Friday, October 2, 2015

The Metamorphosis of Vietgone: From Vietnam to Arkansas to New York to Orange County

By Thuy Vo Dang, Linda Trinh Vo and Tram Le*
Maureen Sebastian and Raymond Lee in Viegone.

From left: Thuy Vo Dang, Christina Woo, Steve MacLeod, Tram Le, Kelly Miller and Qui Nguyen during the playwright's first exploratory visit to the UCI Libraries.
South Coast Repertory’s world premiere of Vietgone by playwright Qui Nguyen is a highly anticipated event for us, as we’ve had the unique experience of watching this play’s metamorphosis since its inception. Qui, who hails from Brooklyn, NY, originally had tossed around the idea of writing a script about Vietnamese gangsters in Little Saigon. However, during his residency in the summer of 2013, SCR staff invited the three of us to meet with Qui and share the work we were doing in the local Vietnamese community.

He later visited the UC Irvine Libraries Southeast Asian Archive and was captivated by the photograph collection of Vietnamese refugees at Fort Chaffee, Ark., one of four military bases that served as a temporary processing center in 1975. These photographs made him reflect on the stories his parents told him growing up. Qui’s parents, along with thousands of other refugees, were both processed through Fort Chaffee after the fall of Saigon. He was inspired to write about how they met and fell in love—might we say lust—at first sight in this camp. Thus, Vietgone was born, a wickedly funny and poignant play that captures the personal journeys of a first generation Vietnamese American couple with nuance and a reimagining of the tale of refugee journeys, complete with hip hop notes woven throughout. Its tone is fresh and surprising.

In November 2014, Vietgone’s director May Adrales and the actors presented a staged reading of the full script at the Vietnamese American Arts and Letters Association (VAALA) Center in Santa Ana to an enraptured community audience.

The cast, playwright and director of Vietgone at the post-reading "talk back" with the audience at the Vietnamese American Arts & Letters Association.
At the end of the reading, one first-generation Vietnamese American man stood up and exclaimed, “That’s my story!” because he also met his wife in a refugee processing center. In February 2015, Qui and two cast members performed an excerpted reading from the play, followed by a lively Q&A, in Linda’s Asian American Community class with 240 students.  In a follow-up survey of the event, one student wrote, “I enjoyed the Vietgone reading because it gave me a new perspective on the Vietnam War. I have only heard the American side, but I have never heard what Vietnamese people actually thought about the war.” The event, funded by the new Illuminations: A Chancellor’s Arts & Culture Initiative, encouraged students to see the connections between the historical materials in the class and artistic storytelling and gave students, many who had never attended a play, a better appreciation for the arts. The common response from students was that they wished they could see a full stage production of the play.
At the front of the class, left-to-right: Raymond Lee, Qui Nguyen and Maureen Sebastian performing an excerpt reading of Vietgone in Prof. Linda Vo's Asian American Communities class.
Students shared their stories about their family’s refugee and immigrant journeys and were inspired to learn more. What’s powerful about plays like this is that it will stir conversations between generations where there is often silence, particularly about the past.

Vietgone actors and creative team looking through the Fort Chaffee photographs in the UCI Libraries Special Collections reading room.
Qui, with his director, actors and production team, have re-visited the archive several times to continue their research journey.

Qui, the cast, and SCR staff members also visited the VIETNAMESE FOCUS: GENERATIONS OF STORIES exhibition, a partnership between OC Parks and UC Irvine, at the Old Orange County Courthouse in Santa Ana to immerse themselves in the refugees’ life stories and their journey of resettlement. This interactive art and history exhibition presents snapshots of a dynamic and vibrant community, including photographs, documents, artifacts, original artwork and oral histories from the Vietnamese American Oral History Project (VAOHP), Orange County & Southeast Asian Archive Center and private collections.

Included are a diverse range of stories of how ordinary people were thrown into extraordinary circumstances because of war and its aftermath and how they were forced to make incredibly difficult choices, stories that echo Qui’s parents’ journey. The premiere of Vietgone at a major playhouse marks a historic moment for the Vietnamese community. This is highlighted by the fact that the Vietgone script, signed by Qui, May and the cast, along with a flyer of the VAALA reading, is featured in the arts and culture display case in the exhibition.

Vietgone flyer and original script signed by Qui and cast on display at the VIETNAMESE FOCUS exhibition.
Qui’s parents’ story is unique and yet very similar to many of the hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese refugees coming to the U.S. However, aside from oral history archives such as VAOHP, so few stories from those who witnessed these experiences first hand are recorded. Instead, what most people read in history books and see in the media tends to be a narrow point of view, oftentimes from the American perspective that excludes Vietnamese voices who had to endure a civil war in their country and were forced to flee and rebuild their lives in America. They are not just victims of the war or history; plays like Vietgone show the humanity of the Vietnamese people.

