At the Writers Nichols Theatre
By Dan Zeff
Glencoe – The Vietnam War and its aftermath occupy a special place in the American psyche, especially among Americans old enough to recall the upheavals the war caused at home and abroad. A young Vietnamese-American playwright named Qui Nguyen has written a highly personal take on the Vietnam War period called “Vietgone.” After viewing the play, audiences at the Writers Theatre may be forced to rethink their views about whether the war was disaster for America or our honorable attempt to save a country from a reign of violence and terror.
“Vietgone” views the Vietnam period from the viewpoint of the Vietnamese, especially those who came to the United States as a direct or indirect result of the war. The play isn’t a documentary. Indeed, it’s difficult to place it in any familiar category. It shifts back and forth in time and place. It employs rap music, dancing, raunchy comedy, satire, and wrenching realism. The play uses five actors, three of them performing 15 roles. At times the viewers may be unsure where and when and who are unfolding on the stage.
The two main characters are Tong and Quang, who likely are modeled on the playwright’s parents and their experiences during the war and their later settling in America. Tong is a 30-year Vietnamese woman with a mind of her own, a mind that frequently dwells on sex expressed in extremely salty language. There is lots of profanity in the show, including a monologue by Tong that consists entirely of assorted choreographed inflections of the phrase “I don’t give a s**t.”
Quang is a helicopter pilot in the South Vietnamese army who trained in the United States in the late 1960’s and now finds himself in America in 1975, escaping the carnage of the war in his country but fierce in his determination to return to Vietnam and his wife and two children.
Other main characters are Quang’s best friend Nahn, Tong’s feisty mother Huong, and an American named Bobby who desperately wants to marry Tong. The locations range from Saigon during the last days of the war to Ford Chaffee, a military base in Arkansas, where Vietnamese, who can be classified as either immigrants or refugees, are housed. One rap passage cynically describes the Vietnamese experience in the U.S.A.:
‘ Ironically we’re the ones they call the lucky ones
But can we make a new life now that our old lives are done?
America tries to help us start all over
By putting us in camps in the middle of nowhere.’
The play offers vignettes portraying the discrimination the Vietnamese faced from Americans who disliked them as unwanted foreigners. Basically the Americans blame the Vietnamese for involving them in an unjust war that swallowed up thousands of American lives and billions of American dollars. Quang sees the war as a worthy cause, a desperate fight for freedom from a vicious enemy and not a “mistake” in American foreign policy. The Vietnamese honored the American participation as assisting in a righteous cause.
Quang does not shy away from pointing a finger at American society, the society that scorns the Vietnamese for bringing their problems to our shores. In commenting on black-white racial relations in this country, he notes “North and South Vietnam may be at war, but at least we’re not fighting each other over something as stupid as the way we look.” An unanswerable bit of social criticism.
The Writers Theater production is performed on a virtually empty stage. Props like bunk beds and a table at an American diner are efficiently rolled on and off stage. Quang rides a cleverly designed mock motorcycle with Nhan the apprehensive passenger. Quang rides the motorcycle across the country to California in a desperate attempt to return to war torn Vietnam and his family (he plans to hitchhike from California by ship back to his native land).
The ensemble consists entirely of Asian actors, a testimony to the availability of players of diverse ethnic backgrounds, if such a point still needs to be made. Matthew C. Yee is brilliant as Quang, who burns with a passion for his homeland, refusing against all odds to accept that history has taken his heritage from him and he is now a hyphenated American. Aurora Adachi-Winter is outstanding in the flamboyant role of Tong, a woman who knows how to survive.
Emjoy Gavino gets most of the laughs as Tong’s mother, ready to play the sex card if it suits her advantage as she competes with her daughter for male attention. And like Tong, she is a survivor, enduring the loss of two husbands and a child in Vietnam. Rammel Chan is the dorky Nahn, a man who delivers some hard truths to his buddy that Quang’s Vietnamese existence is over and he needs to deal with it. Ian Michael Minh plays a colorful assortment of characters, including a Confederate flag carrying redneck and the innocent lovelorn Bobby.
Lavina Jadhwani directs the action fluidly. Under her guidance the play successfully mingles comedy, satire, sentimentality, and stark realism.
If the play has a major flaw, it is its excessive length. At about 2 hours and 20 minutes “Vietgone” sometimes rambles. Shaving the script down to two hours would enhance the dramatic and theatrical impact considerably. And the spectator may struggle, especially in the first act, to track the shifts in time and place.
The original music has been composed by Gabriel Ruiz who is also the musical director. Tommy Rapley is the choreographer. This isn’t a dancing show but Rapley’s few dancing interludes are full of energy and humor. Yu Shibagaki is the scenic designer and Melissa Ng the costume designer (both Asian artists that validate the diversity of the enterprise). Sarah Hughey designed the lighting and Kevin O’Donnell is the sound designer. Rasean Davonte Johnson’s projection designs make a significant atmospheric contribution to the show’s mood and narrative.
At its eloquent best, “Vietgone” is absorbing, intelligent, and challenging. Nguyen’s play” is not only a striking artistic and entertainment experience, but for the thoughtful Writers Theatre spectator, an education.
The show gets a rating of
“Vietgone” runs through September 23 at the Writers Theatre Nichols Theatre, 325 Tudor Court. Performances are Tuesday through Friday at 7:30 p.m. with select Wednesday 3 p.m. matinees, Saturday at 3 and 7:30 p.m., and Sunday at 2 and 6 p.m. Tickets are $35 to $80. Call 847 242 6000 or visit www.writerstheatre.org.
Contact Dan at: ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com August 2018
Like Dan on Facebook. Become a Friend!!!!
Follow Dan on twitter
Want to read more reviews? Go to TheaterinChicago