By SUZI STEFFEN
ASHLAND – When laudatory tweets and reviews started rolling in from South Coast Repertory Theatre’s production of Vietgone in October of 2015, I tried to figure out how to fly to Southern California to see it. Then I checked the schedule for the 2016 Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and I cheered.
That was the correct reaction: Vietgone is worthy of cheering.
Vietgone mixes graphic novel sensibilities, flashbacks, a stylized motorcycle quest, hip hop and rap, sexy (I’m tempted to write sexaaaaay) pop songs of the 1960s and 1970s, movie references to everything from Ghost to Say Anything, and a dramatically powerful ending, all in a two-act format that bounces around in time from 1975 to 2015.
Playwright Qui Ngyuen describes the play as “a sex comedy about my parents, about how they got together at a refugee camp in Arkansas.” (You can watch a comprehensive and fascinating OSF video with Nguyen and director May Adrales on the festival’s YouTube channel.)
That’s true; Vietgone has its sex comedy moments, one in particular involving a parent and a shower bucket, but the play is much more than that.
As “the playwright,” Paco Tolson opens both acts by directly addressing the audience, explaining to the audience that the characters who are Vietnamese will be speaking English, with a lot of 2015 hip hop and dudebro swearing (the word motherfucker hasn’t been used this much since Deadwood), while the English from the Americans will sound like “bacon cowboy cheeseburger, good buddy!”
The “American” characters thus sound incomprehensible to the Vietnamese characters – and, not coincidentally, the audience – but they are incomprehensible while using a specifically American vernacular. That language choice centers the play on the Vietnamese refugees’ experience instead of the experience of U.S. soldiers, a more familiar portrayal for many in the U.S. (Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, Full Metal Jacket, and so forth).
Tolson, who plays six other roles, brings a humorous, arch sweetness and depth to each person he portrays. In the play’s final scene, he beautifully negotiates swift tonal changes as the adult Nguyen interviewing his father and finding out a cascade of new information.
His father, Quang Nguyen (James Ryen, who looks like Thor or Superman and really should be a star in one of those comic book universes), moves through most of the play as a kind of frustrated sex god war hero, who can sing or rap at a moment’s notice but who also approaches the emotionally defended Tong (a tremendous Jeena Yi) with exactly what she wants and needs.
Yi, in a wonderfully written role, compels the audience to care about the prickly Tong, including her cutting commentary and barbed intelligence. After all, that is what gets her, and her mother, out of Saigon before the Viet Cong arrive. Yi’s performance is so fantastic that it’s practically a crime she isn’t in the final scene (and it’s a specific choice by the playwright to center his father’s point of view, but the lack of input from the mother lingers long after the lights go down).
Tong’s mother is played by Amy Kim Waschke, whom OSF fans may remember from her role as White Snake in 2012’s The White Snake. As Tong’s mother (she plays several other roles in the play as well), Waschke must pivot between broad comedy and delicate drama, between hesitancy and courage, and she does that smoothly, with strong physical comedy skills.
The final member of the five-person cast is Will Dao, who may be familiar from last year’s Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land or Antony and Cleopatra. Like Waschke and Tolson, Dao plays many roles, but he’s at his emotionally centered best as Tong’s brother Khue, though he also has both amusing and intense moments as Quang’s best friend and fellow soldier.
This play isn’t about the war directly, and it’s not about the refugee camps – though we hear about the food and the living conditions – and it’s not about the U.S. as an interfering imperial power. It’s about how Qui Ngyuen’s parents met, and all that comes before and after.
War hero Quang does not share an automatic U.S. liberal response to the Vietnam War as a “bad” war or a war the U.S. shouldn’t have been involved in, and his response gets stronger as he gets older. For those reading this review who are children of Hmong, Lao, Cambodian and South Vietnamese soldiers, this may come as no surprise to you, but I heard many Vietnam veterans and Vietnam protesters discussing it after the play. “A new perspective,” people said, and “It really gave me something to think about.”
The play itself feels uneven, including some of Quang’s songs, which could have used a fiercer lyricist (or perhaps editor). The wild energy of the road trip scenes bumps up roughly against the more intimate focus of scenes in Vietnam and in the refugee camp in Arkansas. But this flash-of-information style, incomplete and fragmentary, reflects in a smart way the mosaic of connections that children make to their parents’ and caretakers’ stories. No child (of any age) will ever see those stories the way the people living them did, so it makes sense to distance the stories via stylized renditions, asides to the audience and cartoon projections.
That distance, along with the language “barrier,” collapses in the play’s final scene, which leaves the audience laughing its heart out and then sobbing as more of Quang’s truth emerges. The playwright – the character and the actual playwright – emerges transformed, with a story to tell, and an audience to leave wanting more information but with an emotional truth that resonates beyond the end of the play.
Cheers, Vietgone, and cheers to South Coast Rep and the OSF for supporting new work that explores a fuller understanding of this country’s history and heritage.
- ArtsWatch will have an interview with the production’s scenic and costume designer, Sara Ryung Clement, next week.
- The festival added three additional performances of Vietgone (7/14; 9/20; 10/12); many performances are sold out, but of course there are often tickets to be had on the day of performances – you can get on a wait list at the box office or take your chances buying tickets from people on the Bricks outside of the theaters.