October 16, 2019 | By Julie Garisto
American Stage’s Vietgone
Offers a Personal, Often Hilarious History Lesson
Playwright Qui Nguyen delves into his parents’ courtship in a refugee camp
and lampoons a bevy of stereotypes
Through November 3
While waiting for the regional premiere of Vietgone to begin, we know from the onset that we’re in for an unorthodox night of theater. The set at American Stage, imaginatively designed by Jerid Fox, looks like a comic book or movie poster — a melange of American and Asian cultural elements and settings. Billboards are used for projections. They entertain and incite thought and emotions throughout the play.
When the house goes dark, a young man comes out to deliver the curtain speech. He introduces himself as playwright Qui Nguyen and warns us to expect only American stereotypes in dialogue.
There will be no “Herro! Prease to meeting you! I so Asian!,” he says.
The Americans in the play, he adds, will say things like “Yee-haw! Get ’er done! Cheeseburger, waffle fries, cholesterol!”
Then he gives the standard “this is a work of fiction/any resemblances are purely coincidental” disclaimer.
He also dispatches a warning: If anyone should meet his parents and tell them about the play, he will hunt us down.
Those who carefully read the program before the show know that an actor in the show (Vi Tran) is actually portraying playwright Qui Nguyen, and the speech is a scripted part of the play (with some ad-libbing at the end).
Tran, as Nguyen, explains that the main characters are Vietnamese and became refugees in America. The play is set in 1975 and these characters, he says, won’t sound the way you might expect them to.
From there we’re jerking back and forth in time, from comedy to drama, like a theatrical funhouse ride.
In an interview with NPR, Qui Nguyen, the Vietnamese-American, Obie-winning playwright calls Vietgone a “sex comedy” about his parents, who convinced him at a young age that their romance was a love-at-first-sight, wholesome love story, but he later learned that it all started as a hookup.
Nguyen takes tales he learned from them and weaves them into a madcap plot: Vietnamese soldier Quang (Jeff Kim) arrives at a refugee camp in Arkansas. Consumed with guilt, he enlists his buddy (Kenny Tran) to find a way back to Saigon. Meanwhile, when Saigon falls, Tong (Sami Ma) can take only her mother (Jodi Kimura) with her when she flees to America.
When Tong and Quang meet, it’s lust at first sight, but Tong is no stereotypically subservient young woman living to dote on a man. She makes it clear that she just wants sex, and she just needs to release some tension. The couple’s mutual unavailability doesn’t keep them from falling in love; nor does her intrusive mother, who’s embarrassingly libidinous herself (lampooning liberated older women is still fair game, apparently).
During the play, the aforementioned billboards project postcards with colorful greetings that read “Welcome to Albuquerque” (and other cities in the play) and contrast with some hard-to-watch war footage.
Nguyen pays homage to the losses of the time without getting us mired in the tragedy but long enough to be honest and respectful of his parent’s painful memories and those who lost their lives and families during the Vietnam War. He shows us the war from his father’s perspective, who expressed frustration when Americans apologized to him.
On the other end of the emotional spectrum, Vietgone fetches big laughs when it’s in slapstick mode. Tropes galore come out to play — ninjas, hippie stoners, rednecks.
It’s also got walkable motorcycle props that are as badass as they are amusing.
Tong and Quang use the language of hip-hop to vent their frustrations, which adds a refreshing contemporary touch to Vietgone. One of the most eviscerating raps comes from Tong in the second act. She spouts, “Love is just some bullshit story/ a poetic veneer on why we get horny.”
As both Intimacy and Fight Director, Dan Granke deftly counseled both the fun-to-watch foreplay scenes and difficult fist fights. Director Brian Balcom helps make the back and forth in time and the humor less dizzying and helps us get past the more long-winded portions of the script. Benjamin T. Ismail (assistant direction/sound) and Christopher Baldwin (lighting) create a compelling atmosphere and Producing Artistic Director Stephanie Gularte even chips in creating the costumes, which are suitably charming.
I have one question to the director: How is it possible that Quang and Nhan able to converse on a motorcycle riding together through the desert using a normal tone of voice but have to shout above the helicopter noise?
Minor issues aside, American Stage presents another exceptional night of theater with Vietgone and all of the actors, who play multiple roles, add nuance and humor to their characters’ lines. Kim effectively conveys the conflicted feelings of Quang and Ma is electric as Tong. They and their costars — who take on multiple roles — are versatile and watchable in every role.