Qui Nguyen Turns the War Topsy-Turvy
by Drew Lehman
“Vietgone” turns America’s conventional view of the Vietnam War on its head. Playwright Qui Nguyen follows Vietnamese refugees who lost everything: family, friends, and country. The refugees find themselves marooned in the white, unwelcoming American heartland. Imagine their shock when they arrive in the country that sacrificed 53,000 soldiers to defend South Vietnam, only to learn that Americans detest them.
Nguyen’s raw and bawdy production abandons polite U.S. points of view and lingo. Rap and rhythm fill this musical-comic book adventure. With unexpected moments of hilarity, “Vietgone” recounts a post-war motorcycle trip from Fort Hood, Arkansas to the Pacific Coast. The revolving set by Brian Sidney Bembridge perfectly captures this helter-skelter exile refugee life.”Vietgone” travels from serious to sexy, a story of love lost and longed for.
Eloquent and powerful, the displaced refugees cling to each other in their desolate Army resettlement camp. What choice do you have when everyone you know is either lost or dead? You get strong or die inside. Meanwhile, Americans chatter, “Yee-haw, cheeseburger, and git‘er done.” “Vietgone” mocks our perverse slang–as it cascades on Vietnamese ears.
In the desert Southwest, a “hippie dude” and “hippie chick” wife wave America’s flag of surrender, confessing, “We’re sorry for what we did to your country, man.” Former South Vietnamese ‘copter pilot Quang (multifaceted, lithe James Seol), stoned but stone-cold sober, raps over and over with increasing passion: “You lost a brother. I lost my family. You lost a brother. I lost my kids. You lost a brother. I lost my country. I lost everything I had.” I got chills when I heard it. I get chills as I write.
Quang and fellow refugee Tong (assertive, alluring Jenelle Chu) fall into lust, deny their love, but become lovers, anyway. Tong rejects the traditional Vietnamese role “where all I get to be is pretty, but not heard.” America “offers me something Vietnam didn’t, it offers me a chance to be me.” Janelle Chu makes the most of Tong’s character, a self-described “badass bitch.”
Somewhere in New Mexico, motorcycle buddy and “backseat bitch” Nahn (deft, poignant Jomar Tagatac) realizes that he is now the Other. Now he understands the scorned Chinese immigrants who live in Vietnam. “Hey,” Nahn says, “I don’t want to be an immigrant. They look funny. That’s like the Chinese back home. I hate the Chinese! I don’t want anybody to think I am a … Chinese.”
Tong’s Mom, Huong, (sardonic, funny Cindy Im) delivers one-liners better than Seinfeld. She denies her age: “You know, white people look really old. White people age really fast.” After planning a desperate escape, Huong accepts permanent exile. She lights incense and prays for her “golden son’s” safety. Then with a simple hug, she tells her daughter Tong that she loves her—which really freaks Tong out. A friend tells me this scene punches closer to home than most Caucasians realize.
Sometimes jarring in its disjointed narrative, “Vietgone” challenges us to see that terrible, wasteful war through the eyes and ears of Vietnamese Americans. “Vietgone” is a thrilling cross-country spectacle that transforms our view of the Other.
“Vietgone” by Qui Nguyen, directed by Jaime Castañeda, at American Conservatory Theater, at The Strand, 1127 Market Street, San Francisco, through Sunday, April 22, 2018. Info: act-sf.org
Cast: Jenelle Chu, Stephen Hu, Cindy Im, James Seol, and Jomar Tagatac.
Banner Photo: Cindy Im and Jomar Tagatac