When we imagine war, we tend to envision it exclusively from the lens of our own national origin. We rarely consider WWII from the German perspective, or the Iraq War from the Iraqi people’s point of view. Vietgone challenges their audience to step outside of themselves and examine the Vietnam War and life in America through the eyes of several Vietnamese immigrants.
The South Coast Repertory’s latest production, Vietgone, written by Qui Nguyen and directed by May Adrales, is a different take on the the Vietnam War and incorporates the story of Nguyen’s parents and their journey from Saigon, Vietnam to Fort Chaffee, Arkansas.
Comprised of two acts with a 15 minute intermission in-between, the act features a minimal cast of 5 people who interchange roles throughout the production (except for the two main leads).
The play’s leads, Quang (Raymond Lee) and Tong (Maureen Sebastian) use witty charm and raunchy humor to dispel traditional notions of Asian conservatism.
The production’s structure differs from conventional plays in that it transitions between the past and the present while also balancing comedy with thematically-intense moments.
Each character has a unique story to tell, and the anthology of their collective struggles is what leaves a lingering impression in the audience’s memory.
Quang is in the Vietnamese army as a pilot. He loves his country and his family deeply, and will do anything to protect them. However, circumstances eventually separate Quang from his loved ones. He escapes with his friend Nhan (Jon Hoche), who is also a pilot in the Vietnamese army, and flies over 100 people to safety.
Tong, on the other hand, works for the US Embassy in Vietnam. When the Viet Cong attack Saigon, she is given two plane tickets by the embassy to escape to the USA. She is accompanied by her unwilling mother (Samantha Quan) who is more attached to Vietnam than to her daughter.
The struggle between the love for one’s own country and starting a new life is shown throughout the play.
There is a constant shift in the story’s narrative between the present — where Quang is trying to reach Camp Pendleton on his motorcycle in order to get back to Vietnam — and the past — which entails Tong and Quang’s arrival at Fort Chaffee, where the pair met and struggled to survive in a country where they didn’t know the language or the people.
When asked about his reason behind writing Vietgone, Nguyen said “You know, you write a lot of plays to make everyone else feel good. You really don’t spend any time making anyone that looks like you feel good. (…) So I wrote a sex-comedy about it.”
Vietgone is actually one of the first plays to be produced by the South Coast Repertory as part of their CrossRoads program. As a requirement for the program, Nguyen spent ten days in Orange County immersing himself in Southern Californian culture.
During the last day of his residency, Nguyen went to the Southeast Asian Archives of the UCI library, where he got a chance to see photos of Vietnamese immigrants from 1975. He came across a file marked “Fort Chaffee,” and that was where his parents had immigrated to when they first came to USA. After he left, Nguyen had about a year to write his play. “All I could think about were the faces of the people that my parents must have met, or the people they were around, [and that’s when I decided to write this play]. [I thought], how do I make it sound like Qui Nguyen? That’s going to sound really immature! But that’s when I went and wrote Vietgone,” said Nguyen.
At its core, Vietgone is a comedy, but with several serious moments interspersed throughout.
With a mix of rap and strong dialogue delivery, Vietgone is a play that is both hilarious and heart-wrenching.
Vietgone is running in South Coast Repertory until Oct. 25. Anyone between the ages of 15-25 is eligible for $10 discount tickets.