The opening set for Qui Ngyuen’s partly autobiographical but certainly original Vietgone is a stunning pink-orange sunset illuminating a mountain range above a long highway. That is something that the Alley continues to knock out of the ball park—exquisite sets that set the bar very high—and the scenic design of Junghyun Georgia Lee, the lighting design of Lap Chi Chu, and the footage that is sometimes projected behind the scenes designed by Victoria Beauray Sagady all work together in a wonderful kaleidoscope of stunning visuals that bring this journey to life in a striking and memorable way. And this is important, because the setting is central to Ngyuen’s drama—a journey narrative, musical, love story, and cultural critique all rolled into a surprising and provocative show.
You might not think about Vietnam, or family, or history, or war, or even music in quite the same way ever again.
Directed by Desdemona Chiang, we are taken to 1975. Immediately, we know this is not your average romantic comedy. How can it be? It drops us into the Vietnam War and its aftermath for both those who were left behind, and those who escaped to the United States.
The story centers on Quang (Edward Chin-Lyn) and Tong (Kim Wong), who fall in love even though they have both been traumatized by the ravages of the war. Quang has served in the military, and when Saigon falls, leaves Vietnam, along with his wife and children. It is not a choice he wanted to make, and even though there is a lot of comedy in this show, Vietgone never stops reminding the audience that war is hell, and rightly so. Tong has also escaped the wrath of the Vietcong, and one of the most moving parts of the play is the excruciating process of not only deciding whether to leave, but also which family members will come with you and leave everything behind.
Both actors bring their characters to life and have a lot of chemistry—they are fun to watch, even when the moment is sad or fraught. But often, their interactions are funny, sexy, and laced with hip-hop and rap performances to channel their internal grief and rage. It’s an interesting, unexpected twist in a play that incorporates dance and song from the '70s as well as the popular cinema of the time, ranging from Blaxploitation and martial arts films. Ngyuen uses these disparate strands of pop culture to hybridize the romantic comedy, making it accessible while still placing it in the tragic context of controversial and violent history.
Also giving powerful performances—in multiple roles no less—are Desiree Mee Jung (an unforgettable Vietnamese mother, who although hysterically funny at times), Viet Vo (an endearing sidekick, among other roles), and Jon Norman Schneider, who plays everything from a hippie to a redneck biker. So not only is this a strong ensemble cast—we get an ensemble within an ensemble. Impressive.
I loved a lot of things about this play: the warm and personal introduction to the audience by the playwright himself; the glossing of race in a way that employed stereotypes in the very act of subverting those very stereotypes; and the comic revelations of our foibles and mannerisms no matter what our ethnic or cultural background. I loved how Arkansas was just as much a part of the “American” journey as California, because that is true—not only for the playwright, but for many immigrants who not only come from all over the map. They also end up all over the map.
Here Nguyen’s immigrant narrative presents something much more complicated than a dualistic mother country/American identity. These individuals are affected by trauma, class, popular culture, and the contexts of keeping certain cultural traditions while also incorporating elements of American life into the journey. While someone somewhere is getting all chronically offended about cultural appropriation, Nguyen’s insights are far more profound: We all appropriate other cultures, and in the context of the ravages of war, it is uncertain and complicated terrain. And the process of this is often worth satirizing. Fortunately, Vietgone humanizes that process, in a way that everyone can identify with more readily. That in itself is an accomplishment.
I also loved the postmodern moments of self-referentiality in this play, mainly because they were funny in a play that tackles serious issues with comic relief. The rap lyrics are raw and revealing—the interior thoughts that are not so easily expressed in everyday communication. The hip-hop and rap are the musical correlative to the emotions of characters who have to say “goodbye to my old life” when they are “gonna start again.”
But the best part of this play is that you are all ready for a barrage of anti-Americanism and a trip down the well-worn path of anti-Vietnam War rhetoric. And there is some of that, but that is not all there is to the story.
It has been a long time since a play has truly surprised me, and this one did in spades. First, Ngyuen reminds us that no one group has a monopoly on racism, and further, only through the eyes of those affected can you really come to terms with a war and its unintended consequences. In one moment, the audience hears “All Americans are stupid!” In the next, that they sacrificed a lot to defend innocent Vietnamese from the Vietcong. From hating America and longing to go home, to enjoying the freedom of the open road, the audience cannot escape the losses of these characters and admire their resilience. It is a kaleidoscope of emotions, and just when you think you have found your focus, the images change, making you rethink your assumptions. From the reexamination of clichés such as “Make Love Not War” to the profanity that comes the closest to expressing the anger that accompanies acute ruptures, the audience gets a dose of what it must be like to straddle not only two countries, but the past and the future. If Tong claims she is “anti-feeling,” we can certainly understand why.
From the catchy music of the era to the “camouflage” of American culture, we see how the Vietnam War dashed dreams but also created new ones, even the “chance to be” oneself and start over, arguably in a culture that offers more freedom in many ways. Don’t miss the cinematic fight scene, the cute choreography to groovy music, and the psychological insights that Ngyuen gives us regarding life and loss. But mostly, don’t miss the last scene, in which an older Quang tells his son about Vietnam, and gives a completely unexpected take on his experiences after surviving such a terrible war. You won’t forget it.
Oct. 4–Nov. 3. Tickets from $47. Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Ave. 713-220-5700. More info and tickets at alleytheatre.org.