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!"

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Friday, September 18, 2015

"Encore! Encore!"—Revisit the Dazzle of the 2015 Gala

Guests stepped onto a colorful runway as they arrived at South Coast Repertory’s 2015 Encore! Gala last weekend. Treated to lively jazz music played by Jet Set Quintet in the park, followed by a sumptuous meal and swanky sounds of NOVA Music LA in The Westin’s Plaza Ballroom (where the Bling Divas literally kicked things into high gear), the evening wrapped with dancing in Club Encore! on The Westin’s rooftop.

Costume vignettes at the ballroom entrance greeted guests. The costumes, bright shades of blue, came from SCR’s 1998-99 production of Tartuffe; and that was paired with an “encore” costume from the 2013-14 production of Tartuffe. Many guests enjoyed taking pictures with the costumes.

The beautiful teal and fuchsia colors of the event complimented the array of colorful black ties and exquisite gowns. The evening began as guests sipped on Le Grand Courtâge champagne and signature cocktails created by Tito’s Handmade Vodka and enjoyed tantalizing hors d’oeuvres, such as caviar-topped purple potato crisps and petite lamb chops. Stunning floral centerpieces on the dinner tables were custom creations from Floral Creations by Enzo. The three-course dinner featured a duet of filet mignon and rosemary-skewered shrimp, capped by a decadent trio of desserts that included a pomegranate sorbet and flourless chocolate cake with white chocolate truffle garnish.

During the dinner, cheers erupted when Gala Committee Chair Socorro Vasquez announced that the Gala had raised a projected net of $350,000 to support SCR’s education and outreach programs.

Not to be outdone, Club Encore! on The Westin’s rooftop glittered and rocked as guests danced into the night, with conga and line dancing only part of the fun. Laser lights, Extreme DJ mixing tunes, sweet treats and endless libations made for a memorable affair. Clubbers lounged on the stylish and comfortable furnishings courtesy of Room & Board, indulged in mouthwatering macarons by ‘Lette and cooled off with gelato from Mangiamo Gelato Caffe.

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See even more photos here.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

The Math of Precision Comedy

by Kimberly Colburn

Brad Culver, Sarah Moser, John-David Keller and Dan Donohue in One Man, Two Guvnors. Photo courtesy of mellowpix.

On adapting The Servant of Two Masters

“The main problem to solve is that the plot revolves around arranged marriage and that doesn’t exist in contemporary society…The solution we came up with was a marriage of convenience because one of the parties was gay and wanted to hide that fact by marrying a woman. That was my first big breakthrough. The second problem was the sword fighting that features in the original. I remembered Baz Luhrmann’s film, Romeo + Juliet, where he got around his updating of Shakespeare’s play by branding the automatic guns the characters used as being made by a manufacturer called ‘Sword’ so he didn’t have to change the text’s references to swords. This made me think that in the 1960s East End gangsters would have carried around flick knives and that introduced the gangster concept to the adaptation.”
—Richard Bean

Richard Bean

Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.

This familiar adage tersely encapsulates the challenge of comedy, a genre that is easily judged by the amount of laughter in the recipients. From the Greeks to modern day, artists have spent countless hours honing their craft, discovering the “rules” of comedy, and developing strategies to capture the chuckles of audiences. “Comedy,” explains Al Jean, “is very mathematical…with its precision and control.” As a longtime writer on “The Simpsons” and a Harvard graduate in mathematics, he would know. Good comedy should have a complicated set-up and then an unexpected reveal, and Jean says “coming up with a good joke is often like doing a proof.” South Coast Repertory’s opening production of the season, One Man Two Guvnors, rises to the challenge.

Helen Sadler, Brad Culver and Robert Sicular in One Man, Two Guvnors.  Photo courtesy of mellowpix.
One Man, Two Guvnors follows a classic farcical formula—in fact, it’s an adaptation of a commedia dell’arte piece, The Servant of Two Masters, by Carlo Goldoni. Commedia was an Italian Renaissance form of semi-improvised theatre that used basic scenarios, stock characters and jokes and frequently included musicians, jugglers and acrobatics. One Man, Two Guvnors adaptor Richard Bean has updated the classic to 1964 Brighton, England, where the swinging ’60s serves as the perfect backdrop for a world of comic mayhem.

