140 LBS: How Beauty Killed My Mother is a theatrical solo piece written and performed by Seattle-based artist Susan Lieu, a first generation American born to Vietnamese refugees.
It tells the true story of how Lieu’s mother, a manicurist and business owner, went in for plastic surgery and died due to medical malpractice. Susan took 140 LBS on a nationwide tour, and is currently preparing for the launch of her memoir, The Manicurist’s Daughter, on March 12.
A taping of 140 LBS will show at this year’s Seattle Asian American Film Festival (SAAFF).
This interview is edited for length and clarity.
Martin Tran: 140 LBS premiered in 2019 at the Theatre Off Jackson right here in the Chinatown International District. How has your relationship to this piece evolved in the years since?
Susan Lieu: I took it on a 10-city national tour when I was in my second trimester, and then I wrote and performed the sequel, Over 140 LBS, in February 2020, at ACT Theatre. It was interesting to perform the work because it’s written from the point of view of a non-pregnant person.
There’s this line, “If I have a daughter, how do I make her love her body?” So when I was doing 140 LBS, I was on the cusp of motherhood. I was thinking about it. While on tour, I was growing a baby. With the sequel, it was about to come out. It was a mother-daughter story, and then it converted into a mother-daughter-mother story of me becoming the mother.
I was very much exploring intergenerational trauma, and how that impacted my family. As I went on to the sequel, I’ve been looking at the healing part of it all. I had to do that show to get me to here, but I was still actually processing a lot. It’s like I’ve gone through my own motherhood journey.
Inside the book are actual excerpts of my shows, and it was so interesting to read those lines because I’m the same person, and yet I’m so different. I think I’ve finally gone through that whole grief curve of experiencing something really traumatic, being angry and in denial about it, and then finding beautiful, powerful meaning from it. I think that meaning continues to change as time moves on. So the 140 LBS Susan is a point-in-time Susan. She still exists, and yet she can still evolve.
MT: I cried when I saw your piece back in 2019, and again when watching the taping that will play at SAAFF. I can’t imagine how difficult it must’ve been for you, because you lived it and performed it night in and night out. How was that emotionally for you, and how did you manage it as you were going through the process?
SL: With performance, there’s the mechanics of it. I literally had to memorize a 10,000 word script. I need to know the words, and I cannot deviate too much from that. Then the other part is finding the truth in it every night, because it can become robotic, so I had to be able to see it slightly differently every night so that I could access it differently, and then I can be there in the realness of that emotion.
I had two classmates who had stillbirths so there was a part of me that wanted to be detached so that if I lost the baby, I would grieve less. There was this thing around fear of loss, because I’ve already experienced loss, and I wanted to somehow reduce the pain of loss, which I don’t know if you really can do.
That’s when I realized the emotional toll it was taking on me, because I wasn’t emotionally connecting with my work anymore. I was so detached from my baby, but I’m telling the story about generations and vulnerability and connection and healing, yet I was still live processing this trauma and the triggering of death.
There’s a point where I finally had to ask my mom, “What should I do?” I put the headphones in and played the closing song of the show, “Unchained Melody,” the Vietnamese version. I’m holding my body and slow dancing with the three generations, my mom’s DNA, my DNA, my kid’s DNA. I’m thinking I need to change this dynamic and relationship because now I’m too emotionally disconnected trying to protect myself.
That was a pivotal moment in the tour where I recognized I needed a change, and then I started really embracing my fetus and my pregnancy. It was emotionally taxing to do the show, but after each show, I’d hear these stories of what it meant to the fans, and I’m sitting there going, “Oh my God, my story mattered.” And it would feed my soul.
MT: That’s incredible. Thank you. How has 140 LBS changed your life?
SL: I put everything I had in those three months on this tour. At that first city, the New York premiere, the most intimidating city in the country, my literary agent was sitting in the audience.
I’m so glad I didn’t realize she was there. But I now had a proof of concept that I took on tour. She experienced it, helped me with my book proposal, and eventually I got my book deal with a top five publisher in February 2021. And then that was the answer, because I didn’t know the future, and I wasn’t sure if I was cut out for theater. I wouldn’t say I’m a self-professed amazing theater performer. Nor am I an amazing author. I don’t think I’m meant for one medium. I’m a multi-hyphenate storyteller, and I’m interested in exploring mediums.
Getting the book deal allowed me to continue storytelling around intergenerational trauma and healing through humor, but now in a scalable, sustainable way for people to experience this work of cathartic reflection. This book deal was my saving grace to continue as an artist, and a young parent. And I continue to sit in that uncertainty.
LBS was actually the fifth workshop show. If you told fall-2017-Susan, that six and a half years from now, you’d have a book deal with one of the top publishers in the industry, I would’ve said, “You’re kidding me. No way.” It all started because I needed to prove that I wasn’t a coward, because I knew I had a calling to be on stage. I left the stage for three years, and I was so intimidated. Now getting here… I’m so grateful, I’m so happy, and I’m so terrified.