When the house lights dim for Qui Nguyen’s Vietgone, a playwright character appears to introduce Asian actors who quickly demonstrate that their syntax in the play will be: “Yo! What’s up, white people?” and definitely not: “Herro! Prease to meeting you!”
He then gives a disclaimer:
“All characters in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. That especially goes for any person or persons who could be related to the playwright.”
Yeah, right. Nguyen’s story is based on his parents’ flight from Vietnam to America when Saigon is overtaken in 1975. But it’s not the heavy drama of the Viet immigration often told by white boomers.
Nope. It’s a love story. A fast romantic-comedy. Partially told by rap, with some ultra-fly choreography. With flashbacks, flash-forwards and billboard-sized projections. And yes — drama. Vietgone is a young and fresh take on love in time of war, combining the best theatrical devices with the fun-pop of a comic book.
Quang (James Ryen) is a strapping, confident Vietnamese helicopter pilot who, after ferrying refugees to American ships, wants to go back after his wife and kids but finds himself in an Arkansas relocation camp. His goal is to ride a motorcycle back to California with his best friend Nhan (exuberantly played by Will Dao) and then hop back to Vietnam, a place where, he says “We’re heroes. We’re sons. We’re men…. Here, however we don’t count for shit.”
But Quang’s “Easy Rider” dreams fall apart as Nhan emphatically reminds him that there’s no going back to Vietnam for a former South Vietnam Air Force officer. In the meantime, they’re hilariously exploring ‘70s “free love,” hippies, pot, music and run-ins with rednecks.
At camp, Quang meets Tong (Jeena Yi), who is sexy, equally confident and who is not about to be made into anyone’s princess, despite the expectations of her.
Mother, Hoang (Amy Kim Waschke), and the dripping attentions of blonde, corn-fed Arkansas dudes. Tong proclaims she is “the toughest bitch in the camp,” but in a moving dialogue, realizes that her mother — who’s lost two husbands and been through years of wars — is tougher.
Playwright Qui Nguyen, a cofounder of Manhattan’s modern Vampire Cowboys Theatre Company, has a solid list of theatrical credits but also writes for film and TV, (Peg + Cat, Marvel Studios). This play is very immediate, almost camera- ready.
Director May Adrales keeps this production vivid, tight and fast and she has exacted sharp performances from actors, all of whom are solid. How good it is to see an all-Asian cast with solid roles in what Adrales describes as “an all-American story about a road trip, about determination, optimism, American hope and the capacity for love.”
The only storytelling devices that didn’t feel quite right were the rap sequences. It’s hard to fit rap into an otherwise mostly-unmusical vehicle, especially when the lyrics could be another artful monologue.
One of the most moving scenes is an epilogue, set in the present day. The playwright interviews his father, now old, stoic and not understanding why his son wants to hear about the war. Then Quang hears his son say that the Vietnam War was “America’s biggest mistake.”
“We fight because it was the only thing we could do,” Quang lectures softly. “War came to us. And when America come, they give us hope. They fought beside us as we fought beside them… A lot of bad things happened. But that not change this one fact, many of them died so I could live.”
“Son, if you wanting to know about Vietnam then I will tell you about Vietnam,” he continues. “If you wanting to know about Vietnamese people, then let me tell you about its people. But if you only wanting to know about war, then go rent a movie.”
“Vietgone,” by Qui Nguyen and directed by May Adrales, is at Seattle Repertory Theatre until Jan. 1, 2017, and is presented in association with Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Cast: James Ryen, Jeena Yi, Will Dao, Amy Kim Waschke and Moses Villarama. For more info: https://www.seattlerep.org/Plays/1617/VG/Synopsis
Top image: (L-R) James Ryen (Quang) and Will Dao (Nhan) in Seattle Repertory Theatre’s Vietgone. Photo by Navid Baraty.
Stephen is a 25-year veteran of KCTS, producing a wide range of cultural and public affairs series, documentaries and arts programming. His credits include PIE, Something in the Water (PBS feature on Seattle’s indie music scene), the gala opening of Benaroya Hall, and documentaries on Asahel and Edward Curtis, Dan Sullivan and Doris Chase. Seattle-born, Hegg is a graduate of Whitworth University and is also an accomplished violinist and avid cyclist.More stories by Stephen Hegg