Vietgone’s journey from script to stage has been decades in the making and reflects a remarkable moment for cultural production in Orange County. We look forward to its full run at South Coast Repertory, Oct. 4-25.

*About the Authors: Thuy Vo Dang, is the Archivist for the UCI Libraries Orange County & Southeast Asian Archive Center, Linda Trinh Vo is a professor in the Department of Asian American Studies and director of the Vietnamese American Oral History Project at UC Irvine and Tram Le is the associate director of the Vietnamese American Oral History Project at UC Irvine. Vo and Le are co-curators and co-directors of the VIETNAMESE FOCUS: GENERATIONS OF STORIES exhibition.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

“Vietnamese in Orange County” Book Event—Free

A collection of photos from UC Irvine’s Southeast Asian Archive Center inspired Vietgone playwright Qui Nguyen.

Photos from the center are featured in a new book, Images of America: Vietnamese in Orange County, and are included in the current exhibit, “Vietnamese Focus: Generations of Stories.” The book’s authors and exhibit creators will discuss both projects following the Saturday matinee of Vietgone, Oct. 10. They also will sign copies of the books immediately following the afternoon presentation and again between 6:45-7:45 p.m. These are free events.

Meet the Authors

Thuy Vo Dang is the archivist for the Southeast Asian Archive and Regional History, leading the UCI Libraries’ new Orange County and Southeast Asian Archive Center (OC & SEAA). She received her Ph.D. and M.A. in ethnic studies from the University of California, San Diego. Vo Dang was previously an Institute of American Cultures postdoctoral fellow for UCLA’s Asian American Studies Center. She has taught at UCI, UCLA, UCSD and Loyola Marymount University. She serves on the board of directors for the Vietnamese American Arts and Letters Association (VAALA). Her non-profit community work also includes serving on the Horizon Cross-Cultural Center board of directors and the policy committee for the Orange County Asian Pacific Islander Community Alliance (OCAPICA). In 2013 Dr. Vo Dang was featured in the OC Weekly’s Inaugural People Issue as the “Studs Terkel of Little Saigon” and honored with the “Community Heroes” Award by Senator Lou Correa and OCAPICA. In 2015, she received the “Public Image” Award from Asian Americans Advancing Justice, Los Angeles.

Linda Trinh Võ is an professor and former chair of the Department of Asian American Studies at the University of California, Irvine and is affiliated with the Department of Sociology; Department of Planning, Policy & Design; and Dept of Gender and Sexuality Studies. She received her Ph.D. from the University of California, San Diego, and received a Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Fellowship from the University of California, Berkeley. She is author of Mobilizing an Asian American Community and co-editor of four books: Keywords for Asian American Studies; Labor Versus Empire: Race, Gender, and Migration; Asian American Women: the “Frontiers” Reader; and Contemporary Asian American Communities: Intersection and Divergences. She is a series editor for the Asian American History & Culture series published by Temple University Press, which includes more than sixty-five books. Võ is director of the Vietnamese American Oral History Project at UC Irvine and is an ambassador for UCI Libraries Southeast Asian Archive. She is president of the national Association for Asian American Studies and served in advisory positions for the Vietnamese American Arts & Letters Association, Project MotiVATe; Orange County Asian Pacific Islander Community Alliance; Viet Film Fest; Diasporic Vietnamese Arts Network, and Vietnamese American Heritage Foundation.

Tram Le is the associate director for the Vietnamese American Oral History Project at UC Irvine. She previously served as the interim director of the Center for Asian Pacific American Students at Pitzer College and worked as the Community Bridges Program Manager for the Ford Theatres/Ford Theatre Foundation. She received her B.A. in business administration-marketing from California State University, Northridge and has an M.A. from the Department of Asian American Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. Her master’s thesis, Finding Home, investigates the journey of first-generation Vietnamese in Orange County through oral history and performance art. She co-founded Club O’ Noodles, a pioneering Vietnamese American theatre troupe, and as a board member of the American Arts and Letters Association, she has curated multi-art exhibitions. In 2003, she was the founding Co-Director of the biennial Vietnamese International Film Festival, now the annual Viet Film Fest, which has been hosted at UC Irvine and UCLA and showcases films from around the world.

