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Reviewed by Vince Mediaa

The Vietnam era is not what Qui Nguyen’s play is about - VIETGONE now on stage at the City Lights Theater Company through April 24th is a powerful media mix of the playwright’s parents’ love story. Qui Nguyen, co-founder of the Obie-winning Vampire Cowboys Theater Company, brings a slick hip hop production to San Jose 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 profanity, rap music numbers, comic-book style projections and keen stage fighting.

Director Jeffrey Lo recognizes the diverse Vietnamese community in San Jose. “The influence that the Vietnamese American community has on our city is undeniable. The culture of San José would not have the same spirit we know it to have if it were not for the traditions, food, and leaders of the Vietnamese community. It is a great honor to be able to share this play with you here. I hope you will help us uplift this beautiful community and this story in the way it deserves.” said Lo.

Playwright Nguyen also created a very sexy play discovering the love between his parents was only a sexual hook up. "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 younger. "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."

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. Director Jeffrey Lo moves through time and US/Vietnam on a moving journey of one family’s history. Lo has the flow and historic pace of Nguyen's play perfected, he first directed this production for Capital stage in Sacramento.

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 emojis “Get’er done” “Cheeseburger and Fries” “tater tots” etc.

Quang is played by the award-winning Jomar Tagatac who is superb as the Air Force hero. He was trained in the US, he and his sidekick brother, Nhan, played by the foolproof Tasi Alabastro 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 the flawless Amanda Le Nguyen escaped her homeland with her frisky mom, Huong, played by the accomplished Melissa Mei Jones..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. 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 and sing original music by Shane Rettig, 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, Tagatac and Le Nguyen show superb chemistry and infectious comic timing. Tasi Alabastro, Anthony Doan, Melissa Mei Jones, and Vivienne Truong are terrific in a variety of supporting roles who show off perfect ninja choreography by Lee Ann Payne. Fight director Jonathan Rider uses Ron Gasparinetti’s clever set to celebrate his comic book fight scenes on the two levels. A stark representation of the Fort Chaffee camp includes Dan Lydersen’s video projections. Melissa Sanchez costumes are vintage 1970’s Vietnam peace era in the US. Ed Hunter’s lighting is filled with star drenched outdoor sunsets and the dark mood of the detention facility. Karen Leonard’s props include two life size motor bikes and barracks table dining.

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." 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 now an elderly father 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 City Lights 39th season. Next up a world premier: Jeffrey Lo’s new play WAITING FOR NEXT directed by Leslie Martinson opens May19th. But in the meantime join this hip important road trip love story in a modern twist of the American Dream.

City Lights Theater Company presents


Written by Qui Nguyen

with Original Music by Shane Rettig

Directed by Jeffrey Lo

With: Tasi Alabastro, Anthony Doan, Melissa Mei Jones,

Amanda Le Nguyen, Jomar Tagatac, Vivienne Truong

Must Close April 24th, 2022

City Lights Theater Company,

529 2nd Street, San Jose CA.

Tickets $25 - 52, available .

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Photo’s by CLTC

Nguyen Interview courtesy of NPR


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