Take every dramatization about the Vietnam War you know and toss it firmly out the window. Then run over it a few times until you quash it into oblivion.
This is Vietgone.
A play where Vietnamese finally get to be the cool, smart, and sexy leading roles, speaking in perfect contemporary dialogue, expletives and all. Where it’s the Americans who are stuck with the funny accents, foolish behavior and cliché pidgin manner of speaking. A show that draws inspiration from rap, Kung Fu movies, comic books, and good old fashioned rom-coms to teach us profound things about the war and the people affected by it.
Not just any people, mind you. Playwright Qui Nguyen’s story, (given a solid production by the Alley Theatre) is about his parents, who met and fell in love in 1975 in an Arkansas camp for Vietnamese refugees.
Quang (Edward Chin-Lyn), a heroic, self-assured and swoon-worthy helicopter pilot stuck in the camp by accident, is desperate to get back to his wife and two young children in Vietnam. Tong (Kim Wong), who has hardened her heart to love, but is still very much in favor of excellent sex, chose to flee her homeland when Saigon fell. America, for her, is a chance to start a new life, free from the constraints of painful memories and the cultural gender expectations she grew up with. Oh, and she’s totally hot as well.
The meet-cute and eventual pairing of these two is, in turn, funny, sexy, sweet, eye-opening and even sniff-worthy. Look, we know they eventually get together, the story is about Nguyen’s married parents after all. It’s how they got together, and how the war affected their ability to become a couple that’s the true meat of this exuberant and at times irreverent show.
Following a non-linear narrative, we flit from Vietnam to the refugee camp to Quang’s attempt to return home to the family’s eventual life in Arkansas. And along the way, boy do we get a show.
First there’s the rapping. Both Tong and Quang take up the mike (expertly) at several points to express in rhyme their thoughts and turmoil. As toe-tapping as the beats may be, these interludes cut deep.
Tong raps about starting over in America and the pain she must bury leaving her baby brother behind in Vietnam. Her heartbreak comes out like a punch to our soul when she raps about not “giving a shit” about love.
Similarly, Quang turns to rhyme in a dope-infused haze explaining his need to be high and therefore forget. Most biting however is Quang’s rap rebuke to an American who tries to apologize on behalf of his country for U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.
“You lost a brotha / I lost my family / You lost a brotha / I lost my whole country / You lost a brotha / I lost my wife and kids / You lost your brother / Motherfucker, I lost everything I had / So tie your ribbons around your old oak trees / But save your sorries and ignorant apologies / Don’t put words in the mouth of those who died / Cause it was through their sacrifice that I have my life / Yo, I’m here alive in honor of their memory / ‘Cause if it weren’t for them there would be no me / You might be smart – great – you read some news / But you don’t know shit about the shit we all went through.”
If there was a way to measure the intake and holding of breath the non-Vietnamese American audience members exhibited in response to that truth bomb, there’s no doubt it would be voluminous.
Counterbalancing this heavy emotion and perspective paradigm shift, are other musical moments that bring nothing but big old goofy smiles to our faces. Most notably are the wooing/make out/sex moments between Quang and Tong.
To illustrate their blossoming love, Nguyen throws a plethora of iconic love scene tropes at us including Lady and the Tramp, Sixteen Candles, Say Anything and even Dirty Dancing, each one getting roars of approval from the audience.
Hit songs released or charted in 1975, (the year Tong and Quang met) featured prominently in the show. It’s easy to lose track, but certainly Barry White, Led Zeppelin, Bad Company and Cat Stevens showed up in my notes.
Then there’s the Kung-Fu/Ninja scene, the several purposely over the top soapy moments and the ongoing gag where Americans' only manner of speaking English is by spewing words stereotypically descriptive of life in the United States such as “cheeseburger, waffle fries, cholesterol, discrimination.”
There’s a lot going on in this show. All of it meaningful.
And while the story of Vietgone and the way it’s told is enough to cheer about, ultimately, it’s the actors that bring this greatly appreciated and unique story to life.
As Quang and Tong, Chin-Lyn and Wong give us strength, charisma, heat and heart. Whether clothed or seminude, these two ooze sexual attraction for each other and we’re all here for it. More importantly, each actor peels back their character’s thick skin and lets us wander around in their pain long enough to root hard for their eventual happiness.
Quang’s army buddy Nhan (Viet Vo) and Tong’s mother Huong (Desirée Mee Jung) provide superb comic relief throughout the show. As the playwright and various other roles, including all the idiotic Americans, Jon Norman Schneider, does a fine job.
If there’s any ding to be leveled, it falls minorly to Director Desdemona Chang and Projection Designer Victoria Beauray Sagady.
This is a show that requires an immense amount of scene and tone change, never mind week, month and year switches. On opening eve, not everything felt as smoothly transitional or fully choreographed as we would like it.
Time will tell if this is Chang’s doing or simply first eve jitters.
The projections, however, felt lackluster. Three large screens flank the back wall of the stage and give us space and place from the refugee camp to rolling down the highway to war-torn Vietnam. All fine…but given Ngyuen’s pop culture influences…where were the cartoon graphics accompanying the fight? Where was the strobing rap accompaniment? Why weren’t the projections as much fun as the manner of the narrative?
What we got instead was a play that changed tone and projections that didn’t. Not a biggie given the strength of the show, but instead, an opportunity missed.
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Finally, you can’t talk about Vietgone in Houston without talking about the significance of this production to the city. According to 2018 stats (sourced from Houston Public Media), Houston is home to more than 80,000 Vietnamese — the largest population outside of California.
Not that you’d ever know this by what’s programmed on our stages. In the past five-plus years I’ve been reviewing in Houston, Vietgone is the first Vietnamese story I’ve seen. So, kudos must go to Alley Theatre Artistic Director, Rob Melrose for finally bringing this fantastic and important show to town and for handing it over to the correct hands to direct and perform.
No question Vietgone might not be for everyone (those sensitive to language/partial nudity should take care), but if the Alley is serious about expanding its audience and reflecting the community beyond those who want to see Agatha Christie and Shakespeare (Melrose’s first two shows since taking over programming), this is exactly the vision and the play we can hold up as hope for the future.
Vietgone continues through November 3 at Alley Theatre, 615 Texas. For information, call 713-220-5700 or visit alleytheatre.org. $47-$74.