Friday, March 9, 2018


Qui Nguyen

James Seol & Stephen Hu
A romantic comedy?  A musical?  A sex-filled, expletive-packed, action play?  A parody about immigrants views of America or their love story for their new home in America?  A tale set in the mid-‘70s or one that is actually contemporary?  Starkly realistic or wildly fantastic, even a fairy tale? 

The answer is ‘no’ to any one of the above but also a collective ‘yes’ to all when trying to describe a play that refuses to be boxed in to any one conventional.  Premiering in 2015 at South Coast Repertory and receiving since then several more productions from New York to Ashland, Qui Nguyen’s Vietgone arrives at American Conservatory Theatre’s Strand stage in an exciting production with its own original music (Shammy Dee, composer).  On the surface, a story detailing the journey of some Vietnamese immigrants as they escape the fall of Saigon in 1975 and land in a refugee camp in Arkansas, Vietgone is actually an irreverent, topsy-turvy, wild ride of a moving and engaging love story. 

The plot of the story, if it were told in a normal timeline sequence, begins with two people escaping Vietnam among the last to get out -- each leaving behind someone who loves her or him.  Quang, an eight-year South Vietnamese veteran of the ongoing war, reluctantly leaves a wife and two young kids he barely knows while Tong escapes both the Viet Cong and a boyfriend who desperately wants to marry her but whom she only mildly likes.  Quang and Tong meet in a refugee camp in Arkansas and have a hot time in bed together (many times), with seemingly no strings attached.  Quang then convinces his best friend and fellow escapee, Nhan, to make what will be a life-changing trip across American on a motorcycle in order to head back to a family Quang has no idea if still alive in a country he has no clue if he can actually get back in safely. 

It is that journey that begins the play, with bits of the story’s Vietnam and Arkansas bookends splicing in along the way in no particular order.  Since we are warned in no uncertain terms before the play begins by someone who identifies himself as The Playwright not to “repeat/re-Tweet anything about my parents” of this “boy-meets-girl love story,” we are somewhat expecting the story’s ending from the very beginning; but how we get there can in no way be predicted in the way it will be told.

Jenelle Chu & James Seol
James Seol is nothing short of stellar in every respect in the role of Quang.  He brings enormous capacity to be hilariously funny, sexy as all get out, and adventurously daring with eyes and face that light up with impatience, ideas, and imagination of the immigrant who is in a new land with no road map.  At the same time, he vividly communicates in gripping raps his loss of family, home, and everything/anything familiar and shows in those same eyes and countenance a determination to return to his family against all odds of doing so with their or his remaining alive.

As Tong, Jenelle Chu raps and even sings in full, lustrous voice her excitement of her new home of America, even if she must begin living in barracks with a mother who often embarrasses her with her flirting with younger guys and who nags her to death to go back to Vietnam.  Ms. Chu has a wonderfully sarcastic, unfeeling edge in her Tong that shows the strength she brings to begin the rough journey of becoming an American in a land not too welcoming.  At the same time, she provides glimpses of the vulnerabilities that Tong has as she aches for a brother left behind or as she fears that she could in fact fall in love with a man married to another.

Jomar Tagatac, Stephen Hu & James Seol
Each of the other three cast members plays one key role and several other, lesser roles.  Cindy Im is a blast as Huong, Tong’s foul-mouthed, flirting mother who transforms as the story’s pieces come together to be much more loving of her rebellious daughter than her deliciously snappy, smart-aleck attitude displays for much of the story.  Stephen Hu is Quang’s loyal pal who goes along for the cycle ride across the sprawling flatlands of America (as projected in fun and creative ways by Chris Lundahl) while Jomar Tagatac brings much gusto to everything from a redneck biker who hates anyone with yellow skin to a hippie dude who is willing to share his wife with fellow travelers to Bobby, the love-sick crybaby back in Vietnam who only wants Tong to marry him.  Each actor provides us with nuance, insight, and often downright fun in the several characters they inhabit.

Jamie Castañeda directs what could be a mishmash of back-and-forth scenes with dexterity and clever placements of characters on the two-level, turn-table set designed by Brian Sidney Bembridge.  There is some lag in energy a couple of times in both halves of the play as scenes shift here and there in time and place and as more and more characters come in and out for cameo appearances; but overall, the flow and pace work well for the story’s overall powerful and enjoyable effects.  Much of the ‘70s era comes to colorful life through the costumes of Jessie Amoroso, while the excellent sound design of Jake Rodriguez brings the cycle journey, the war’s ending, and the life of refugee camp into surround reality for us.

In Qui Nguyen’s telling, 1975 Vietnamese immigrants speak to each other in the slang, expletives, and yet full-commanded, perfectly pronounced English that one might hear among 2018 young Americans -- all the time referencing current, pop culture.  The Americans they meet talk in gobbledygook of everyday clichés strung together in ways that make no sense (“Nascar, Botox, freckles” or “Fist bump, mozzarella sticks, tater tot, French fry”).  For those Americans who have learned some Vietnamese, they speak in the kind of broken phrases (translated here into English) that sounds like the ones that Vietnamese have often been scripted to say in American films and TV shows (e.g., “Seeing you first time was love in sight first”).  The stage play itself is much like a series of film clips that shift time and place in short sequences, with both memories and current realities blending together to tell a story. 

Cindy Im, James Seol & Jenelle Chu
Current scenes often come to a freeze frame while one character steps forward to explain in song to the audience the pain and anger or the hopes and dreams being felt – and doing so usually in a rapidly rhyming rap, hip-hop manner.  Lines and situations continuously elicit louds waves of laughter from the watching audience as some set-ups seems straight from a TV sitcom (like a horny mother who has just made a pass at a guy half her age and then walking into her room to find him humping her twenty-something daughter in a bunk bed).  Action scenes that smack of Kung-Fu movies and other scenes full of funny smelling cigarettes that could be from a Cheech-and-Chong flick intercept the story’s progression in wonderful and unexpected ways.

The bottom-line effect is that this story about the final days of a losing war that many Baby Boomers want to forget as disastrous and as a national embarrassment is given a new narrative in Vietgone – one told from a totally different perspective than award-winning films like Platoon, Apocalypse Now, or, even Good Morning, Vietnam or an ever-popular musical like Miss Saigon.  In Vietgone, the Vietnamese characters take control of their lives in an otherwise powerless situation.  They are confident, intelligent, sexy, and ultimately successful in ways none of the native-born Americans around them are.  For a contemporary generation of immigrants’ children who have grown up with images of their parents as weak and submissive – in both the way they may have been treated in real life and especially as depicted in films – Vietgone is an empowering, energizing retake on what coming to America meant for their families and ultimately for them.  For the rest of us, Vietgone is a different take on that war and what it meant to the immigrants who came to our country and a clearer understanding what their entrance and life here was truly like – a learning that could help us in how we see and deal with today’s new arrivals from countries far and wide where war, hardships, and hostilities has driven them to our shores.

Rating: 4.5 E

Vietgone continues through April 22 on the Strand Stage, 1127 Market Street.  Tickets are available online at, at the box office 10 a.m. -- 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. – curtain Monday – Friday, or by calling the box office at 415 749-2228.

Photos by Kevin Berne

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