Bean’s adaptation places the archetypal characters of commedia dell’arte in their new setting of the UK in the 60's. It’s got the desired complicated set-up: the story centers on an overworked and scheming servant, Francis, who hatches a plan to serve two masters to get double the payment and double the lunch. He’s working for gangster Stanley when the mysterious Roscoe (who is actually his own twin sister, Rachel, in disguise) offers to hire him. Rachel’s secretly having an affair with Stanley, but meanwhile he’s engaged to Pauline. Pauline’s got a plan to elope with wannabe actor Alan. As befits a farce, the relationships and misunderstandings crescendo to an impossibly frenetic climax, with many unexpected revelations along the way.

Dan Donohue and William Connell in ​One Man, Two Guvnors. Photo courtesy of mellopix.com
In order to honor the buoyant spirit of One Man, Two Guvnors, director David Ivers embraces the mathematics of comedy. Ivers is in his fifth season as artistic director of the Utah Shakespeare Festival, so he’s well versed in helming large scale comedies. He recently directed The Cocoanuts, a Marx Brothers comedy, at Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Also a talented actor, he’s finishing a run as Salieri in Amadeus at Utah Shakes—a “small” project in-between the two runs of this One Man, a co-production with Berkeley Repertory Theatre that played in the Bay Area earlier this summer. Ivers explains that “the number of builds/attempts have to be odd, the beats have to be perfectly shorter or longer than the timing of real life, and the rate of acceleration or deceleration has to be perfect. The length of pauses, of suspension, of delivery…there are often many comic options, but for each option, the pattern is rigid. It’s almost like revealing the flawless beauty of a gemstone—the math of the cut has to be perfect.”

Ivers doesn’t shy away from the mathematical demands of this farce, and describes the show as being “built like a machine.” He integrates a band—a skiffle band, a blues/folk/rock blend—with the actors, their movements and the technical elements with careful meticulousness. Ivers says “the world of farce and physical comedy really speaks to me because it marries precision with being a child, with childishnessinnocence and purity and total youthful exuberance with a kind of virtuosity.” The audience can appreciate the youthful exuberance of One Man, Two Guvnors, while the mathematical formulas and careful orchestration remain part of the work behind the scenes.

Learn more and buy tickets.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Renderings to Reality: The Set Design of "One Man, Two Guvnors"

From drafting to models to the final product, scenic designer Hugh Landwehr created a swinging '60s set.
One Man, Two Guvnors sends audiences across the pond to 1960s England. The task for scenic designer Hugh Landwehr is to create this world that audiences are transported to. With credits from Broadway including A View from the Bridge, Bus Stop and All My Sons to off Broadway to theatres across the country, Landwehr has more than enough experience to bring the colorful swinging fun of '60s Brighton to our Segerstrom stage.

Check out a quick Q&A with Landwehr and his preliminary work below.

Where did you find inspiration for this design?
The inspiration for the design came from a thick book of research which I compiled about Brighton and 1963 which is the period of the show—which I lived through in the United States. I looked to the dawning of the age of the Beatles and early 1960s grooviness.

What was a challenge you tackled in this design?
David Ivers and I thought it was important to make the audience understand the essential Britishness of the show, as well as its boardwalk and seacoast locale. A place at the fringes of England where social conventions can be challenged and all kinds of escape are possible.

Any favorite designs you've done?
No designer has one favorite part of his design, “they are all my children.”

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Set Designer Timothy Mackabee Talks Art and "Vietgone"

Timothy Mackabee's set rendering for Vietgone.
Timothy Mackabee has been detail-oriented for as long as he can remember. When it came to design, hisIt started when he was a youngster and would design sets for puppet shows in the family’s basement and use McDonald’s Happy Meal toys as characters.

“From the get-go, it was all about design,” he told The Washington Post last year. “I would set up a camcorder, and I would watch the tapes, make notes and realize what I could do to make a better transition. Then I would play with my stage lights from Radio Shack. My mother says she still has those VHS cassettes somewhere, and she says to be nice or she’ll show them to people.”

Mackabee’s mother has much to take pride in: her son is one of the hottest designers in American theatre. His work has graced London’s West End; Broadway and off-Broadway shows; and productions at regional theatres, including productions of The Elephant Man; the musical, Heathers; and ‘night, Mother.

At South Coast Repertory, he’s the set designer for the world premiere of Qui Nguyen’s Vietgone (Julianne Argyros Stage, Oct. 4-25).

In this exchange, he talks about his influences, research and designing for Vietgone.

