Only three years ago, he survived a terrifying boat trip from Vietnam, during which his ship's engine faltered, there wasn't enough food and water to go around, and there was an attack by Thai pirates who already had massacred hundreds of his countrymen.
He started studying English only two years ago. And now, Sang Quang Tran, a 17-year-old senior at Santiago High School in Garden Grove, has come in first in a writing contest that drew 1,300 entries.
The contest was one of three sponsored by the St. Joseph Ballet Company in Santa Ana, where artistic director Beth Burns was looking for a story, music and a scenic design around which to choreograph a new work. Burns, who founded the company in 1983 to offer free dance lessons to low-income inner-city youths, said the idea behind the Young Artists Competitions was to "nurture and recognize young inner-city artists (who) may not be dancers."
Kaisara L. Eserea of Los Amigos High School in Santa Ana came up with the music for the 17-minute dance piece, Jesus Cabral of Bethune Junior High School in Los Angeles won the design competition, and the winning story idea came from Tran. "Find Yourself. Lose Yourself" will be danced Thursday through Sunday at Rancho Santiago College.
Despite the drama of his flight from Vietnam, Tran picked another topic for his tale. Several friends--including a semifinalist in the competition--had written about their emigration, Tran explained, and "I wanted to do something different."
So he came up with a contemporary urban romance about Gabriela, who falls in love with Manuel, a gang leader--a match that meets with something less than approval by Gabriela's mother.
If it sounds a little like "West Side Story," it's no coincidence. Tran said he has had no firsthand exposure to gang life and added with a shy smile that he doesn't have a girlfriend. But he did see the film version of "West Side Story" in his English class, shortly after he learned of the contest.
He "liked the concept of 'Romeo and Juliet,' " which he had read in school. From there, "I watched lots of movies and plays about romance and gangs," Tran said, "and I tried to put them all together."
His story was judged by a panel that included Jose Cruz Gonzales, director of South Coast Repertory's Hispanic Playwrights project, and Charles Champlin, the former Times critic at large, who praised Tran's submission for its "terrific amount of dramatic conflict."
Tran says medicine, not writing, is what he plans to pursue. But winning the competition meant more to him than the $1,000 prize. "I didn't expect to win," he said. "A lot of people have better English. But I feel really proud of myself."
What: "Find Yourself. Lose Yourself," based on a story by Santiago High School senior Sang Quang Tran, to be danced by the St. Joseph Ballet Company.
When: Thursday, May 30, through Saturday, June 1, at 8 p.m.; Saturday, June 1, and Sunday, June 2, at 2 p.m.
Where: Phillips Hall Theatre, Rancho Santiago College, 17th and Bristol streets, Santa Ana.
Whereabouts: Santa Ana (5) Freeway to 17th Street. Go west to Bristol.
Wherewithal: $8 general, $5 for children, seniors and matinee seats. Special $25 tickets benefit the St. Joseph Ballet Company scholarship fund.
Where to call: (714) 541-8314.