WEST PALM BEACH — If you think “Miss Saigon” is simply a girl meets boy love story, or in this case, a Vietnam teen meets American GI love story, think again.
And if you think Aubee Billie is just a typical 15-old-year high school student, think again.
For three captivating hours on a Thursday evening in April, Billie, a sophomore at The King’s Academy, whisked the audience on an emotional roller-coaster ride with a riveting performance that culminated with a thundering standing ovation and an abundance of well-deserved praise at the school’s Page Family Center for Performing Arts in West Palm Beach.
Acing the play’s lead role of Vietnamese teenager Kim during and after the Vietnam War, Billie flawlessly ventured through the peaks and valleys of a turbulent teenage and young adult life precariously occupied by abandonment, romance, marriage, motherhood, love triangle, murder, suicide and war in besieged Saigon in the mid-1970s.
But this lead role in The King’s Academy Theatre Company production did more than shine a bright spotlight on the daughter of James and Maria Billie; it also brought her closer to her dad’s military past, which she grasped to further her role and understanding of the war.
“The way I relate to it is from my dad because he served in the Vietnam War for two years,” Billie said, “so hearing his stories and most of the scenes in there are actually what guys did, like them going to bars and them getting girls and paying for girls and stuff like that. I relate to the story through my dad and through research and seeing the pictures and how [the women] climbed up the gates just to get freedom and just to survive.”
James Billie, a former chairman of the Seminole Tribe of Florida, attended nearly every performance of “Miss Saigon” during its two-week run that ended April 13.
“This is not what you call high school drama; this is Broadway-show quality,” he said.
James Billie was an airborne trooper in the U.S. Army who served in Vietnam in the mid-to-late 1960s.
“I went over there with the 101st Airborne, but then once you get there it don’t matter who you’re with, when the outfit needs some people, they just put you in there,” James Billie said. “The 25th infantry from Hawaii was really get their rear-ends kicked. They had a bad battle and they needed replacements, so I was one of the replacements.”
It wasn’t the play’s war scenes, however, that tugged at his heart the most; rather it was when Kim sends her young son to America and waves goodbye, a somber moment reminiscent of one that happened in James Billie’s life when he was a kid.
“The touchy part was not because of Vietnam. The last time I saw my mother she was at Broward General Hospital, second floor, waving to us good-bye. Two days later she was dead,” James Billie said. “That was touching.”
James Billie said his daughter caught the acting and singing bug at about age 11 or 12 when she told her parents she wanted to go to a summer fine arts camp in New York. She’s returned to the camp in ensuing summers.
“This year I asked her if she is going to go back,” James Billie said. “She said, ‘No. When I came to [The King’s Academy], everything I wanted is right here’.”
Nearly all the credited roles in “Miss Saigon” belonged to juniors and seniors, but Aubee Billie, as a sophomore, managed to capture the lead.
“She’s 15 and she’s remarkable,” is how The King’s Academy artistic director David Snyder described Aubee to the audience prior to the start of the April 11 performance.
Before the end of the night, audience members, who included some Seminoles, concurred with Snyder’s critique.
“I think she’s spectacular and one of the great up-and-coming Native American stars,” said Spencer Battiest, who is already an accomplished singer and actor. “For me and my career, it makes me so happy because that’s what I want to see, I want to see that generation take it further than I ever could.”
Aubee Billie saw Battiest perform in the Native American play “Distant Thunder.”
“That was her first time in New York,” Battiest said. “It was a cool experience to have here there. And now, two years later, to see her on stage in a role like this, I feel like a proud brother. She has a beautiful voice and she’s going to be a star.”
Joni Josh, who worked in the chairman’s office when James Billie was chairman, remembered Aubee’s visits and her voice.
“She’s great. She’d come into the office and sing. She’d sing everything. She’s really taken off. I’m so proud of her,” Josh said.
Praise for Billie’s performance extended beyond the Tribe, too. Theatre-goer Jerry Waldman didn’t have to wait until the end of the play to give a thumbs up.
“She’s terrific. She’s 15-years-old. She’s wonderful,” Waldman said during intermission.
The audience witnessed what Snyder, the director, has appreciated ever since Billie earned the role.
“Every night I sit back and I wonder where is she getting all this from as a 15-year-old. She comes out on stage and immediately the audience is engaged with her. Immediately, the moment she walks on stage there’s something about her presence,” Snyder said.
Snyder said Billie is an ideal fit for the role of Kim which features plenty of singing.
“Aubee’s voice is just so sweet and silky and beautiful,” he said. “She opens up her mouth and that’s exactly what I think the composers had intended when they wrote that role.”
Snyder provided sort of a carpe diem pep talk to Billie before the first performance.
“Right before we opened [April 4], I told her your life is about to change and you don’t really realize this yet,” said Snyder, who predicts that when a tape of the play becomes available more than a few heads will turn.
“Usually we have students that get signed with a professional company or with an agency. I wouldn’t be surprised if that happens before she graduated,” he said.
Billie said she’s interested in continuing her academics, including performing arts, in college. Carnegie Mellon University, New York University and Hofstra University are among the schools that have drawn her interest, but for now she’s focused on exceling in theatre as well as the rest of her academics and appreciating the opportunity afforded to her by her first-ever lead.
“I wasn’t nervous; I say I was scared. Everything went well. It’s a different feeling when everyone has their eyes on you,” she said about opening night. “I’m a very social person so it’s not that hard for me to do.”
Billie, whose love interest Christopher Scott is played by Clayton Hider, praised the performances of all of her castmates.
“Literally, every person I see in this cast, they are so talented … they are so good,” she said.
But nobody was as good with a weapon as Billie, whose role required her to twice fire a gun. She became the first female to ever fire a weapon on The King’s Academy stage.
Having grown up in the rural environment of the Brighton Reservation, Billie is accustomed to handling weapons, whether its guns or bows or arrows. In fact, she won a bronze medal in archery two years ago at the North American Indigenous Games in Canada.
“She’s an expert at bow and arrow. She’s been around bows and guns all her life,” her father James said. “She got the bronze. Next time she’ll get gold.”
So Aubee Billie can handle guns, and thanks to her performance in “Miss Saigon,” at age 15 she’s proven she can handle a lead role.
“When you get to spend time with her in real life, she’s a normal 15-year-old,” Snyder said. “She likes to dance and have fun with her friends, but when she puts that costume on and she comes out on stage, she’s a true professional.”