Who was as your mentor—and how does their influence show in your work?

My mother and grandparents are mentors. They encouraged me to do what I wanted to do, presumably why I did it, and kept doing it. I’m sure they thought I was nuts, and would never make any money at it.

What delights you most about your work?
I like when I’m surprised. You can look at drawings and models forever, but it never tells you 100% what something is going to look like in real life.

What do you find offers the most challenges?
Working with a theater company for the first time—you have to get to know the staff and figure out how far the money and resources can go. Always a tricky line—there’s always a learning curve when you go somewhere the first time.

For Vietgone, which is set in the mid-1970s, what kind of research did you do?
We looked tons of research at classic Americana—road trips, diners, billboard, different landscapes. The movie Easy Rider was a big visual reference. 

I was surprised at how much I missed in the first reading of the play. We did a workshop last month and, when we read the play, I was blown away.

You and May Adrales have worked before.

Yes—I believe this is our fourth or fifth show together. May is great because she has a lot of great ideas and isn’t precious about any of them. She’s always looking for new exciting ways to do things. I think she’s a great match for this play. And with Qui, I know of him and his work, but this is the first time I’ve worked with him.

What do you do in your ‘off-time,’ when not working on sets, projections or costumes?
Off-time?! I’m usually traveling to the next theatre project.

Learn more and buy tickets.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Inside SCR: Relating Plot to Real Life

by Jonathan Castanien

Jonathan Castanien, SCR public relations assistant.
“So, what do you do for a living?”

“I work in public relations at a theatre in Costa Mesa called South Coast Repertory.”

“Oh…so what does that mean? Like a movie theater?”

This is how a conversation usually goes when people ask me about my job. After I tell them more about what I do, their eyes seem to glaze over.

One of the things I do at SCR is write blog stories. In fact, I’ve written this piece that you’re reading—and a good portion of the stories that have been posted in the last year. So, when I was asked to write a story about myself, it felt natural to make it a little less formal and to write it in first-person.

My name is Jonathan Castanien and I’m SCR's public relations assistant. I received a BA in theatre arts from California State University, Fullerton, with an emphasis in technical design and production. I focused on stage management during my four years and also worked part time on campus in the theatre and dance department’s marketing annex. I knew nothing about marketing, but caught on quickly and fortunately, it led me to SCR.

Typically, I assist in the day to day communications for the theatre. On any given day, I could be writing a blog story, clipping articles, brainstorming ideas for a photo shoot or scheduling interviews for reporters with an actor in one of our upcoming productions.

With my mom.
More importantly, I act as an extension of the storytelling happening on our stages by sharing the stories of the people involved in our productions and even finding audience stories that may reflect the story on stage.

That’s why, when last spring SCR announced Vietgone by Qui Nguyen as part of the Pacific Playwrights Festival, I immediately knew I had to take a particular person in my life: my mom, Sophia Castanien.  I knew that this play about a Vietnamese refugee experience had to be seen by an actual refugee who lived through it. And, Mom also kept asking to see a show where I worked.

My mom was born as Nga Cao in Saigon, Vietnam, to my grandparents, Van Cao and Diep Truong. She was the third girl among four brothers and three sisters. She was adopted by her aunt and uncle, Qui Cao and Dr. Ha Ta Ngoc, who were unable to have children. She would be raised by them alongside their first adopted daughter, Phung. Mom spent much of her childhood in Bạc Liêu, while also studying in Đà Lạt and in Saigon. Although she was adopted, she still saw her biological parents and siblings often.

(L to R) My Aunt Phung, grandfather, grandmother and mom
Since she lived in the city, the war was something faraway and removed to her. She would only see the effects of the war when soldiers returned to the city, injured and worn, or when family members would leave to serve in the military. It created a shrouded sense of peace that didn't last forever.

By the spring of 1975, panic grew quickly as the North Vietnamese troops advanced towards the south. It felt like more and more people, displaced by the war, were coming to the city. With their arrival, whispers filled with fear began to spread and the sense of safety around the city faded quickly.

Filled with uncertainty, some of my aunts, uncles and cousins had begun to leave by boat. Due to my grandfather’s age, and the chaos around them the day Saigon fell, my mom and her immediate family were unable to escape and had to face the aftermath of their government's fall. Her family lost its properties, money and status in a world that had dramatically changed around them. Mom lived for four long years under the new government, and waited patiently for her father to be released from the reeducation camps.

