Seattle Repertory Theatre
Through January 1, 2017
“Write what you know.” That’s a lot of what people are told when they embark on writing anything and aren’t sure where to start. Playwright Qui Nguyen, in Vietgone, has done that in this trenchant, funny, hip-hop spouting, immigrant-experience-explaining road trip through the fall of Saigon and the evacuating of some thousands of South Vietnamese in helicopter rides to battleships.
“Vietnam was a huge mistake.” That is what most of us know, if we know anything about that war besides how badly the vets coming back were treated. From a U.S. point of view – and don’t we always take the truth from a U.S. point of view? – U.S. participation in and escalation of the war in Vietnam is looked at as a huge disaster. Partly because the reason for our participation, aka The Domino Effect, was only a theory and because so many of our young men died or were maimed for life. Money spent was thought to be wasted and we reached beyond our shores for bad reasons.
Also, we lost. We pulled out of South Vietnam in 1975 and they fell and it all became one communist country anyway. But there are other points of view.
Nguyen allows us to viscerally understand the feelings and experiences of refugees from Vietnam without bogging down in polemics or instruction. He uses foul language and hip hop songs that express feelings that can’t be said out loud. He finds a fun way to show what Americans speaking pigeon Vietnamese sound like to natives (“cheeseburger” “Macdonalds” “America”).
Nguyen is the co-founder of Vampire Cowboys, a "geek theatre" company described as creating new works of theatre based in action/adventure and dark comedy. He uses the same kinds of techniques in this work. He also presents an actor posing as himself to start off the play as a kind of narrator and book-ends this character at the end with a scene interviewing his dad about leaving Vietnam.
The narrator-playwright says jokingly that this play has “nothing to do with my parents” wink wink. While we have no idea what is fictional, we soon learn that this is indeed a story of how his parents both left Vietnam, though differently, and ended up in an Arkansas resettlement camp, knowing that neither could really go back “home” again. It takes a significant amount of script for his father to realize that there is no way for him to get back to his Vietnamese wife and children.
The script is excellent at pulling the audience into Quang’s point of view. He feels a father’s responsibility and a father and husband’s pain of abandoning his family. But his best friend helps him realize that if Quang did get back into Vietnam, he would never be able to find or help his family, anyway, and as a supporter of the U.S. effort, he’d be killed instantly or imprisoned and tortured.
A whole different example is posed by Tong, a young woman who looks at America as more of an adventure and, in a nod to the “sexual revolution” of the times, feels comfortable coming on to Quang just for sex, without feeling shamed or needing to make a romantic connection. Tong is the embodiment of a liberated woman. But she is also kind and smart and in a complicated relationship with her mother.
The cast of five is deftly directed by May Adrales, who keeps a blistering pace with lightening changes of scene, date and location. There are visuals, projections, fake motorcycles, real motorcycle, signage, singing, ninja fighting, dancing, and video.
James Ryen plays the sexy and emotionally tormented Quang and Jeena Yi plays the sexy and emotionally conflicted Tong. Will Dao, Amy Kim Waschke and Moses Villarama play a multitude of additional roles that are so different your head might spin that they are the same actor. Each of them is completely excellent.
As I said, there are more viewpoints than just the American one on this war. By the end of the play, you’ll understand that a bit more viscerally, and certainly will have new respect for the Vietnamese experience of refugees here. All of that is exactly why we can be glad that Nguyen “wrote what he knew.”
Note: tickets may be extraordinarily hard to come by. You may need to do standby or other very unusual actions to get any.