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Jack of all Trades, Master of Many

April 29, 2022

Vi Dang

Area of study: Musical Theater

Out of the many talents Vi Dang has, and the list is long, being able to make their dreams a reality is near the top. Their creative energy is nothing if not contagious.

Born to Vietnamese immigrants, Dang grew up in a close-knit family community. Their parents’ 12 siblings and families immigrated to the U.S. and settled together in Denver.

Dang was interested in music from a young age. They grew up learning to play piano, then saxophone, then everything else. “I was very involved in high school,” they said. “I did jazz bands, wind ensemble, marching band, drum major, jazz choir and theater.”

Dang used to resent their lack of singular focus – they did not want to be a jack of all trades, master of none. “But I just couldn't contain myself to one thing,” Dang said.

“I've always been a person who wanted to experience everything I could.”

However, when it came time to apply for college, Dang’s focus was surprisingly singular. They only applied to one school – UNC. “I ended up putting all my eggs in one basket, shooting my shot on one school and only getting into that one school,” they said.

As a first-generation student, Dang carried the burden many children of immigrants with limited English and education experiences carry on their educational journey.

“My parents never applied to college. They weren't able to finish high school,” Dang said. “That was a learning curve I had to navigate on my own. As a first-generation student, from a young age, you have to fill out documents and translate for your parents. And we're happy to do it, but it is an extra burden that other students don't really have to deal with.”

Dang knew of UNC’s prestigious arts and theatre program and didn’t waste any time in getting involved. In just their senior year, Dang performed in three mainstage productions – Rent, Alphabet Street and Akeelah and the Bee. They have also been in other notable shows at UNC such as Beauty and the Beast, Cabaret, A Chorus Line and Into the Woods with the Little Theater of the Rockies. 

Vi Dang

Vi Dang playing the character 'Angel' in the UNC student production of Rent

Vi Dang

Vi Dang playing the character 'Angel' in the UNC student production of Rent

Vi Dang

Vi Dang playing the character 'Angel' in the UNC student production of Rent

Vi Dang

Vi Dang playing the character 'Angel' in the UNC student production of Rent

Finding and spreading cultural heritage

In their junior year, Dang was longing for an environment where they could be more expressive of their Vietnamese heritage. “I needed to be around people that look like me, and I needed to be in the spaces that reflect who I am,” they said.

Dang started working with the Asian Pacific American Student Services (APASS) during the pandemic and became the event coordinator when social gatherings returned. When Dang was helping plan APASS’ AAPI cultural celebration last summer, they began to dream up an idea for the fall.

“I had an idea to do a cultural fashion show,” Dang said. “Through APASS’ programming and events, we hope to cultivate an environment that uplifts the AAPI community here and provide a space for Asian-identifying students to learn more about other AAPI cultures and also find pride within their own culture and heritage.”

The event Dang envisioned, APASS's Honor: An AAPI Experience, showcased garments shipped from all over the world modeled by AAPI-identifying students wearing items from their respective identities. Honor hosted taiko drummers and Hālau Kalama Polynesian dancers.

“APASS allows AAPI students to take up space on campus and share our traditions, what we know and love, with the community,” they said. “My Vietnamese heritage and culture are very near and dear to me, and important to who I am.”

“We have such a great community here that's so supportive and inclusive. I've definitely been able to find pride in my cultural identity and cultivate that, not only for myself, but then being able to share that with the campus and the community.” 

Dreaming of divas 

Another dream of Dang’s of which they are most proud of came to fruition this last year. They organized, directed, music directed, and produced a student-led production of Diva's Cabaret. More than 170 people attended the standing-room only event. 

“With the help of so many amazing people, an amazing cast and team, and such a lovely and gracious community, I was able to take this vision out on my head and put it on the stage,” Dang said. “It is a testament that if you dream it and you believe in it, then you can do it. There's nothing in your way.”

Vi Dang

Vi Dang performing in Diva's Cabaret

Vi Dang

Vi Dang performing in Diva's Cabaret

After graduation, Dang plans to eventually move to New York to pursue performing, but they are keeping their plans open.

“I don't want to pigeon-hole myself,” Dang said, “because I definitely want to capitalize on the jack of all trades part of me. My mission is, and it's always been ever since I entered the world of performing arts, to spread Asian and BIPOC representation in the media and entertainment, not only on the performing side, but just as importantly, behind the scenes.”

“I've been lucky this year to spread my wings with the opportunities I've had here,” they said. “I’ve leaned into characters that are very close to who I am as a person. I want to continue to do that and take up space as a queer Asian artist and show possibility for people who might identify with me and want to pursue the arts or want to perform but were told that they couldn't do it."

"I'm living proof that you can and that we are phenomenal.”

-- written by Laura Veith

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