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

1 comment:

  1. I saw a reading of this play at the SCR Playwright's festival last April. I was laughing so hard as tears streamed down my face. The humor is front and center, but so is the love story.So glad SCR is taking this audience favorite and bringing it to the OC.