“Poor Yella Rednecks” Sprinkles Slang & Spice in Viet Struggle –at ACT
Qui Nguyen Honors Both Tradition & Pop Culture
by Hamilton Nguyen
Using neon-lit sets, rap music, and country lingo, “Poor Yella Rednecks: Vietgone 2” tells the story of Vietnamese immigrants in Arkansas in the 70s. Playwright Qui Nguyen, a character in his own play, envisions his family’s immigrant story without the sugar-coating. His Viet family brings the heat.
As the Playwright (jovial Jomar Tagatac) hunches over his hipster laptop working on his play. he interviews his Mom (multi-talented Jenny Nguyen Nelson)–now grown older. She takes a sharp look back, describing their conflict with Southern ways.
Mom’s has us laughing when she says: “No White people wanna hear about your fatha and me having Seccs. You have do story White people wanna hear. Look! Only White people go play, no one else go.” The audience laughs with her as she recalls her son’s childhood with wit and flair. She’s the “authentic” spice of a Vietnamese meal.
We discover a delightfully intrusive grandma; a resourceful, rejected father; and an outspoken, desperate mother. Add a confused child torn by his parents’ separation and we have echoes of many immigrant stories in the U.S.
As the feisty Grandma, captivating Christine Jamlig, who plays four radically different roles brilliantly, argues fiercely with her daughter Tong (Nelson). Mother and daughter disagree fiercely about marriage, parenting, and women’s roles. For Grandma, Vietnamese traditions are losing the battle with American brashness.
Playwright Nguyen makes up new ways to use language. His Southerners speak “good ol boy” lingo that sounds like gibberish to Vietnamese ears. But he uses everyday English for the Vietnamese conversations–a clever device.
Rap music by Shammy Dee heightens the passion between the married lovers, Tong (Nelson) and Quang (charismatic Hyunmin Rhee). Tong and Quang display their love in tense, steamy scenes. Sympathetic Dad Quang charms his wife with cheesy one-liners and sexy dance moves. Quang uses down and dirty slang, straight out of hip-hop, saying: “Is that made outta beaver? ’Cause dayum!”
The passionate couple, Tong and Quang, care about their confused child “Little Man.” But he is a puppet, not ready to deal with his parents’ emotions. Frustrated, Little Man (energetic Will Dao) immerses himself in fantasy, impersonating his heroes–Spiderman and Darth Vader. With confusion and anger, he imagines using kung fu to pummel racist bullies–a temporary solace.
In his surreal mixture of Bruce Lee and Lin-Manuel Miranda, Nguyen makes a dynamic cocktail of language and pop culture in the U.S. His fast-paced play about growing up Viet in Middle America pays tribute to his family’s bravery and their origins.
Go see “PYR” to understand how Atari, Coolio, and Street Fighter help these immigrants find joy and meaning. Here’s a good round of “Yeehaws!” and “Hay quá” for “Poor Yella Rednecks.”
“Poor Yella Rednecks: Vietgone 2” by Qui Nguyen, directed by Jaime Castañeda, scenic design by Tanya Orellana, original music by Shammy Dee, sound design by Jake Rodriguez at American Conservatory Theater, The Strand Theater, 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: Hyunmin Rhee & Jenny Nguyen Nelson. Photos by Kevin Berne