Arts & Culture » Theater

The Books of Thao: Sisterhood spans blood and borders in Mustard Seed's The Purpose Project



Elizabeth Van Meter's The Purpose Project: Thao's Library is roughly in the vein of Eat, Pray, Love, in that its protagonist also encounters crushing grief but finds spiritual renewal via a trip to the Far East. The primary difference here is that Van Meter herself is a conduit for two other womens' stories rather than simply channeling solipsism for 70 minutes.

The first woman is Vicki Van Meter, Elizabeth's real life, younger sister. Vicki was a pioneering aviatrix, the youngest person ever to fly across the United States and across the Atlantic at ages eleven and twelve, respectively. Video projections of the young pilot play on a massive screen behind Van Meter while she establishes the particulars of their childhood. The way Van Meter talks about her sister reveal more than her words do; there's no jealousy here, no envy, nothing but boundless pride in her little sister's accomplishments. Seeing a larger-than-life Vicki giggling with a very young Conan O'Brien while her elder sister leans against the wall of the theater watching this interview for the nth time is affecting. There's a nagging sense that this Vicki is transient, and that Elizabeth Van Meter would very much like to go back to this time.

The second woman is Thao, a 24-year-old Vietnamese woman with severe physical disabilities caused by exposure to Agent Orange, the chemical used to kill off the jungle during the Vietnam War. Thao has stunted legs and a very soft skeleton, but a strong will to live a full life. She taught herself to read, and now tutors the village children in her small, self-built library. Elizabeth's friend Stephen Katz photographed Thao there among the books. Thao's dearest wish is to have $300 to buy more works for her library, Stephen tells Elizabeth as she looks at the photo; Elizabeth, now mourning her recently deceased sister, determines that she'll bring $300 worth of books to Vietnam to give Thao personally.

Why is Elizabeth so moved? This is the hidden crux of The Purpose Project, which at times is a little too on the nose in its emotional intentions and in its heavy reliance on music to carry the narrative load. If this were fiction, the imagery of a young woman flyer and a young woman imprisoned in her body would seem contrived, and Van Meter's moment of peace at the foot of a statue of Maya, the Buddha's mother, would be cliche. But this story is all true. Katz's videos of Thao and Elizabeth lost in conversation, laughing together and comforting each other show that sisterhood comes in many forms. We're here to help each other, even if we can't help everyone.

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