I first became a fan of Qui Nguyen when I saw Six Elements Theatre present his play She Kills Monsters, and his new show Vietgone has endeared me to him even more. So much happens in this show that, at the base of it, is a love story about Nguyen’s parents when they met in a refugee camp after fleeing from Saigon during the Vietnam War.
Refreshing and progressive, Vietgone presents Asian Americans as complex three-dimensional characters that don’t often make their way to the stage. For one, we get to experience David Huynh as Quang: a strong, attractive Vietnamese man in a leading romantic role. He battles between trying to get back to Vietnam to his family and his desire to stay in the United States where other opportunities present themselves.
Which leads us to Meghan Kreidler as Tong: a fierce woman fighting against the expectations of traditional Vietnamese women. She doesn’t want to return to Vietnam where women are viewed in relation to their relationships with other people: daughters, wives, mothers. She wants something different for herself and she speaks up and has sex (call it “making love” at your own risk) unapologetically, but she’s also put up walls to prevent herself from being hurt. I see so much of myself in her, and it doesn’t hurt that Kreidler is also half Korean… I wish I could accurately explain how it feels to identify so much with someone, and especially in a form of art that means so much to me, as seeing Kreidler in this role. It’s deeply meaningful, to say the least.
The content of Vietgone and the post-show talk back both obviously meant so much to the other young Asian Americans in the audience as well. We ate up every moment, and many had returned to experience the show for a second time. This demonstrates that there is an audience for these authentic Asian American stories. We crave that feeling of validation from seeing ourselves portrayed on stage, and Vietgone provides us with just that. We’re not just submissive wives of white men. I’ve been hit on many times by men because they have “a thing” for Asian women, and on a date even had a guy “joke” that he thought I would be more submissive. Gross, right? We’re also not here to provide comic relief through thick accents and broken English. Who we are matters, and our stories matter. It’s time for more theaters to look to new work like this because we’ll show up to support it.
Vietgone is very much about the Vietnamese experience, and audience members should all listen and sit in that portrayal for awhile. It’s also always interesting to see that there are many common threads among Asian Americans. Someone asked the performers how they work against the expectation for us to become doctors or lawyers, and Huynh and Flordelino Lagundino answered without batting an eye. That’s how common it is that we’re told by our parents that we need to have high paying jobs that require a lot of schooling. I went into college as a pre-veterinary medicine student but knew pretty early on that it wasn’t right for me. When I told my parents, my mom said I should go through the eight years of schooling anyway, and then if I still didn’t want to be a veterinarian, I didn’t have to be one. That’s our reality, and it’s inspiring to see others following their calling and showing us that it’s ok to discover our passions.
Sun Mee Chomet plays Tong’s mother Huong (among other roles) and some scenes may as well be my mom and me. My mom is perhaps not as direct as Huong, but I completely understand receiving “tough love” and the difficulty in making a connection with each other, as well as the implication that we are not complete people unless we have a man in our lives. Despite Huong’s character hitting close to home, I love Chomet’s portrayal which adds so much comedy in the form of abrasive honesty to the show. I found myself smiling just by her entrance during a scene, before even saying her next line. She’s loveable in her own right, and Chomet plays other characters which allow us to enjoy the range of her talent. There were even a couple times where I wasn’t 100% sure it was her at first. I’m personally a huge fan and have seen her show How To Be A Korean Woman twice.
Lagundino and Sherwin Resurreccion both add additional depth to the show by playing a plethora of other characters. Lagundino is most notable as Quang’s sidekick Nahn who seems like a freewheeling, hooker chasing goofball, but in the end he proves he’s rather observant and insightful. I love Resurreccion’s portrayal of the playwright himself — the final scene which takes place present-day with Quang as his father is so moving and touching and the perfect way to wrap up the show. He also plays Bobby who’s a white man that helps Tong in the refugee camp. He’s sweet and has a crush on Tong, but the language barrier proves to be a bit challenging. One of the (many) smart choices Nguyen makes in the script is giving the white characters non-sensical dialogue to portray how they might sound to the native Vietnamese-speakers. For a show with such serious topics, having the white characters (who are played by the Asian American performers but it’s easy to tell when they’re playing which roles) speaking random words like “Yeehaw” and “Frickles” adds additional humor.
But wait, there’s more! Similar to Hamilton, much of the story is told through rap to brush on some modernity since it takes place during much of the 70s. Nguyen wrote the lyrics, and local music artist Eric Mayson provided his expert musical direction to pull it all together. There’s also a delightful musical number that includes nods to some of my favorite pop culture movies like Say Anything and Sixteen Candles. Fight Choreographer Allen Malisci adds some extra depth with a bad ass fight scene, and Costume Designer Mandi Johnson’s wardrobe choices are understated yet are perfect in giving us a sense of what decade we’re in (especially the 70s, oh, the 70s…). And of course we can’t leave out Director Mark Valdez who had the challenge of pulling all of these intricate pieces together. Paul Whitaker’s set design has many moving parts, and the performers could easily get tripped up winding their way around everything, but thanks to Valdez and Choreographer Brian Bose, it’s a well oiled machine. The soft moments are soft enough, and the hard moments get really hard, and I can’t applaud the cast and crew enough for their finished product.
In the end, Vietgone is about the idea of loss – loss of ones family and ones homeland – and how people discover ways to move forward. In turn, it covers how we find ourselves and how we make new connections. What the Vietnamese experienced was deeply personal, and their side of the story is rarely told (instead, we’ve had Miss Saigon shoved down our throats over and over). This show is filled with heart and humor, it’s relevant and portrays Asians and Asian Americans in a light that we don’t often see. It’s the show I didn’t know I needed and I’m immensely grateful to Qui Nguyen and Mixed Blood for bringing it to us. It closes April 30, and tickets are going fast so don’t miss out!