In 'Vietgone,' a playwright's past is rooted in love

In our new column – In Review – Victoria Moy critiques plays, shows and films that focus on lives as lived by different ethnicities in America. This time, she has reviewed Vietgone, a new play about a romance between two Vietnamese refugees.

Qui Nguyen’s Vietgone, self-described as an “all-American play about two very new Americans," follows two Vietnamese refugees who meet and fall in love at a refugee camp in Arkansas during the Vietnam War. It is hinted that these two people could be the playwright’s parents. The play is entertaining, with great acting from the cast, especially Samantha Quan’s comic portrayal of Huong, a curmudgeonly mother. The set and its animated art successfully reinforced the drama. The playwright’s inventiveness in using language to invert the power dynamic so that immigrants are now hip, cool, and use vivid crass language while ignorant Americans are blithering, inarticulate idiots is fun to watch.

The play begins with the character “Playwright” irreverently introducing the Vietnamese characters: “Though they are Vietnamese – born and raised there – for the purposes of this tale, it is to be noted that this will be their speaking syntax:” “Can we f–ing start yet?” says Tong, the female lead. Quang, the male lead follows: “Any of you fly ladies wanna get up on my ‘Quang Wang’?”

Clearly not the way anyone spoke in 1970s America.

The playwright explains their way of speaking will be opposite to “Herro! Please to meeting you! I so Asian!” and that “on the occasion … that an American character should appear, they will sound something like this: Yee-haw! Get’er done! Cheeseburger, waffle fries, cholesterol!”

While definitely entertaining to see the playwright’s outright rejection of the usual stereotypes of immigrants (e.g. bad accents) the desire to present these new Americans as all-American is very palpable, and feels perhaps a bit overanxious. To this particular viewer, it seems using such a device might even be a bit self-sabotaging in the goal of shattering the hegemony of the majority culture.

A problem arises when a play supposedly about Vietnamese people ends up sounding entirely American and has absolutely no Vietnamese specificity, which is what the audience comes to the show to experience.

There is a mention by Tong about how she finds freedom in American culture to be herself, whereas in Vietnam she had to subscribe to the traditional feminine role of being a pretty princess waiting to be saved. Besides this, there’s nothing particularly Vietnamese in this play. Perhaps this is the playwright’s goal—to show that the Vietnamese American story is a universal everyman’s story. However, the absence of Vietnamese culture in this piece left me wanting more.

Vietgone | Photo courtesy of Debora Robinson/SCR

Soliloquies-delivered-as-raps were well-performed, but they made me pause. Were these Vietnamese refugees rapping because rap is being seen as the lingua franca for the disenfranchised? Could there have been greater artistic impact if these characters conveyed their most honest and raw moments in a way that is stylistically and culturally their own?

Granted, the playwright does make clear that the entire play is his revisionist rendition of how his parents met. The show reflects the taste and values prevalent in popular culture today- where swearing, doing drugs, and having casual sex with someone smoking hot, are really cool.

The end, where the playwright interviews his father (who speaks English with a Vietnamese accent in this more realistic, less cartoony section) is the most poignant, honest part of the show. We see the writer’s heartfelt quest to understand his roots. While the play is an admirable homage to his parents, it’s bittersweet and somewhat heartbreaking to see that the playwright’s way of understanding and processing his parents’ story is only through the filter of this highly contemporary “all-American” pop-culture lens, which includes American movie references, cursing, and rap, but doesn’t include anything Vietnamese.

A surprising perspective is shared at the end, when the Playwright, trying to goad his father to speak of his past, says to tell him about the Vietnam War, which the world knows to be America’s greatest mistake and defeat. The father calls his son a “stupid dummy” and says when the Americans came to Vietnam, they gave people hope against the Viet Cong, and to say otherwise is to invalidate his life and the lives of the many who suffered fighting against the atrocities of the Viet Cong.  

This play is very interesting in that it reflects this particular writer’s search for his history and identity. Though at times Vietgone’s self-reflection can feel like self-rejection, the simultaneous embracing and rejecting of Americaness, while contradictory, is still understandable. But this does not necessarily have to involve amnesia of one’s heritage.

To learn more, visit scr.org

Victoria Moy is a New York-born, Los Angeles-based writer. She has a MFA from University of Southern California, where she studied playwriting, screenwriting and TV writing, and has a B.A. from Dartmouth College in Theater. She is also the author of the book Fighting for the Dream.

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