Vietgone is full of cartoon-style KAPOW! fight scenes, video game projections, 70’s and 80’s movie references, and a lot of swagger. These hallmarks of geek theater, which playwright Qui Nguyen has often employed through his work with the Vampire Cowboys Theatre Company downtown, are not surprising. But what is unexpected is that this story, at the decidedly uptown Manhattan Theatre Club, is set against the backdrop of the fall of Saigon and tells of how Nguyen’s parents met as refugees in a Vietnamese refugee camp in Arkansas in the 1970’s. Alongside the colorful and hyper-stylized visual landscape is a story about love, identity, and family. The emotional elements do not consistently fuse with the production’s approach but it’s sexy, funny, and smart a lot of the time.
Quang (Raymond Lee) is a helicopter pilot for the South Vietnamese army. He’s married and has two kids he’s hardly seen since he’s been in the army. When Saigon falls, he and his friend Nhan (Jon Hoche) rescue a number of families but they are unable to go back for Quang’s family. The American military sends them both sent to Camp Chaffee in Arkansas. Tong (Jennifer Ikeda) is an independent-minded 30 year-old who works at the American Embassy in Saigon. She blows off a clingy boyfriend and ends up using her ticket to America to bring her stubborn and mostly miserable mother Huong (Samantha Quan) with her. Quang and Tong meet at Camp Chaffee. Although there are immediate fireworks, a lot stands between them before they can become a couple.
The play captures the betwixt and between problem refugees face. They cannot go back to their war-ravaged country but they long for the sense of the familiar and their family members left behind. But they also have mixed feelings about being in America and they struggle to move forward in a new, foreign place.
Nguyen addresses the language of this world in a clever way. In direct address up front, actor Paco Tolson as “the playwright” explains Vietnamese characters will speak English when they are speaking Vietnamese and American characters will speak in a nonsense language of English words mashing up song lyrics, brand names, and gibberish. After a lifetime of hearing Asian performers have to do outrageous forced accents or speak in broken English it’s meaningful revenge and an effective gambit. The linguistic framing shifts the way the Vietnamese characters are seen. Nguyen’s play refuses to other them (as so often happens in theater and film) and if anyone is made the brunt of the joke it’s the goofy Americans sounding like confused toddlers.
One of the strongest elements of the play is Ikeda’s performance of Tong. Tong is written as a woman out of sync with her own time. She has sexual agency and a clear sense that her future has to be in America. She rebels against the roles available to her in Vietnam and wants to be more than a pretty face who is taken care of by a husband. At 30 she’s not sure she will get married and have kids. It’s nice to see a female character, particularly one in essentially a romantic comedy, be neutral (to hostile) about marriage and motherhood. Ikeda makes Tong fierce and funny and we get to enjoy a fully-rounded character whether her future is with Quang or not.
Despite these smart and interesting choices, the play stumbles when it breaks into rap and R&B musical numbers. Without question, there is a rage beneath the surface of Quang and Tong’s lives that needs an outlet. But the rap numbers Quang and Tong perform have a simplistic lyrical format and never stand on their own. They rarely give us new insights into the characters and drag on the momentum of the story.
The music is one element of many in Vietgone demonstrating a conscious effort to take this “period” story and contemporize it. There are bell-bottoms, weed, and hippies, but in some ways, that’s window-dressing. By going whole hog into musical and verbal anachronism, the spirit of the work is very much of today with Sixteen Candles and Dirty Dancing references, the video game aesthetic, and the frequent use of the word motherfucker. The nostalgia is more for the playwright’s generation than his parents. Rather than a backwards look at “how things used to be” this structure shifts our thinking to “how things are today.” Through Nguyen’s POV, the past is not far from where we are standing this minute.
This pop art/comic book style allows these characters to avoid the difficult emotional reality of their situation. Often the production feels like a fantasy of the America these refugees might have imagined from movies and television. They exist in a world of sitcom clever retorts, Route 66 road signs, and pop culture references. This fascinates more than resonates. The comedy keeps emotion at bay and sometimes the play skews awkward when the characters get serious.
It is only the final scene where the play steps out of this approach to deliver emotion more directly (and more conventionally). As the characters have matured, so does their reaction to the past. They no longer need the colorful pretense to speak their truth.