Vietgone. Written by Qui Nguyen. Directed by Jaime Casteñada. A.C.T. Strand, 1127 Market Street, San Francisco, CA.
Were it not for its somber, poignant drama, Qui Nyugen’s autobiographical Vietgone would be the comedy hit of the season. But skillfully blending in those darker elements with wild caricatures of mid 70’s Americans, empathetic Vietnamese immigrants and a sweet love story, Vietgone becomes something beautifully unique and endearing. A hit off Broadway and at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, this sparkling production follow the plight of three young Vietnamese immigrants as they struggle to come to grips with their new reality post the fall of Saigon and the loss of their homeland. Nyugen incorporates original rap with Motown rhythms, pop culture with Vietnamese culture, hot sex with slapstick road trip humor.
Quang (James Seol) is a South Vietnamese Air Force hero. Trained in the US, he and his comic bro Nhan (Stephen Hu) save dozens of children but are unable to save Quang’s wife and two young children. Forced to flee their homeland, the pair end up in redneck, anti-Asian Midwest America. Tong (Jenelle Chu) escapes Vietnam with her mother Huong (Cindy Im), leaving her brother behind. They end up in an immigrant camp at Fort Chaffee Arkansas, forced to quickly assimilate into American culture.
Tong is a tough cookie, burnt out of love, she’s willing to experience what America has to offer. Her mother, on the other hand, is horrified by their circumstances. On their trusty hog, Quang and Nahn travel from Arkansas to California in the hope of returning to Vietnam. Along the way they encounter American food, American racism and a pair of stoned out hippies. Quong and Tong rap to “I’ll Make It Home” (original music by Shammy Dee), two alternate perspectives on where that ‘home’ actually exists. Doesn’t matter that rap didn’t exist in 1975, the music works, as does reversing the typical Asian stereotypes and focusing the humor on the Americans.
Both the Americans and Vietnamese presented in Vietgone misunderstand one another; their language and cultures so alien to each other. But I imagine this is the reality for every group of immigrants who came to create the American melting pot. Its prescient for today when immigration is such a flashpoint topic. There are hard decisions being made by the characters here. Displaced from their homeland, they struggle to come to grips with their new reality. Quang and Tong romance helps both to accept that reality.
Brian Bembridge’s set design is simple but wonderfully effective; a two-sided representation of the Fort Chaffee camp that rotates on a revolving turntable. Chris Lundahl’s projections explain the backward/forward time shifts. Jessie Amoroso’s costumes are vintage 1970’s and Wen-Ling Liao’s lighting creates both the star-filled great outdoors and the claustrophobic confines of the detention facility.
The ensemble acting is top-notch. Stephen Hu, Cindy Im and Jomar Tagatac playing multiple roles to great effect. Jennelle Chu and James Seol shine as the contrasting lovers. Jaime Casteñada’s direction is fluid and sharp. Vietgone is a bittersweet, contemporary, historical-based romance that will delight, inform and charm audiences.
Performances run through April 22nd, 2018. www.actsf.org 415.749.22228