Impossible to categorize, the time-bending, pop-culture wielding, psychedelic, hip hop romantic comedy that is Qui Nguyen’s VIETGONE is a raw, funny, mesmerizing ride. Bouncing between the chaos of the fall of Saigon where impossible choices are made, a stark refugee camp in Arkansas to an “Easy Rider” cross country buddy trip, Vietgone is a cacophonous mash-up of war, the open highway, music, rap and flashing projections. At the core is an unlikely love story between two people ripped from their homeland and the people they love who find themselves adrift in a foreign place.
The on point 70’s vibe puts you squarely in those tumultuous times while Nguyen uses brilliant satire and clever devices that seek to turn long held perceptions of the Vietnamese American experience on their head. Jennifer Chang’s keen direction is breathless taking full advantage of the Shammy Dee music, the powerfully vivid set and her crackerjack ensemble. The result is nothing short of revelatory.
The Vietnamese characters speak in current American vernacular and slang, breaking into sometimes intense rapping while the Americans the refugees encounter speak in what we imagine would be how they sounded to them at the time. The all Asian cast play multiple roles and break into this language to brilliant comedic effect. In one instance, Albert Park in a blonde wig plays an American soldier/guard in Arkansas and says “seeing you for original time was love in eyeball originals” or a military captain says, “me am pirate king hi ho midway. Here yellow banana ventriloquist.” It is hysterical.
The cast is made up of five stellar actors who fill the stage with myriad characters that tell the story including military captains, an interpreter, old boyfriends, hippies, redneck bikers and even ninjas. Paul Yen is a charismatic, sexy Vietnamese soldier named Quang who makes a life-altering decision as he flies dozens of people to safety on the day of the fall of Saigon. His raps are among the most searing and he delivers a nuanced, heartbreaking performance. Scott Ly skillfully moves in and out of several characters and brings passion and integrity to the role of Quang’s loyal friend Nhan. Albert Park is hilarious in every role he takes on from the ZZ Top biker dude who gets into an epic, videogame style battle with the two protagonists, to the sniveling, lovesick fiancé and the dimwitted soldier; he is a chameleon and delivers on the comedy with razor-sharp precision.
The two main female characters is where Nyuyen’s writing feels most fresh as both young Tong and her mother Huong are written as strong, opinionated, sexy, complex people fighting for their families and for their piece of happiness. Sylvia Kwan gives an unapologetically fierce performance as she spits her fury, “I don’t need no roses or to call you mine, ‘cause decreeing your love is just a waste of time. I’m not some little girl dreaming of her prince, I can save my own kingdom I’m a badass bitch.” Jane Lui quite simply transcends the stereotype of the sweet, obedient Vietnamese woman as the bawdy, tough as nails and ferociously devoted mother Huang. She’s also sexed up and funny as hell.
Vietgone will make you think, laugh and cry because running through the raucous rap, fight choreography and satire is an underlying tragedy and when it bubbles up to the surface, it’s an emotional awakening.
Recommended for audiences 13+
VIETGONE opened Thursday night at the David Henry Hwang Theater downtown and continues through November 18, 2018. Union Center of the Arts at 120 Judge John Aiso Street, Los Angeles, CA 90012
Tickets may be purchased online at eastwestplayers.org or by calling (213) 625-7000, making sure to mention any wheelchair/accessible seating needs. Student, senior, and group discounts are available.
East West Players (EWP), the nation’s longest-running professional theater of color in the country and the largest producing organization of Asian American artistic work, was founded in 1965, at a time when Asian Pacific Islanders (APIs) faced limited or no opportunities to see their experiences reflected outside of stereotypical and demeaning caricatures in the American landscape. EWP not only ensures that API stories are told, but works to increase access, inclusion, and representation in the economy.
For more information, please visit eastwestplayers.org