For Diana Khong, ’23, the pandemic-induced quarantine of 2020 inspired a personal artistic breakthrough. The combination of time away from in-person learning, desire to deviate from theatrical norms, and impulse to showcase Asian-American stories to the greater Stanford community, led to the inception of Mary Magdalene, Daughter, Boatperson, and to the debut of Khong as a playwright.
Just two years later, Khong’s play was produced by Brianna Virabouth, ’25, and performed by the Asian American Theater Project (AATP)—one of over 100 student organizations that receive support through The Stanford Fund.
Mary Magdalene follows the story of three Vietnamese siblings as they grieve the death of their mother and navigate their complex family relationships, their sexualities, and their struggles with mental health. While her two siblings feel freed from the constraints of the traditional Vietnamese family in which they were brought up, youngest sibling Joy is devastated to learn of their mother’s fate and begins to withdraw from her everyday life.
For both Khong and Virabouth, representing Southeast Asian culture on the stage through stories like Mary Magdalene is important. Virabouth hopes to deconstruct the societal norms of mainstream theater and highlight South and West Asian narratives to further solidify the status of minority creators as theater-makers.
The production is meaningful to Khong for other reasons, too. In addition to reflecting Khong’s experience of identifying as queer in a traditional Asian American community, the play attempts to detach the Vietnamese experience from the white gaze and war-centric perspective through which it is often viewed in the arts.
“It’s not relatable. I think in seeing Vietnamese film and theater, I was getting an abbreviated version of my history from a settler lens,” said Khong.
Mary Magdalene is part of a broader effort by AATP to unify and shine a spotlight on the university’s several Southeast Asian student organizations. With this in mind, AATP hosted two Southeast Asian Nights where students of Asian descent packed the theater and dressed in their cultures’ traditional clothing. The audible reactions of audience members to certain moments in the show served to encourage Virabouth that the work of AATP is vital to the community.
“Where else are you going to get a space to have the spotlight on you?” said Virabouth. “We made it a special experience for everybody. We wanted to highlight the fact that [your voices] matter, this is a space for you, we want you to be here.”
Student-led initiatives like these do more than bring great art to the stage; they foster a sense of belonging that is critical to students’ well-being and capacity to learn.
Donors who give through The Stanford Fund provide vital resources for these efforts and other immersive experiences that build vibrant communities on campus, celebrate diversity, and open students’ minds to new ideas outside the classroom.
“We imagine visions of the future, and the funding we receive helps us create art so those visions come true,” said Virabouth. “A lot of people enter this space to make theater because it might not be something they could do outside of college, because of financial restraints. Having financial support helps people get in touch with their passions, without limits.”
Khong and Virabouth plan to continue supporting other artists and highlighting the stories of marginalized communities through their work with AATP. Virabouth will take on a new role as the executive producer for AATP. Khong will lead the AATP fellowship program. Ultimately, their goal is to build a solid foundation of knowledge for current and future members who want to grow as artists. Finding new members, creating opportunities for growth, and securing vital resources will be key in this endeavor.
“We’re creating a new generation of theater-makers on this campus,” said Khong.