Kids and Families LOVE A Year with Frog and Toad

South Coast Repertory first staged the wildly popular Broadway musical, A Year with Frog and Toad, as part of Theatre for Young Audiences in 2008-9. Wildly popular is key—audiences loved this show so much, that we’re bringing it back in 2015, with nearly all of the original cast, and the original costumes and sets. There’s so much to love about this musical written for kids, adapted from the books by Arnold Lobel about friends Frog and Toad and a host of woodland creatures.

If you missed A Year with Frog and Toad the first time around at SCR, check out these photos from the show.

And if you love the books already and want to see it on the stage, learn more and buy tickets.

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Thursday, September 24, 2015

Not Just Another War Story: Romantic Comedy According to Qui Nguyen

by Andy Knight

Playwright Qui Nguyen. Photo by Jesse Ditmar/Coast Magazine
“This is a story about two people—
Both from Vietnam—
Both 30 years of age—
Both survivors of a conflict that’s been raging in some form or fashion their entire lives—
However though it will be a story that will often hop back and forth in time—in and around said conflict—this is not a story about war—it’s a story about falling in love.
And it all takes place in the year of 1975.”
—The Playwright, Vietgone

That's how Qui Nguyen sums up the story at the heart of Vietgone, his SCR commission premiering on the Julianne Argyros Stage in October, 2015. He says it himself—as a character in the play—during Vietgone’s prologue, and it seems completely appropriate that the playwright appears onstage to share this with his audience. After all, Vietgone tells a personal story for Nguyen—that of his parents’ courtship.

The play begins as Tong Thi Tran and Quang Nguyen, two Vietnamese refugees who have never met, arrive at the Fort Chaffee refugee camp in western Arkansas. Both escaped Saigon days before it fell, and both have left behind loved ones. Tong, who worked for the American Embassy in Saigon, arrives in the U.S. with her mother, Huong. Although Khue, Tong’s brother, and Giai, the man who hopes to marry her, remain in Saigon, Tong is ready to embrace America as her home now. Huong, however, is not.

Like Huong, Quang hopes to return to Vietnam. As a pilot in the South Vietnamese Air Force, Quang airlifted refugees out of Saigon by helicopter during the city’s evacuation and, in doing so, found himself on the way to the U.S. without his wife and his two young children. Quang is now in America with his best friend, Nhan, but he’s determined to return to his family.

Nguyen in front of SCR.
When Tong and Quang finally meet, the attraction between them is undeniable. And although neither is looking for a relationship, they begin sleeping together. But as their casual sex stirs up romantic feelings, life for Tong and Quang suddenly becomes even more complicated.

Vietgone is an atypical love story, not only because of the central characters’ situation, but also because of the way in which the playwright brings the story to life using his irreverent and thoroughly original aesthetic. When describing the play’s style, Nguyen says, “It’s as influenced by Quentin Tarantino as it is influenced by David Henry Hwang as it is influenced by Jay-Z.”

For those unfamiliar with Nguyen’s work, it might be difficult to imagine successfully blending those three influences. But the playwright has been mashing together his artistic interests—such as comic book stories, samurai stories, science fiction stories and hip hop—for much of his career and is now well-practiced at pulling from multiple genres and weaving them together in his plays. And with titles like Soul Samurai, Alice in Slasherland and She Kills Monsters, it’s no surprise that most of Nguyen’s productions come alive with the use of extended onstage combat, tongue-in-cheek humor, profanity-laden dialogue and outrageous plot twists. In fact, many theatre tastemakers credit Nguyen and his company, Vampire Cowboys, where a number of the playwright’s productions have premiered, as pioneering a new theatrical genre called “geek theatre.”

Qui Nguyen, far left, the cast and others at the first Vietgone rehearsal.
While Vietgone contains many of the trappings of Nguyen’s other plays (even ninjas make a cameo), it sets itself apart from much of the playwright’s other work with the very personal story at its center. Although Nguyen’s first play, Trial by Water, recounted his cousin’s tragic escape from Vietnam by boat in the late 1980s, the playwright was still searching to find his voice at the time of its premiere. After seeing a performance, Nguyen’s mother commented that the play “didn’t sound like [him],” which the playwright says was one of the most impactful notes that he has ever received. In 2011, finally armed with his well-established style, Nguyen returned to the topic of his cousin’s journey in The Inexplicable Redemption of Agent G. Now, with Vietgone, Nguyen adds another personal play to his canon, and it’s only the beginning: the playwright is currently working on a pentalogy of plays about his parents’ marriage.

“I don’t know how to write things that aren’t a little vulgar and funny,” says Nguyen. Perhaps that’s why Vietgone is more sex comedy than traditional love story, and the play’s anachronistic and foul-mouthed dialogue feels completely natural. But Vietgone’s irreverence gives its characters, who come from an underrepresented community on the American stage, agency to be more than victims of a war and therefore relatability to younger generations. As Nguyen points out: “I think it’s really important to see depictions of yourself, people that look like yourself…in a strong way, in a sexually powerful way.”

