Written by Daniella Litvak
In 2013 Qui Nguyen was part of the South Coast Repertory’s CrossRoads Initiative, a playwright residency program in Orange County. During his time, Nguyen visited the Southeast Asian Archives at the University of California, Irvine. There he found photographs of a subject near to his heart –Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, one the refugee camps where hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese refugees, including his own family, were relocated to following the fall of Saigon. Seeing those photos finally made Nguyen commit to the project he wanted to write about for so long –a sex comedy starring his parents.
The year is 1975. Quang (Raymond Lee) and Tong (Maureen Sebastian) are two among the many southern Vietnamese citizens who lost everything –including loved ones –when Saigon fell. They have found
their way to Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, where they meet, and it’s lust at first sight. Although their relationship is deepening into something more, various reasons conspire to tear the lovers apart. The main conflict between them is Tong embracing her new life as an American while Quang feels he must return to Vietnam.
Vietgone prides itself on being a love (or rather lust) story than a war story. Lee and Sebastian are good in their roles and have great chemistry with each other. Combined with irreverent dialogue, they are fun to watch. However, the love story feels incomplete –missing a stage in their journey of going from “no strings attached” to love. The non-linear storytelling only makes this more obvious. How can the audience trust Quang’s feelings for Tong when the previous scene was devoted to his heartbreak over the family he left in Vietnam? How is Quang going to find his way back to them? There is also a cliché misunderstanding that separates the lovers.
Vietgone’s strengths are the themes it brings up, the Vietnamese perspective it provides to the audience, and its individual scenes. Nguyen doesn’t feel beholden to period accuracy or faithful reenactments, and the show is mostly better off because of it. The irreverent dialogue captures the emotions the characters deal with. The unexpected moments of whimsy, fantasy, and fourth wall breaking also really elevate the play. My favorite part of the show is the courtship montage parodying several 80s movies.
There are hip-hop interludes, but they’re not very successful. The rapping is not done consistently, it feels random and out-of-place. The ending sort of explains, why music was incorporated into the show, but there could have been a smoother integration.
Still it is clear Qui Nguyen had a vision, and a wonderful cast and crew to bring it to life. Acting alongside Lee and Sebastian are Jon Hoche, Samantha Quan, and Paco Tolson –all three playing several different roles. The chemistry between Lee and Hoche when Hoche is playing Quang’s best friend Nhan is just as vital –if not more so –to the show as the chemistry between Lee and Sebastian. Fortunately, Lee and Hoche pull it off. Tolson gets to show off the most range because his roles are the most diverse from each other, but Samantha Quan probably gets the most laughs as Tong’s mother Huong. All in all it is fun watching these actors interact with each other in several different ways, and their enthusiasm for the material is infectious.
Vietgone is not perfect, but it is surprising and unconventional and poignant. It provides a perspective on the Vietnam War that is underrepresented in American culture, and it is done in inimitable style.
Side note: Show is not recommended for young audiences.
October 4, 2015 – October 25, 2015
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