When her father was released in early 1979, she hoped that the whole family would be able to escape together. But her father was in poor health, making it impossible for him and my grandmother to leave, so the family faced a difficult decision. My grandparents urged them to go–to have a better life away from what was once considered home.

Posing as ethnic Chinese, also called nguoi hoa, my mom, her first husband, my aunt, Phung, Phung’s first husband and my two cousins escaped. At the time, the new government was making deals with nguoi hoa to allow people to leave the country if they paid a large sum of money. Once my family paid, things happened very quickly and my mom didn't even have the chance to properly say goodbye to her father. It was the last time she saw him—he would pass away a few years later while she was in the U.S. Her mother accompanied them to the dock and saw them off. With only a few steps away from her escape, my mom wasn't able to hold it in anymore and she cried in my grandmother's arms before boarding the boat.

It wasn't an easy journey. “I knew I wouldn’t eat for a week and just have a little bit of water to drink,” Mom recounts. “It’s easier when you’re younger. If I had to do it now, I wouldn't.” The group had no destination, just the hope that they would make it to a country that would take them in.

My mom (R) on her  first visit to Disneyland with my Aunt Oanh (L)
When they reached Singapore four days later, they weren’t permitted to land. The Coast Guard provided them with a few supplies and then the group had to head into the unknown once again. Two days later, they reached an island in Indonesia, where they were allowed to stay overnight, but were told to leave in the morning. It was a prospect no one wanted to face: pirates, rough waters and darkness lived out at sea. They knew they had to do something to stay.

That night, under the veil of darkness, they set their own boat on fire.

With no way to leave, they were allowed to set up a refugee camp—one of the first in the area. The U.S. government was quickly contacted, beginning the process of interviews and securing sponsorships from families in the U.S. to enable migration to America.

My mom was  fortunate to have reached the U.S. six months after setting up that refugee camp. Her sister, Oanh, who had reached the U.S. years earlier, sponsored my mom to come to California. My aunt, Phung, and her immediate family were sponsored to Chicago, Illinois. The two sisters had known from the beginning that they would be separated in the U.S.

In October 1979, my mom flew into LAX, where she was reunited with her family and settled into their home in Long Beach. They welcomed her with the best American meal they could think of: Pioneer fried chicken and pizza. Among her sisters, brothers and biological parents, she had found a new home after a long journey. Two weeks later, she was able to secure a job through a family friend and quickly began her new life in the U.S.

(L to R) My father Steven, Mom, me and my brother David.
As the years went on, she became a U.S. citizen, gave birth to my brother, David, ended her first marriage, married my father, had me and reunited with her adoptive mother, Qui, who years later was able to immigrate to California.

Mom dedicated herself to raising a family and making sure her two sons earned a college education and lived a better life than she had.

Which leads us back to 2015 and the reading of Vietgone at the Pacific Playwrights Festival. After the theatre emptied and we walked back to the car, I asked Mom what she thought of the play.

“It reminded me about a lot of things I almost forgot,” Mom told me. “I forgot people wanted to leave the refugee camp right away to be with their families. They didn’t want to stay because of the people they had to leave behind.”

She also found the characters and story familiar. She saw one of brothers in the main character, Quang, who had to leave behind his wife during the chaos of the fall. The details may have been different, but she knew this story in her family and friends. They all had lost something along the way and made sacrifices.

“There can be a misunderstanding about refugees,” she went on to explain. “We came here as refugees—not immigrants. We didn’t plan for any of it. This play is important because it reminds us that the war ended drastically and suddenly. We had to try to adopt a new country.”

She also made a point of declaring that my brother and all my cousins had to see Vietgone as well: “They should see it to understand. There’s a part of the experience that the first generation born here doesn’t understand, doesn’t know."

As I continue to work in theatre and help tell SCR's stories, it’s important for me to remember how plays can affect audiences. It’s especially great to see works being done that I can identify with, with stories or characters that I can see both myself and my family in.

It also makes my job a whole lot more fun.

Buy tickets to Vietgone
Quick Q&A with Jonathan Castanien

What do you do outside of SCR?

I freelance as a stage manager in the Orange County and L.A. areas.

What's currently playing on Netflix?
I'm trying to catch up with "House of Cards." I know...I'm kind of behind, but I'm in the middle of season 2!

What are you excited to see this season at SCR?
Vietgone, of course! I'm also looking forward to seeing Red. It's easily one of my favorite plays.