A MODERN TWIST ON THE AMERICAN DREAM AND LOVE STORY - 'VIETGONE' IS A CLOSE FRIEND TO THE HAMILTON OF ASIAN THEATRE
The Vietnam era is not what the new Qui Nguyen play is about - VIETGONE now on stage at American Conservatory Theatre Strand stage through April 22nd is a powerful media mix of the playwright’s parents’ love story. Qui Nguyen, co-founder of the Obie-winning Vampire Cowboys Theatre Company, brings a slick hip hop production to SF with a local excellent cast of Asian actors. The fictionalized tale of the 1975 meeting of the playwright's parents in an Arkansas Vietnamese refugee camp pops with reality, rap music numbers, comic-book style projections and even kung fu fighting.
Nguyen has created a ground breaking play that discovers a new look at the Vietnam era and the love between his parents. He says about the open sex in the story "It's something that you don't see very often in American media, where Asian characters are sexy; and when they're sexy, they're a fetish of sort," said Nguyen in a NPR interview; he says he is down with his parents and tried to get their stories, that they'd glossed over when he was a boy. "Anybody coming from a tumultuous situation like the Holocaust, Vietnam or Syria — they often don't want to talk about it," Nguyen said. "So the first thing I did was get my dad drunk a whole lot, and that kinda freed up the chops a little bit. But what really got them talking ... is that Asian parents really hate the idea of their kids being dumb. So I pretended to be dumb and say things like, 'Oh the Vietnam War was a war between Vietnam and France, right?' And they're like, 'No, that's wrong! Why you so stupid- Kinda getting them atrociously mad was the thing that got them to open up to me."
A fictional Nguyen played by ensemble member Jomar Tagatac opens the play and besides the usual warnings about cellphones and no pics, etc. he told the sold out opening night audience that this story is "absolutely not about" his parents. "Seriously, if any of you peeps repeat or retweet anything you've seen tonight to my folks, you're assholes," and that sets the pace in this bold work. A modern twist on the American Dream and love story.
The classic story of boy meets girl who are refugees from Vietnam in a 1970’s newly settled relocation camp in Middle America. Using a mix from the world of pop culture to recreate the playwright’s own parents meeting, VIETGONE ranges from comedy to drama. Nguyen and director Jamie Castaneda move through time and US/Vietnam on a moving journey of one family’s history. The five local talented cast members play a number of roles as the Vietnamese characters speak in flawless English “Yo what’s up white people” while the American characters speak with an exaggerated, ungrammatical drawl. A broken pop English of emojis “Get’er done” “Cheeseburger and Fries” “tater tots” etc.
Quang is played by the polished James Seol who is a South Vietnamese Air Force hero. Trained in the US, he and his sidekick brother, Nhan, played by the foolproof Stephen Hu who saved dozens of locals but was unable to save Quang’s wife and two young children. Forced to flee Vietnam in the fall of Saigon, the pair end up in racist, anti-Asian Middle America. The young woman,Tong, played by Jenelle Chu escaped her homeland with her frisky mom, Huong, played by the likeable local favorite Cindy Im, (Orphan of Zhoa) leaving her family behind. The immigrant camp at Fort Chaffee Arkansas, is a greasy look at American culture but his parents meet against odds at the prison-like environment.
Tong is wise to her Vietnam life with men and is only looking for fast love, yet she’s willing to dance with the American dream and stay in the states. Her mother sees it different, she wants a ticket back home. Yet her frisky side offers up some of the best comic moments in the story as she flirts with Quang. There is a terrific staged montage that features Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get It On," that satirizes '80s-era romantic movies; Ghost, Say Anything and Dirty Dancing. Playwright Nguyen who is a writer for Marvel films, previous works include; She Kills Monsters, Alice in Slasherland and Living Dead in Denmark. Director Jaime Castaneda and Nguyen have restaged this slicker production for ACT and deliver a hiphop imaginative production with a mix of comic book and a ninja Hamilton feel.
Nahn and Quang travel to California in the hope of returning to Vietnam. Along the way they encounter the dark American experience, racism and a pair of stoned hippies. Quong and Tong rap “I’ll Make It Home” one of the show stopping numbers by music director and composer Shammy Dee. Other raps include “Blow Em Up” “Mary Jane” and the powerful “Tongs Rap” performed by Jenelee Chu that brings the depth of this story full circle. Nguyen realizes that the era of Rap didn’t exist until 1975, he says “My brain doesn’t think in terms of melody. It’s an extension of being a writer - I first fell in love with rap when I was freestyling while on the corner with my friends. It’s a part of who I am.”
The impressive ensemble, Chu and Seol show superb chemistry and infectious comic timing. Stephen Wu, Cindy Im, and Jomar Tagatac excel in a variety of supporting roles and show off perfect ninja choreography designed by movement coach Stephen Buescher. Jaime Casteñada’s direction is fast pace and dramatic. Fight director Jonathan Rider uses Brian Sidney Bembridge’s clever set to celebrate his comic book fight scenes on the two level turntable design. A stark representation of the Fort Chaffee camp includes Chris Lundahl’s video projections that explain the time flashbacks. Jessie Amoroso’s costumes are vintage 1970’s Vietnam peace era in the US. Wen-Ling Liao’s lighting is filled with star drenched outdoor sunsets and the dark mood of the detention facility.
Nguyen ends his NPR interview remembering the love between his parents "I think, as a kid, you just want to show how awesome your parents are," Nguyen said. "And when I became a playwright, I wrote these comedies; these weird comic book geek theater things."I didn't think I [was] a writer who could reflect Vietnamese refugees. At some point I realized, my parents are getting older, my kids are getting older, and I was like, you know what, I need to get over that." Nguyen said his parents haven't seen the play and won't. "They understand why it's important to be out there .... It's hard for them to revisit their past. Those losses are still very painful." He ends "They're very proud that I wrote something about them."
VIETGONE is a modern classic, funny, endearing, pop mix with a historical-based boy meets girl delight. With the cartoonish mix, Nguyen’s story turns serious at the end, with the playwright and now elderly father who tells his son the U.S. had no right to be in Vietnam. It is a wonderful way to bring his parents’ love story to stage, and this is the highlight of the the 2018 Theatre Spring season.
American Conservatory Theatre presents
Comedy by Qui Nguyen, Directed by Jaime Castañeda
Must Close April 22, 2018
ACT's Strand Theater,
1127 Market Street, San Francisco CA.
Running time 2 hours with one intermission
Tickets $40-$95, available at www.act-sf.org.
Photo’s by Kevin Berne
Nguyen Interview courtesy of NPR
Jenelle Chu, Stephen Hu, Cindy Im, James Seol, and Jomar Tagatac.
NPR INTERVIEW with Qui Ngyuyen
RAP SONGS PERFORMED BY Jon Hoche, Jennifer Ikeda, Raymond Lee, Samantha Quan, Paco Tolson from the Manhattan Theatre Club original cast;
I WILL MAKE IT HOME
BLOW EM UP
Outgoing Artistic Director Carey Perloff says . “We are delighted to introduce San Francisco Bay Area audiences to playwright Qui Nguyen and director Jaime Castañeda and look forward to partnering with the Vietnamese community on a number of cultural events throughout the engagement.”