Qui Nguyen’s “Vietgone 2” Highlights Vietnamese Immigrant Experience
by Jeanette Quick
I wanted to love “Poor Yella Rednecks: Vietgone 2,” the second part of Qui Nguyen’s trilogy about Vietnamese refugees in Arkansas. Telling the stories of Vietnamese refugees in America is a brave act—we need more of this, especially in an America rife with anti-Asian violence. But “Vietgone 2” lacks the depth and emotional core of “Vietgone,” which had a successful run at ACT in 2018.
The first “Vietgone” left me breathless. As the daughter of a Vietnamese immigrant, I was impressed with how Nguyen captured the emotional impact of war and the unsettling strangeness of a new land.
In this play, Tong (Jenny Nguyen Nelson) and Quang (Hyunmin Rhee) have left the refugee camp and married. They now live in El Dorado, Arkansas, with their son Little Man (Will Dao) and Tong’s mother Huong (Christine Jamlig). They struggle through daily American challenges, and their disorientation settles into gripes about money and school. In becoming Americanized, this family’s journey has been flattened.
The hip-hop numbers by Shammy Dee that pepper the show highlight Tong’s anger, but also make events seem disconnected. It was not always clear why she was so angry, and what else she might feel.
“Vietgone 2,” under the direction of Jamie Castaneda, has electric moments: a pick-up scene in a cocktail bar between new lovers. And a father talking to his son, played by a puppet (operated by Dao using James Ortiz’ beautiful puppet design).
The actors are in fine form: Jomar Tagatac plays the playwright delightfully and shows his superb range in several roles. Jenny Nguyen Nelson does what she can with the script, her face seamlessly contorting from anger to sarcasm. Hyunmin Rhee expertly portrays Quang’s despair. He goes from a military officer in Vietnam to a poor, blue-collar worker in the U.S.
Tanya Orellana’s fantastic scenic design suspends a living room in a glowing square, poised above the stage below. The hanging frame juxtaposes the couple’s home life with their “outside life.” Outside the home Quang struggles with his marriage, careening from picking up other women to commiserating with his best friend. Through it all, the home looms above, a cloud over his every move.
The play comes close to an interesting commentary on how Vietnamese immigrants experience white Americans. White people are depicted as caricatures that speak in broken English and use strings of obscure pop references. This is particularly impactful in scenes between Tong and her aging mother Huong, who grapple with hard questions about living in America.
Playwright Qui Nguyen uses contemporary events, mixing the present with the 1970s. This can be funny at times, but the modern references were scattered and confusing. The shift in time does add perspective to the play, making us think about the playwright himself and the role of memory in storytelling.
Memories are fallible and we get details and facts wrong, but the feelings remain. Ultimately, the playwright has written an homage to his Vietnamese parents and their journey. It’s a journey worth experiencing.
“Poor Yella Rednecks: Vietgone 2” by Qui Nguyen, directed by Jaime Castañeda, scenic design by Tanya Orellana, at American Conservatory Theater, The Strand, San Francisco. Info: ACT-SF.org – to May 7, 2023.
Cast: Ben Chau-Chiu, Will Dao, Christine Jamlig, Jenny Nguyen Nelson, Amanda Le Nguyen, Jed Parsario, Hyunmin Rhee, and Jomar Tagatac.
Banner photo: Will Dao, Christine Jamlig, Jenny Nguyen Nelson, Hyunmin Rhee, and Jomar Tagatac. Photos: Kevin Berne