Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Vietnamese dissident living in exile in Pittsburgh debuts new musical show about her life

Mai Khoi performs "Bad Activist" Thu., Sept. 15, at the Pittsburgh Playhouse.
Dai Ngo
Mai Khoi performs "Bad Activist" Thu., Sept. 15, at the Pittsburgh Playhouse.

At home, in Vietnam, Mai Khoi rose to fame as a pop star. But globally, she’s now better known for the political activism that led to a life of exile from the land of her birth.

This week, Mai – who has lived in Pittsburgh since 2020 – brings her music and her activism together in a new way with the premiere of “Bad Activist.” It’s a multimedia show at the Pittsburgh Playhouse featuring Mai and a six-piece band as she tells the story of her life in song.

In Vietnam, Mai’s music career began to take off around 2010, and by mid-decade she was touring internationally. But in a nation that tightly censors all media, her flamboyant style and outspoken advocacy for personal freedom – not to mention a run for political office – drew increasing scrutiny. The authorities harassed and persecuted Mai and her family, eventually driving her underground.

WESA Inbox Edition Newsletter

Love stories about arts and culture? Sign up for our newsletter and we'll send you Pittsburgh's top news, every weekday morning.

Over the past few years, her activism has earned her awards including the Vaclav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent and the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Award for Freedom of Speech.

She emigrated to the U.S. in 2019, and found her way to Pittsburgh courtesy of the University of Pittsburgh’s Global Studies Center and groups including City of Asylum and the locally based International Free Expression Project.

“‘Bad Activist’ epitomizes the work of the International Free Expression Project by exalting creative expression while demanding protection for the right of all people to express themselves freely,” said IFEP founder and CEO Greg Victor. “It is a vehicle for Mai Khoi to put on vivid display the exceptional courage, activism and artistry that have made her one of the world’s leading advocates for human rights.”

“We should help and support each other to build our society better and better every day,” said Mai.

An early version of “Bad Activist” was recorded and made available online in early 2021. Mai said the premiere features new songs, new arrangements, a more fully developed script, and new production design.

The show is at 7 p.m. at PNC Theatre. For more details, see here.

Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: