As poet and writer Bao Phi searched for picture books seven years ago that would show a mosaic of different types of people, he ran into a problem. Selections were limited.
"Me and my partner at the time wanted our kid to be exposed to different types of folks — Black, Indian, Arab, queer, everything — so that their worldview could be as large as possible," Phi said.
Not having found such a book, he decided to write his own story. And "A Different Pond" was born. Now, his inaugural children's book about a father and son bonding over fishing outings has been adapted into a play that premieres Friday at Stages Theatre Company in Hopkins in collaboration with Theater Mu.
"I had no idea where this would lead and my only ambition was for it to do well in St. Paul," Phi said. "Now it's going to be something bigger and in another dimension."
Phi drew on his life for the "Pond" story. Set in 1982, it orbits working-class Vietnamese father, Ba, and his son, Duy, who go on fishing forays around the Twin Cities. With each trip, they learn more about each other and become closer, with the father sharing more about his life and history as he tries to remain close with his growing American son.
The book subtly taps the difficulties of parent-child separation compounded by differences in language and accents in a new cultural milieu. Phi said that while fishing is a shared and relatable Minnesota passion, he and his father did not just cast their lines for sport.
"We fished for food — catfish, sunfish, crappie," Phi said. "This was a way to eat."
And while they fished bodies of water such as Minneapolis' chain of lakes and the Mississippi, the father and son also cast their lines off highway collecting ponds and bodies of water without names.
"We would meet a lot of strangers that way," he said. "For me, this work is about showing the humanity of people, especially refugees. Sometimes America can seem so divided that we may feel we can't learn anything from one another. But I believe otherwise."
New York-based Vietnamese-American playwright Jessica Luu Pelletier adapted "Pond."
"When Bao and I first sat down, we stressed that this is about a loving, working-class Vietnamese refugee family," said Pelletier. "All four of those aspects — love, working class, Vietnamese refugee and family — are important and woven throughout."
Duy comes from a big family so the time with his father, who has to pick up extra work to feed and clothe his family, is precious, Pelletier continued.
"The father finds ways to be close to each of his children, and he's afraid that the more American they become, the less connection they will have to their Vietnamese history and culture," Pelletier said. "So the more he and Duy fish, the closer they get and the more Vietnamese Duy becomes."
Phi said that even though the book he wrote was based on biography, he took some of the edge off the real-life characters.
"It's an idealized version of us — I was not well behaved as a kid and my father didn't have the even temperament and patience as the father in the story."
"Pond" has opened the door for other children's books by Phi, including "Hello, Mandarin Duck!" and "My Footprints."
Phi will be signing books after Saturday's performance of "Pond" at Stages. He hopes that his father, who was not very expressive about the book when it first came out, sees it. But Phi knows that the family likes it.
"It's displayed on their mantel," Phi said. "It sits in a place of honor."
'A Different Pond'
By: Adapted from Bao Phi's book by Jessica Luu Pelletier. Directed by Jake Sung-Guk Sullivan.
Where: Stages Theatre, 1111 Mainstreet, Hopkins.
When: 7 p.m. Fri., 1 & 4 p.m. Sat. & Sun. plus select matinees. Ends Oct. 23.
Tickets: $14-$16. 952-979-1111 or stagestheatre.org.