"Vietgone": Irreverent Comedy Tells Immigrant Tale

by Jean Schiffman

Qui Nguyen mines his immigrant parents' past and recasts the story, using a present-day vernacular, hip-hop music, a nonlinear structure and highly idiosyncratic characters.

Qui Nguyen’s play “Vietgone” begins with a metatheatrical teaser. An actor enters, identifies himself as “playwright Qui Nguyen,” and announces, “All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. “That especially goes for any person or persons who could be related to the playwright.

“Specifically his parents.

“Who this play is absolutely not about.”

This is a story, insists playwright Nguyen’s theatrical avatar, about a completely made-up character named Quang, a pilot with the South Vietnamese air force who escaped his country in 1975 during the fall of Saigon, and wound up in a relocation camp in Arkansas. There he fell in love at first sight with fellow refugee Tong.

Immediately young Quang strolls onstage and says, “’Sup, bitches,” followed by Tong, who glares at the audience: “Whoa, there’s a lotta white people up in here.”

This is not your grandfather’s wartime romance. This is a play with present-day vernacular, hip-hop music, a nonlinear structure and highly idiosyncratic characters, most of whose names have not been changed.

Nguyen, born and raised in Arkansas, always knew he’d write his parents’ story. “I thought I’d grow up and become this mature writer and write it in an elegant and reverent way,” he says on the phone from Los Angeles, where he is a screenwriter, currently for Marvel Studios (he won a 2016 Daytime Emmy for “Peg+Cat,” a pre-school animated program). He continues, “I finally realized that fictional time was never going to come. I’d always be the mischievous writer that I am.” South Coast Repertory and Manhattan Theatre Club commissioned the play. South Coast Rep premiered it in 2015, after which it went to Manhattan Theatre Club and Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2016, winning several awards. This American Conservatory Theater production is all new.

To get his parents to open up about their past, says Nguyen, “I sort of had to trick them.” Like many who have endured a traumatizing wartime ordeal, they did not want to talk about it, certainly not for public consumption. They thought their son was writing about something else and needed help verifying some facts about the Vietnam war.

Nguyen researched the war and its aftermath in other ways, too; he read books and studied a collection of stories from Southeast Asian refugees, which are housed in a U.C. Irvine archive.

To tell such a personal yet historically significant story, the playwright faced multiple artistic decisions. A major one concerned the language itself. Growing up Vietnamese-American in the late 20th century, he often felt alienated, constantly reminded how “foreign” he was. In writing “Vietgone,” he decided his characters should not sound like outsiders. Going further with that idea, he imagined how a 16-year-old today might relate to a play about an older, immigrant generation’s tribulations and realized he needed them to speak in a current, not a mid-20th-century, syntax. Thus, in “Vietgone,” the non-English-speaking Vietnamese characters—Quan, Tong and a few others, including Tong’s mother and Quan’s best friend—talk the way Nguyen himself talks now, although the plays takes place in
mid-1970s Saigon, in Arkansas and on a motorcycle road trip to Camp Pendleton near San Diego.

And within the paradigm of the play, since the Vietnamese characters are talking to one another in their own native language, they are also hearing the various American characters (played by three actors, who also appear in other roles) in the form of scrambled sound bites: “Whoop whoop, fist bump. Mozzarella sticks, tater tot, French fry.” 

Or when Americans struggle to speak rudimentary Vietnamese to the refugees, their efforts come out sounding like this: “Me am name Bobby.”

Nguyen himself says that although his first language was Vietnamese, spoken at home in Arkansas, he now has maybe a four-year-old’s understanding of the language; when his parents speak to him, he likely comprehends about half of what is being said.

This new production of “Vietgone” is directed by Jaime Castañeda (associate artistic director at La Jolla Playhouse and a director on the national scene), and the cast includes local actors Cindy Im and Jomar Tagatac plus Jenelle Chu, Stephen Hu and James Seol. Nguyen says this is the first production that he himself is not directly involved with. But he and Castañeda have known each other since they both lived and worked in New York—Nguyen cofounded the innovative Vampire Cowboys Theatre Company there; Castañeda was artistic associate at off-Broadway’s Atlantic Theatre Company—and they have a similar sensibility: “We both love comic books and pop culture,” says Nguyen. “He’s a wonderful director.”

Castañeda, in San Francisco to start musical rehearsals at A.C.T., says he read the play before seeing it and found it to be “really funny and smart. … It’s about real events that make it a lot to chew on [for example, father and son argue over their completely opposing viewpoints on the Vietnam War], but Qui does it with music and irreverent writing and punchlines. There’s fight choreography and projection design, a lot of technical things, lots of costume changes, a lot going on.” DJ Shammy Dee has composed new songs, and Castañeda and set designer Brian Sidney Bembridge conceived a revolving stage to reflect the way events gradually reveal themselves—“It’s a memory play,” Castañeda observes, “but not quite the protagonist’s memory.”

It must be asked: Have Nguyen’s parents seen the play, which is the first of a series that he’s writing to capture their 40 years in America? “They’re never going to see it, I discovered,” says Nguyen with a rueful laugh. The script is right there in their living room and occasionally they peek inside. “They see all the names—brothers and sisters, people they care about, now gone. I get it. That’s cool.”

March 8 → April 22

American Conservatory Theater

The Strand

1127 Market St., San Francisco 729-2228