Lorelle Browning

Lorelle Browning on the Pacific University campus.

Lorelle Browning, chair of the English Department, recieved her second Fulbright and will be a visiting scholar in Vietnam for the 2014-15 academic year.

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As a university student, Lorelle Browning experienced firsthand the trauma of dissent and chaos on American campuses caused by the United States involvement in the Vietnam War. Now, as a professor of English and peace and justice studies at Pacific University, she uses those experiences to promote understanding between the cultures of Vietnam and the United States.

Browning is recognized as a renowned non-native expert on Vietnamese theatre. Over the past 19 years, she has traveled 25 times to Vietnam, collaborating and co-producing numerous theatre productions involving both Vietnamese and American professional actors in Vietnam and the U.S. She often works closely with Allen Nause, artistic director emeritus of Portland Artists Repertory Theatre.

Browning has also taught American and British drama at several universities in Hanoi, Hue and Ho Chi Minh City, and has led Pacific students on study trips there. She works closely with international Vietnamese students who are studying at Pacific and was a fellow during the tumultuous start-up year of Tan Tao University, a new private liberal arts college in the south.

In April, she lectured in Paris at a plenary panel on “Adapting Shakespeare’s Structural and Performance Rhythms to Dance and Opera.”  During the 2014-15 academic year, she’ll be utilizing her second yearlong U.S. Scholar Fulbright grant. She plans to conduct research about theatre artists performing propaganda plays in Vietnamese jungles for National Liberation Front and North Vietnamese Army troops who were fighting French and American forces. She will also teach American drama at Hanoi Academy of Theatre and Cinema and at other universities.

Browning previously spent a year collaborating with theatre companies and teaching in Vietnam during her first Fulbright grant in 2002-03. An award-winning film, A Dream in Hanoi, was released in 2001, featuring Browning and Vietnamese artists mounting a bilingual production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. The film was aired on PBS and LINK television repeatedly.

In addition to the two Fulbright grants, Browning has raised more than $1 million in grants to fund her theatre collaborations, research and travel from the Ford Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts, the U.S. State Department and other sources.

As an undergraduate student at the University of California, Santa Barbara in 1970, Browning said that during an anti-war demonstration, students and other protesters burned the Bank of America building to the ground in Isla Vista, the college student town immediately adjacent to the university.

“The National Guard were summoned in by then Governor Reagan, arriving in dump trucks, while wearing riot gear and carrying bayonets,” she said. “They, along with the Santa Barbara and Los Angeles sheriffs, basically occupied our little town for three months.”

During those three months, the UC Santa Barbara campus was closed. No courses were taught and no students were allowed on campus, Browning said. Instead, students met at professors’ houses or in the parks, studying “crisis” courses. For those months, the National Guard imposed a 7 p.m. curfew that required all Isla Vista residents to be in their homes by that time every evening.

One of Browning’s close friends, Kevin Moran, was killed during that occupation. Browning said her friend had been trying to quiet the protesters, who were throwing rocks at the trailer that Bank of America relocated on the ashes of the original building. Apparently a rifle shot went awry, and he died on the scene.  Browning was devastated by his loss, she said, and began to realize just how dangerous and intense this stand off had become.

During this time, Browning saw many people be clubbed, beaten and dragged away to jail by police, including her two roommates, who had made the mistake of standing on their porch one night after the curfew deadline. She herself was never arrested, but was hit in the head with a police baton and pepper sprayed during a massive demonstration in a park protesting the curfew. Some 654 people that night were jailed, she said, but by morning, the curfew had been lifted permanently and the National Guard was withdrawn from Isla Vista.  The demonstration had succeeded.

“That was my radicalizing moment, despite my being such a novice in political activism,” she acknowledged. "By then, the only moral order in my life — as I watched the sheriffs and National Guard inciting the riots and violence — was Shakespeare.  I had a wonderful professor who helped us appreciate the morality and justice Shakespeare explored in his plays.  Reading and performing his works gave me hope."

After earning her undergraduate degree in English and political science in 1972, Browning worked in a variety of jobs. She organized theatre tours to U.S. campuses comprised of small groups of British actors, including such celebrities as Patrick Stewart and Ben Kingsley.

After working at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for three summers, she decided to return to graduate school, developing her own interdisciplinary PhD program in theatre and literature. Her doctorate was awarded in 1986.

The memories of the 1970 chaos and her vehement opposition to the Vietnam War never left her.

“When I was hired at Pacific in 1990 and discovered that no one was teaching a course on the Vietnam War, I was appalled because, at that time, the war and the divisiveness it had caused in the U.S. were the most significant events in the lives of our students’ parents. I thought our students needed to know about the war and the dissension and divisions it had caused in our country, " she said.

Browning taught a course, Vietnam War Era, twice but then, she said,  “I realized that I had no business teaching a class on the Vietnam War only from the American perspective. I needed to go to Vietnam to see what their experience had been and to witness the damage the U.S. had inflicted there.”

In 1994, her many trips to Vietnam began, as did as her teaching and collaborating on bilingual theatre projects. Believing that theatre is the most interactive and intimate aesthetic experience available to both  artists and audiences, she began to envision that former enemies could not only mount and perform plays together, but in the process, they could learn about one another's cultures, values and beliefs.

Browning said she discovered that she had much to learn about "the Vietnamese way," but added she also experienced the healing that results from creating art together and from learning to respect the “others.”

Browning is also acutely aware of the issues that American war veterans have. She met her partner of 20 years, Marvin Simmons, when he came to speak in her class about his Vietnam traumas and experiences after he being drafted in 1968.

She said, much like Desdemona in Othello, she fell in love with him while listening to his stories and, like Othello, his commitment to her grew out of her empathy for him and her desire to help him heal his post traumatic stress disorder and his guilt.

Together, the couple have committed themselves to being of service to the Vietnamese people and to assisting other veterans who are still suffering and need Veterans Administration help and support, said Browning. Twelve years ago, they adopted two foster families in Vietnam and hope to bring the families’ three children (their "grandchildren") to be educated in the U.S. eventually.

“Together we have made a deep commitment to that country to make amends,” said Browning. “The U.S. killed approximately three million civilians during the U.S. war there. Marvin and I have dedicated much of our lives to trying to compensate a bit for the damage and suffering Americans caused, while also helping American and Vietnamese veterans to heal. It will be a life-long process."