'Vietgone' Turns a Complicated Refugee Tale Into a Hip-Hop Love Story
by Jay Barmann
Playwright Qui Nguyen's uniquely told play Vietgone comes out of the same experimental downtown theater world in New York that gave us Hamilton, and it depicts one family's specific experience as refugees after the fall of Saigon in April 1975. That refugee story takes place primarily in Arkansas, where Nguyen grew up in a predominantly African-American neighborhood in the town of El Dorado, not far from the military base where his star-crossed parents first met in the wake of the war, Fort Chaffee. The result is a funny, often vulgar, and poignant mashup of a play that doubles as a hip-hop musical and a primer on the Vietnamese refugee experience -- and as Nguyen's fictionalized foil in the play announces at the outset, this isn't a play about war. It's a love story.
ACT's production, now playing at The Strand, is directed by Jaime Castaneda with new music composed by Shammy Dee, and it follows on previous acclaimed productions in Oregon, New York, and Southern California. The music here, some of it rap but some of it sung with some very catchy melodies, provides breaks in the action and moments for the main characters to express emotions that bubble up within scenes -- while there are only about a half dozen songs in this two-hour piece, the songs provide effective punctuation to certain scenes in which the characters turn away from the action to confide in the audience.
Vietgone centers on Tong (Jenelle Chu), a headstrong 30-year-old woman who turned down a marriage proposal in Vietnam, and through her job at the American embassy got two tickets out of Saigon for herself and her mother when the North Vietnamese closed in on the city; and Quang (James Seol), a pilot in the South Vietnamese military who saved several dozen civilians by helicopter before inadvertently becoming a refugee himself. Quang left behind a wife and two small children he barely knew, due to the chaos of war, and he and Tong both find themselves in the strange confines of a refugee camp in Arkansas, where they begin a sexual relationship that they insist is nothing more than sexual.
Nguyen's funniest and most effective device, which gets explained in an opening prologue by the "playwright" (played by Jomar Tagatac), is his use of both contemporary American slang to depict the Vietnamese characters speaking casual Vietnamese to each other, and his use of a funny gibberish of Americanisms to depict Americans speaking English to Vietnamese ears (there's a lot of "howdy" and "hamburger" and "fuck a duck") -- as well as poorly-syntaxed English depict Americans attempting to speak Vietnamese, and failing. This unique collage of word play is what sets Vietgone apart in its hilarious depiction of the immigrant experience, and it privileges the immigrants, in this case, who get to sound to us the way they would have sounded to each other, with some artistic license and a heavy helping of sex jokes.
Vietgone is a very sophisticated play about people whose stories don't often get told from their own points of view in American culture -- and Nguyen's respect and affection for his parents shines through much of the script. Seol plays Quang as a dude with swagger who struggles to reconcile the responsibilities he left behind with this new life he gets handed in America. Chu is very funny as Tong, and she has multiple moments to shine as a singer as well -- and Cindy Im provides constant laughs throughout as Tong's beleaguered mother who wants nothing to do with Americans or America.
And Nguyen's skills as a playwright are proven by the closing scene, which bounces forward in time and allows Quang, now in more heavily accented English, to explain his perspective on an unpopular war. Even if Americans have mostly accepted the liberal narrative that Vietnam was a military failure and a mistake, that's a terrible thing to hear for all the Vietnamese who fought alongside Americans, and fought for years to save their own country from collapse, watching friends and family getting slaughtered in the process, and then, in the case of the "lucky" ones like Nguyen's family, given the chance to resettle in a foreign land and never look back, because there's nothing back home except certain death. It's a scene in which humor and grave seriousness collide, and Nguyen accomplishes it with masterful grace.
Vietgone plays through April 22 at The Strand. Find tickets here.