But underneath the sexuality, the anachronisms and the kung fu battles is a simple story about falling in love in a complicated situation; that, as the playwright points out in the prologue, is at the heart of Vietgone. However, it’s still a Qui Nguyen play, so there’s plenty of action along the way to test the strength of that love—and to show an audience how much it really counts.

Vietgone’s Journey to the Stage

One of the photos at the Fort Chaffee refugee camp in 1975 that inspired Vietgone (photo courtesy of UCI Libraries Southeast Asian Arhive).
SCR commissioned playwright Qui Nguyen as a part of its CrossRoads Initiative, a program funded by the Time Warner Foundation to bring playwrights into Orange County on immersive residencies as a means for inspiration. During his four-day exploration in the summer of 2013, Nguyen took a trip to the Southeast Asian Archives at the University of California, Irvine. There, by chance, he viewed a collection of photographs taken at the Fort Chaffee, Ark., refugee camp  in 1975—the very place his parents met in May of that year.

Although Nguyen had been thinking of writing a play about his parents’ courtship for 10 years—and had even conducted one-on-one interviews with them—the trip to UCI inspired him to finally put their story down on paper. The result was the first draft of Vietgone.

In the fall of 2014, SCR partnered with the Vietnamese American Arts & Letters Association (VAALA) to present a reading of Vietgone at VAALA’s space in Santa Ana. Then, after programming the play for its fall 2015 production, SCR gave its audiences a sneak peek of Vietgone with a reading in the 2015 Pacific Playwrights Festival.

Director May Adrales, who worked on all of Vietgone’s developmental workshops and readings, will make her SCR debut with the production this fall. Adrales, quickly becoming one of the country’s most sought-after directors, has helmed productions at theatres across the country, including New York’s Signature Theatre, Chicago’s Goodman Theatre and Actors Theatre of Louisville. In 2016, Adrales will direct a subsequent production of Vietgone at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival before restaging the SCR production at Manhattan Theatre Club.

Vietgone’s design team includes Timothy R. Mackabee (scenic design), Anthony Tran (costume design), Shane Rettig (sound design) and Jared Mezzocchi (projection design), all of whom will make their SCR design debuts with the production. Jaymi Lee Smith (lighting design) returns to SCR for Vietgone, where her credits include last season’s Peter and the Starcatcher, as well as The Stinky Cheese Man and Topdog/Underdog.

Cast members Jon Hoche, Maureen Sebastian and Paco Tolson are all longtime collaborators of Qui Nguyen and have appeared in a number of the playwright’s New York productions. Hoche and Sebastian will make their SCR debuts in Vietgone, while audiences might remember Tolson from last season’s production of Peter and the Starcatcher. The cast also includes Raymond Lee, who appeared in SCR’s Theatre for Young Audiences production of Robin Hood, and Samantha Quan, who makes her SCR debut in Vietgone.

Jon Hoche, Maureen Sebastian, Raymond Lee, director May Adrales, playwright Qui Nguyen, Samantha Quan and Paco Tolson.
Read more about Vietgone’s artists.

Learn more and buy tickets

Monday, September 21, 2015

SCR’s 52nd Season Opens With Music and Mayhem

At South Coast Repertory on Friday, Sept. 18, there was pandemonium all around, with food flying, pants dropping, bosoms heaving and identities switching. The occasion was First Night of what has been called “the funniest play on the planet”—One Man, Two Guvnors.

As the skiffle band’s (known as The Craze) sounded it's last note, the Cast Party began, taking its theme (and its food, clothes and hairdos) from the Swingin’ Sixties in Brighton, England. To the beat of the British Invasion (early Beatles), with Union Jacks waving above, guests sipped cocktails and nibbled very “Brit” hors d’oeuvres, including bangers and mash, fish and chips and English tea biscuits.

All the while, pausing only to get their pictures snapped in the photo booth with fun 1960s props, playgoers couldn’t stop talking—and giggling—about the fractured farce they had just witnessed.

Honorary Producers Joan and Andy Fimiano found the show to be “unexpected fun, exciting talent and the skiffle band entertained from beginning to end. We had so much fun and it kept us energized all night.”

Mike Lewis, Regional Manager, Southern California Region of Corporate Honorary Producer US Bank agreed, saying "The play was a non-stop roller coaster of laughs. The main character was an amazingly talented and physical comedian!"

Having trouble viewing the slideshow? Try watching it here.