With the premiere of Beautiful Dark now just days away, we welcome you to learn all about the musical composer and Vietnamese instrumentalist behind the production–Vân-Ánh Võ.

Vân-Ánh Võ is an award winning performer of the sixteen string đàn tranh-plucked zither instrument of Vietnam-and an Emmy award winning composer. Along with her mastery of đàn tran she also excels at various other traditional Vietnamese instruments, and marries deeply rooted Vietnamese musical traditions with fresh structure and modern compositions. She comes from a family of musicians, studying music her whole life and graduating with distinction from the Vietnamese Academy of Music. She has earned countless awards, honorable accolades and prestigious moments throughout her formidable music career. Vân-Ánh’s productions are always infused with community involvement meant to further engage and inspire her participants.

Growing up in Vietnam where colorism plays a major role in how women are perceived, Vân-Ánh had her fair share of experiences dealing with these unattainable beauty standards. She says, “my skin tone was darker, and people would look at me and ask if I was getting out of a puddle of coal. That was who I was to them.” (V. Võ, personal communication, May 1st, 2024).

Culturally, the impacts of colorism played a big role in how Vân-Ánh was received by other Vietnamese people back at home, and she would see the harm and pain it would cause to other women and girls her age that would receive the same or similar treatment. Despite her painful experiences being negatively labeled as a “dark girl,” however, she considers herself lucky because she was able to look away from the commentary meant to tear her down, and use it as fuel to look within herself and foster the growth of her unbridled talent for playing music. “They told me that I’m not beautiful-okay, fine. I move on and channel my attention to something else. I just keep learning music. I kept mastering new instruments, and I use music as a way that I can talk to others. So that (struggle) helps me become very strong in a way, and music has been giving me the tools to learn about people. Specifically because traditional music is like a mirror, and it reflects people. When I moved here (the United States), it helped me learn so much about other peoples’ cultures as well” (V. Võ, personal communication, May 1st, 2024).

Working on Beautiful Dark, Vân-Ánh says her musical composition was inspired by two poets, Vietnamese writer Lam Thi Vi Da and African-American poet Maya Angelou. “Their poems both helped me so much in the process of making music for this production” (V. Võ, personal communication, May 1st, 2024). Despite being worlds apart and likely not knowing each other, they both wrote deeply about universal struggles of overcoming adversity and blooming through the darkness, which is what Vân-Ánh aims to inspire her audience to do.

 

“For Maya Angelou’s poem “Still I Rise,” her words empower me and act as guidance on how I should make my music to empower others-by including stories and experiences of others, by not concentrating only on myself but making space for other people, by creating music that is rooted in our cultures (Cambodian, Vietnamese, and Indian) while also going beyond these borders, and by integrating sounds that go beyond just traditional instruments from our cultures” (V. Võ, personal communication, May 1st, 2024).

Lam Thi Vi Da says we are just like the flower hoa quýnh, or epiphyllum. In our culture, that flower is very special because it only opens at night and it’s very short, very easy to miss. So to enjoy it, it takes time, you have to plan, stay up late and wait for the moment. It’s like our experience with colorism. We have to find a way to blossom through the dark of our most painful struggles” (V. Võ, personal communication, May 1st, 2024).

Even more importantly, Vân-Ánh says the epiphyllum flower “represents the inner beauty of people of color. Each of us possesses different beauty and worth that, much like the epiphyllum, if you miss it, you can’t come back to have (see the flower to open) it” (V. Võ, personal communication, May 1st, 2024).

Through her musical composition for Beautiful Dark, Vân-Ánh urges us to look beyond our physical selves and seek our beauty from within instead.