Dalhousie dentistry alumna, Sangeeta Wylie, has spent a lot of time reflecting on the moments that led her to Nov. 3, the day her play, we the same, made its world premiere.
From Dal dentistry to the dramatic arts
Wylie is originally from St. John’s, N.L., and studied chemistry and music for four years at Acadia University. She then came to Dalhousie University’s dentistry school. She says she enjoyed her time at Dal because it was challenging but gratifying.
“While at Dalhousie I was also part of a choir, I went to piano lessons, and I took part in local theatre,” she says. “Being at Dalhousie was a time of discovery for myself. Dalhousie, at least the faculty of dentistry, was such a nice, small community where everyone knew each other.”
Wylie then moved to British Columbia to pursue a career in dentistry.
As a child, Wylie says she envisioned herself doing many things with her life. She always loved writing and wanted to be an actress. The play we the same is the official beginning of Wylie’s writing career. In 2012 she dabbled in playwriting with a friend, but didn’t begin working on we the same until the spring 2017. Her inspiration for the play comes from one of her friend’s life stories; she gives special thanks to the Truong family, who shared their story with her.
The play is a multicultural and multigenerational piece of art that takes place in 1979, when a family is fleeing communist Vietnam by boat. Throughout the play, they endure attacks, typhoons, starvation and a shipwreck.
Resilience and inspiration
Wylie felt the need to tell the story of we the same because, “as an artist, art calls to us,” she says.
“When my friend told me her story, I heard a voice tell me that I had to share this story.”
Now, with that story out in the world, Wylie feels like a new person.
“This four-year journey has been a transformative experience. I was naive at first, and although I have had a lot of heartbreak and tears while working on this project, there has also been lots of excitement.”
Wylie found resilience in the characters of her play and her dedication to giving those characters a voice.
Bringing a dream to life
Diane Brown, the director of we the same is an award-winning director from British Columbia who has been in the theatre industry for three decades. Brown has a master’s degree in directing from the University of British Columbia and is now the artistic director of Ruby Slippers Theatre in Vancouver, where we the same had its premiere.
“My favourite thing about directing is watching everything come together, working with a team towards one common goal,” Brown says.
Brown says the theatre “strives to promote diversity in the world and bring equality to all people.”
Brown first discovered Wylie’s play in 2019, after Wylie entered it into the Advance Theatre: New Works by Diverse Women workshopping program at the Vancouver Fringe Festival in 2019.
“I fell in love with the play and everything it stands for,” Brown says. “I fell in love not only with the writing but also with how it connects to a diverse audience.”
She believes that there is an obligation for this play to be told.
“We live in a world of refugees, and for that reason, it is important that we humanize the refugee experience so that we can understand other people better. We also live in a world of alternative facts; telling stories that are based on lived experiences is more crucial now than ever before.”
Combining Asian tradition with Western theatre
Brown found directing we the same particularly challenging. For this project, she incorporated traditional Asian art, such as Vietnamese music and shadow play demonstrations, with Western theatre conventions.
“This production is a hybrid of many art forms to give the overall product a unique vocabulary,” she says.
She hired two cultural consultants to ensure the play’s Vietnamese elements were both respectful and authentic.
“I feel a responsibility to tell this story because it connects to anyone who has felt displaced,” she says. “I want this to be a gateway for other people with similar stories to feel safe enough to share their experiences.”
Before opening night, Wylie and Brown both felt a nervous excitement.
“I am ready to share this beautiful work with the world,” Brown says.
The showing of we the same is a pay-it-forward movement. The play was live streamed and only the actors were present in the theatre. The proceeds from the tickets are partially going to support COVID-19 vaccination in Vietnam and another portion is going to the Elizabeth F. Precious Endowment, started by the late David Precious, a Dalhousie dental surgeon who was inspired by his wife Elizabeth to improve the lives of children around the world.
Wylie knew Precious from her time at Dalhousie.
“He was such an inspiration. He was a busy man, but he took time to have a meaningful conversation with you, and he saw every student for who they truly were.”
Wylie also wanted to thank everyone for their support. “Dr. Ben Davis, the current dean of the Faculty of Dentistry at Dalhousie, bought fifty tickets for the play. I am speechless and cannot believe the generosity and kindness.”
Wylie has already started on her next play, which will focus on her own life story.