, who also directed the play in its successful debut last spring at Stages, Houston's sixth largest nonprofit performing arts producer.
Starring Lê and Sergio Mauritz Ang, "Song of Me" is the story of brother and sister duo Philip and Luci as they reunite on the eve of Philip's wedding to his partner, Nathan. Over some egg rolls, they plan, reminisce and clash in the way only siblings can as they struggle to find their own voices. Stages described it as "a jubilant world premiere about family, tradition, Vietnamese cooking and growing up in Houston from two of the city's most exciting young artists."
"It was something really special to be supported and empowered to co-write a script where Peter and I got to scream, ‘Hey, look, we exist! Come see what it's like to be us. Enjoy! Share in our culture! Listen to our language!'" Lê said. "The most precious thing to me about ‘Song of Me' is that we were told by so many Asian American and Pacific Islander people that they felt seen in stories they didn't realize they were waiting for."
If you've seen a PODS Moving and Storage TV commercial while watching a Sunday afternoon football game, a METRONext commercial on Houston-area TV, or an Upwork Plateau web commercial, and if you regularly attend plays at Houston's Alley Theatre or Stages, you've seen Lê in action.
She lives and works in the Houston area where she's active in the local entertainment scene in theatre productions and readings, film festivals, commercials, and web ads. She also was featured in the Houston Press article "Houston's Up and Coming Actors 2019: Razzle, Dazzle and a Whole Lot More."
"The first Houston show I ever saw was ‘Amadeus' at the Alley back in 2011. And my debut with the Alley was in January 2020, right before the pandemic. I was cast in a workshop reading of ‘High School Play: A Nostalgia Fest,' which is a fantastic script by Vichet Chum," Lê said. "The play is set in Carrollton, Texas, and it's about a high school theatre troupe. There was, of course, a delay in production with the pandemic, but I was ultimately brought back to perform as Allison in its world premiere at the Alley in 2022."
Lê was the host for Space Center Houston's "Explorer Camp TV," a show dedicated to science and space exploration learning, as well as a former writer and actor for Comedy Club Houston's sketch comedy group, The Astronutz. She is a voice actor for Sentai Filmworks.
Her first feature film, "Acid Test," was nominated for a Texas Independent Film Award from the Houston Film Critics Society and can be streamed on Tubi, YouTube and Apple TV. She is represented by Pastorini-Bosby Talent.
Being cast regularly in shows each semester while earning her Bachelor of Arts at SFA helped prepare Lê not only to recognize opportunity but also to create her own art.
"I got a lot of real-world simulation on what the entire acting process felt like, from the first audition to the closing night. I had a lot of industry experience by the time I graduated."
SFA theatre professor Angela Bacarisse remains in touch with Lê, and she describes her as "an excellent student and a joy to work with, both in performance and backstage."
"This is evidenced in her ability to work in different aspects of performance," Bacarisse said. "I have enjoyed watching her successes since graduation, especially every time one of her commercials comes on TV. I have to stop and watch, even if I have seen it a million times. Her versatility and understanding of ‘making your own work' were on display when she co-wrote and starred in ‘Song of Me.' As I told her recently, I was just lucky to be there at the beginning of her career."
Coming out of the pandemic, Lê considered herself "one of the lucky ones" in the 2021 and 2022 seasons. She was offered five theatre contracts and two workshops and hopes to add a few more items to her bucket list.
"I would love to book my first TV series," Lê said. "I want to book more commercials, especially ones that spam my mom when she plays Candy Crush and watches YouTube. I would like to audition for ‘Saturday Night Live,' and I want to be a resident member for a theatre company. And lastly, I would love to be in a movie with Ming-Na Wen or Michelle Yeoh!
"Whenever I watch a good movie or a play, I am so inspired by all the artists it took to create that story," she added, "and my awe and wonder compelled me to be a part of something like that. I love creating and collaborating as an actor — plus it helps that I think I'm pretty good at it! There's really nothing I look forward to more."
Primary image courtesy Tasha Gorel