Qui Nguyen always knew he wanted to write his parents' story. Two refugees who came to America after the fall of Saigon, both having lost the people they loved, who find each other to build a life and a family together.
But to tackle a subject that serious and important to him, he knew he had to get older, be a more mature writer. Until it occurred to him one day that he was never going to be that kind of writer, that his success working for Marvel Studios (and now for Walt Disney Animation Studios with a side project going on a Netflix series) and his abilities led him in an entirely different way, one that involved comic books, pop culture, music and lots of visual humor. And: "I didn't want to wait for my parents to die."
Vietgone is the result of his decision to go with what he's got which means it's fast-paced, funny and there has to be a ninja fight scene in it. About to open on the Alley Theatre's Neuhaus Stage, the rom-com is loosely based on his own parents' lives and starts in 1975 as they arrive in an Arkansas resettlement center. It is also makes somewhat frequent references to sex, which is probably why the Alley is suggesting audience members be at least 14 years old.
Usually the subject of Vietnam as told in American film and television is not done by an Asian American writer at all, but has been through the lens of a white writer, director or white American soldier, Nguyen says. He remembers seeing Vietnamese characters in films and on TV but "they were always the side character or a bad guy, never the lead. I never got a chance to feel like the hero of my own story."
This especially came home to him when he had a family of his own with sons. "I wanted them to be able to see an Asian American lead male and lead female," he says.
His own experience of growing up in Arkansas where his parents decided to stay, was a bit out of the norm, leading to a sort of skewed vision of American society, he says. "We were one of only three Asian families there and the only Vietnamese." Most of his parents' friends from the refugee camps had chosen to move to Houston so that's where they would go on holiday visits.
When they did, they would stay in predominantly Vietnamese parts of the Houston area. "I actually thought that my small town was the anomaly; it was only town in America that wasn’t majority Vietnamese." He adds that if he'd had the internet back then, he would have had this straightened out a lot sooner.
He majored in acting at Louisiana Tech where he discovered, to his dismay, "I was a terrible actor." As he puts it now: "As an undergrad I wasn’t getting cast. I assumed it was because I was an Asian actor." But after he wrote his own plays and tried to act in them, he was forced to concede that "my own plays are more successful with other actors."
Luckily, he says, the fight director at the university's program realized Nguyen had a background in the martial arts and began working with him on that aspect of the profession. By the time he went to for master's in playwriting at Ohio University, he was the grad assistant teaching stage combat, spending three years in the program there writing any number of plays. (He says he was overachieving to catch up.)
From there he moved on to New York City — the real eye opener — he taught stage combat and martial arts for money and also co-founded the Obie Award-winning Vampire Cowboys Theatre Company, with an emphasis on geek theater. One reason for opening his own company was that the kind of fight scenes he envisioned had little to do with daggers or wielding swords as in Shakespearean theater, he says. "We do a lot of martial arts in our shows solely so I can choreograph that stuff."
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Vietgone has been produced all over the United States, which still surprises Nguyen a bit, he says. When he did it initially, he assumed he'd just bring it to his downtown New York City theater, but it's been staged in major U.S. cities. Initially, he thought the appeal was just to 18-35 year-olds who liked comic books and the cinema, he says. And that group remains. (And is a great audience he says because they like to own things they like but they can't own a stage performance so they'll go back to see it several times.)
It also draws unsurprisingly a strong Asian American audience. But it also attracts the attention of people of all ethnicities who served in Vietnam or had siblings or loved ones who served in the war, older Americans. Those who opposed the war and those who participated, he says. He gets a lot of emails from those people who have seen the show.
"I think that the subject matter is something that has resonance. It's about refugees. We talk about refugees a lot with our immigration policies. This play is not about today. But it is talking about a time in our country’s history that deals with these things. All these people looking to make America their homes are people with complex stories."
Performances of Vietgone are scheduled for October 4 through November 3 at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays and Sundays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays at Alley Theatre, 615 Texas. For information, call 713-220-5700 or visit alleytheatre.org. $47-$74.