Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Under Nguyen's adept hand, Quang and Tong are not stock "refugee" types, but fleshed out individuals. Quang is a fighter jet squadron commander. He plans to rescue his wife and two young children from their remote village and escape together, but his final mission during the chaotic evacuations makes that impossible, leaving him stranded on an aircraft carrier heading to safe harbor in Guam. His best friend and co-pilot Nahn is with him, but that is little consolation to Quang, as he agonizes over the fate of his family.
Tong is a fiercely independent interpreter at the U.S. Embassy, whose boss gives her two tickets for transit out of Saigon. When her younger brother refuses to leave behind the girl he loves, she uses her second ticket to bring their mother Huong with her. Huong is as fiercely independent as her daughter, unwilling to leave her youngest son behind, but in the end he persuades her that Tong needs her.
The four end up at Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, one of four federal relocation centers set up to house the Vietnamese refugees until they are able to settle into a home and community. Quang is able to tolerate conditions in the camp and, having had Air Force training in the U.S., is comfortable with American ways. Still, he is determined to get back to Vietnam and rescue his family. Nahn, having nothing to go back to, is eager to become Americanized, which he equates with the exercise of his active libido. Tong is not happytruth be told, she was not happy in Vietnam eitherbut is determined to move forward and make the best of her lot, signing up for a program that will provide American mentors to help her resettlement. Huong hates everything about being in Americathe food, the awful Vietnamese spoken by the American staff, the crowded barracks. She tells Tong that she thought everything in America would be really great, because "that's kind of the way they advertise it."
By the way, as you might guess from the line cited above, Vietgone is very funny. It is also very lively. Nguyen employs jump cuts from scene to scene that crate a cinematic feel, and inserts rap numbers into the piece that reveal a depth of emotions the characters could not openly express. The story is very much a product of the 1975 circumstances in which it is set, but its style and structure make it feel current and completely accessible to a 2017 audience. Throughout the play, the Vietnamese characters speak in their native tongue, which we hear as perfect colloquial English, while the American characters struggle with text-book Vietnamese, spouting out random phrases and brand names, and trample on the syntaxthe way their speech sounds to the Vietnamese.
The play is an unofficial story about the playwright's parents (a disclaimer at the opening of the play makes that clear in a back-handed way). That leaves little surprise as to the outcome between Quang and Tong, despite his sincere devotion to the family he left behind and her sour outlook toward any kind of romantic love. What does surprise are insights into how these two experience their transition from citizens of Vietnam to upended residents in a refugee camp to new Vietnamese-Americans, and how their relationship mirrors that process. Unfortunately, two of the main characters, Nahn and Huong, come across as types: he the horn-dog immigrant eager for sexual exploits, she the pushy, impossible to please Asian mother. Those characters have charm, but not the depth given to the two leads.
Mark Valdez directs Vietgone with great dexterity, like a flipbook with its rapidly turning pages creating moving images, flipping from one narrative scene to another with intensely emotional rap and dance numbers (Eric Mayson is the composer, Brian Bose the choreographer) popping up unexpectedly, empowering the characters' voices in ways they could not express within the straight scenes. The rather simple set is aided by projections that identify ever changing locations, especially during a road trip that Quang and Nahn embark on, giving them a chance to encounter all manner of American mid 1970s culture, and a chance for us to see those experiences through their eyes. Nguyen's script and Valdez' direction blend well to make the refugees' experiences seem "normal" and the American characters seem "foreign."
The cast of five actors are all aces. Especially impressive is David Huynh as Quang, showing a range of emotions from his bravado as a fighter pilot to the devastation of having his family left behind, to the playful sensuality he enjoys with Tong. As Tong, Meghan Kreidler gives a strong performance as a character who swallows the pain of her life experience, matter-of-factly making plans and finding solace in sex without strings. Sun Mee Chomet is delightful as Huong, mining the role for its comic gold as well as its pearls of wisdom. Flordelino Lagundino does fine work as Nahn, though the character provides neither the depth nor the comic relief that would give him a great deal to work with. Sherwin Resurreccion completes the ensemble as, briefly, the author of the play, and in a variety of other roles including a lovelorn American (wearing an atrocious blonde wig) who pursues Tong with offers of a pedestrian, but secure, middle-American life.
The play smartly avoids getting into the right or wrongfulness of the war, but it does present the way it was experienced by South Vietnamese men and women who did not seek a war, but had it thrust upon them. Well-meant anti-war sentiments expressed by flower power Americans are not comforting, for they ignore the Vietnamese's reality that the war was an ever-present struggle for survival that did not pause for deliberation of its ethics.
In Vietgone, Qui Nguyen covers a lot of ground. With the variety of topicsthe Vietnam War through the eyes of the Vietnamese, the refugee experience, a fraught mother-daughter relationship, America in the 1970s, and at its center, a love storyit sometimes feels like a bumpy ride, shifting focus without warning. But for those who can hang on to their seats and bear with the ride, it delivers an array of insightful topics, a large dollop of entertainment, and an unexpected jolt of emotion.
Vietgone continues at the Mixed Blood Theatre through April 30, 2017. 1501 S. Fourth Street, Minneapolis, MN. Radical Hospitality tickets are free at the door two hours prior to performances. Tickets purchased in advance are $25. Access Passes guarantee complimentary seating and transportation for seniors and persons with disabilities and their companions. For advance tickets and Access Pass information call 612-338-6331 or go to www.mixedblood.com.
Writer: Qui Nguyen; Directed by: Mark Valdez; Set and Lighting Design: Paul Whitaker; Costume Design: Mandi Johnson; Sound Design: C. Andrew Mayer; Composer and Musical Directions: Eric Mayson; Media Design: Kathy Maxwell; Properties: Abbee Warmboe; Choreographer: Brian Bose; Fight Choreographer: Allen Malicsi; Technical Director: Carl Schoenborn; Stage Manager: Raul Ramos
Cast: Sun Mee Chomet (Huong/ensemble), David Huynh (Quang), Meghan Kreidler (Tong), Flordelino Lagundino (Nahn/ensemble), Sherwin Resurreccion (Playwright/Bobby/ensemble).