April 2–21, 2024

Artist Spotlight: Bi Jean Ngo

April 16, 2024
Zoe Writes Theatre

(Photo credit to Johanna Austin)

When you’re looking at a show like The Good Person of Setzuan, you need someone dynamic in the starring role.  It’s not a light show, and it’s not an easy show.  But what an actor has to offer makes all the difference.  I’ve seen a lot of plays in my life…I’ve seen amazing actors, I’ve seen terrible actors, and I’ve seen everything in between.  I’m honestly not sure I’ve seen anyone like Bi Jean Ngo onstage.

I completely loved The Good Person of  Setzuan.  And I completely loved watching Bi Jean Ngo in the role(s) of Shen Te/Shui Ta.  She shone in a way that was so particular to the play.  Her inner light, both as an actor and as her character(s) was brilliant, and there’s no way you could miss it…it was blinding.  Watching her was truly a treat, and I can’t imagine anyone else who saw this show felt otherwise.

Picking Bi Jean Ngo’s brain was also a total treat.  I just wanted to know everything about this show and her experiences with it.  I think there’s so much to be said for the production and what she did in it.  And what she had to say to me about it provided so much insight.  She really had a lot to say, and I’m so grateful for the opportunity.  I hope this is just as great for everyone else as it was for me!

This was such a huge show! I know you worked so much with director Justin Jain and the Wilma HotHouse Company to make it so. How were these collaborations? Was this something new for you? How did it change you and your process?

Working with Justin is always incredible. We’ve acted together in numerous plays, and two seasons ago, he directed me in Lloyd Suh’s The Chinese Lady at InterAct Theatre Company. Having him direct me in The Good Person of Setzuan at The Wilma was the kind of artistic experience I hope all actors get to have. I felt nurtured by his generosity, challenged to stretch in ways that were really exciting as an actor, and he created a brave space for me to express my individuality and opinions. 

This was my first play at The Wilma and it’s my first season joining the Hothouse Acting Company as an associate member. So, this artistic collaboration is new in a number of ways. Being able to play with such a focused and skilled ensemble of actors definitely brings out a unique sense of growth and pleasure on a daily basis. Because the members of the Hothouse Company routinely gather to train, as well as foster candid communication and common goals between them, there is an immediate sense of trust among the ensemble and a fearlessness in exploring a play. 

There’s so much duality in this show, and a lot of it is central to the character(s) of Shen Te/Shui Ta.  How did you find that balance, even when the characters were tipping one way or another?

Shen Te is constantly tipping out of balance, and inside of her, I have to give into this oscillation as well, but stay true to each moment of the story and where Shen Te is in her arc. Part of the work of the actor in rehearsal and in my daily prep before showtime is to remind myself of the journey of Shen Te and the production itself. We work really hard in rehearsal to make clear what each element of the story communicates. 

Ultimately, the work I do every day in the hours before showtime includes taking the time to warm up my mind & body, to intentionally breathe, and to gently think through the entire score of the play. In doing this daily prep, I can then free myself onstage to inhibit the character of Shen Te and embrace the imbalance of her journey. So, as I embark on this 3-hour and 45-minute roller coaster of play every night, I breathe into Shen Te’s very real goals and stakes.

You get to embody both the feminine and masculine in this show.  Did you ever find yourself leading with one or the other, even when you were embodying the other role?

This is a tough question because I don’t think there’s a clear answer. I think Bi, the actor, ultimately leads with Shen Te, because she creates Shui Ta to get what she needs to meet her goals in this story. Certainly, both Bi the actor and Shen Te the character find power and pleasure in the drag of the persona of the male cousin she creates, Shui Ta. I certainly enjoy donning the drag of Shui Ta, because he gets to be assertive, aggressive, seductive, and buffoonish. There’s a deep pleasure in getting to be that kind of outsized character. But inside of Shui Ta is Shen Te who is fighting for her very real stakes. 

As an audience member, I felt like you were the strong leader of everyone onstage.  How was it leading the ensemble of this show?

I honestly think this production was a terrific display of generosity, fearlessness, and exceptional artistry from every member of this ensemble. Yes, the primary story is Shen Te’s story. And my responsibility as an actor is to have done my work to understand Shen Te, her needs and wants, and to be very clear with myself about what her life is like and what she wants it to be. Shen Te is the one whose heart is constantly exposed in the harsh world she inhabits, so it’s my job to also be present and open my heart to her experience, open my heart to the other characters, and open my heart to the audience. 

However, I could not have embodied Shen Te and Shui Ta with such ferocity and depth, if I wasn’t supported by such an incredible cast. Each actor is playing multiple characters with boundless energy and specificity, and our composers who accompany us live every night are also an integral part of our ensemble. It is this ensemble of multi-talented artists who have created a world that pulses with a fierce energy every night and it is their skill and generosity with each other and with me that allows me to really move through the journey of Shen Te. 

What language were you speaking as Shui Ta?  Were you already familiar with the language, or was it learned for the show?

I speak Vietnamese when I’m Shui Ta, and even though I’m conversant, it wasn’t easy. I’m the American-born daughter of Vietnam war refugees. So, I grew up in a multi-lingual household. However, doing the translation work, invoking the character of Shui Ta as a Vietnamese businessman, and acting in Vietnamese was at once an incredibly difficult and ultimately satisfying creative experience. First off, I had to translate Brecht into Vietnamese, and since it’s not a Latin-based language, it was really tricky. 

Thinking, speaking, and acting in two languages, especially two that are so different in syntax and that are insanely different in cultural contexts was really HARD. That may sound odd, but a language is not only a set of sounds and words, it’s a complete culture. I’m also not a fluent Vietnamese speaker. I don’t live in a Vietnamese household as an adult, and my day-to-day interactions are with an English-speaking partner and English-speaking co-workers. So, I spent a lot of time outside of rehearsal reminding myself how to think and feel in Vietnamese. 

Where did you begin to break this show down to understand your character?  When did you begin to understand your character at all?

Brecht is very clear about who Shen Te is, what her circumstances are, and what her goals are. What’s great about Brecht is that each one of his characters boldly announces exactly who they are and what they want. So that’s a great starting point. The play is the thing. It gives you all the information upfront. The Gods and all the other characters also state exactly who they believe Shen Te is as a person. So, I start with the play and naming all the characteristics of Shen Te and naming all of her needs and wants, and then naming all of her actions, the things she succeeds at and the things she loses, etc. And then we rehearse and explore all the microscopic moments. I crack into the minutiae of Shen Te’s experience, so I can seek to understand from moment to moment what Shen Te’s journey is. How does Shen Te feel about her first landlords arriving at the door of her shop asking for shelter? Is she glad to see familiar faces? Is she nervous about her ability to provide help? How does she feel the first time Yang Sun brushes her cheek? What are the moments she feels at odds with an action she takes or a comment she makes? There’s the shape of Shen Te that Brecht has given me, and the scaffold of our specific production that we’ve rehearsed under Justin’s direction, and then inside of Shen Te, I try to experience each moment through her as if each thought and each moment is new every night.


I didn’t think I’d enjoy The Good Person of Setzuan as much as I did (okay, maybe I was mostly intimidated by the run time).  But above all, I got to watch Bi Jean Ngo absolutely kill it as Shen Te/Shui Ta.  Everything she had to say wowed me even more.  We are truly lucky to have someone like this in our Philadelphia theatre community.  I can’t wait to watch her perform again.