In 1975, two Vietnamese strangers Meet Cute in Arkansas. Their courtship plays out in non-linear fashion, interspersed with video-game visuals, rom-com tableaux and defiant hip-hop boasts ripped from later decades.
If you’re feeling a little discombobulated already, playwright Qui Nguyen has you right where he wants you — wherever that is.
Nguyen is known for putting a pulpy, trippy, pop-pastiche sensibility on the stage. In New York, he co-founded the Obie Award–winning troupe Vampire Cowboys, which produced infectiously scrappy works that combined sci-fi silliness and action-movie throwdowns. His plays often have titles like “Fight Girl Battle World,” “Soul Samurai” and “She Kills Monsters” (all of which have been produced by Chicago storefront theaters over the past decade).
When: Through September 23
Where: Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor Ct, Glencoe
Run time: 2 hrs 25 minutes, with one intermission
The more recent “Vietgone,” first produced in 2015 and now receiving an overdue Chicago premiere at Glencoe’s Writers Theatre, is almost certainly Nguyen’s most explicitly personal work. The central couple, Quang (Matthew C. Yee) and Tong (Aurora Adachi-Winter), are Nguyen’s own parents — or versions of them, anyway.
As we’re informed by a fictional version of the playwright (Ian Michael Minh) in his introductory remarks: “All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental… That especially goes for any person or persons who could be related to the playwright. Specifically his parents.”
And thus, the tone is set — or at least the first tone of this defiantly multitonal, metatheatrical portrait of his parents. We see their parallel escapes from South Vietnam as Saigon falls, and then their eventual meeting as refugees at Fort Chaffee, a western Arkansas military base that served as a processing center for Southeast Asian evacuees. Nguyen puts himself onstage right at the top to declare that this is just a version of his family history.
Nguyen, the character, also establishes some ground rules for the evening’s linguistic style. When the Vietnamese characters are speaking to one another in Vietnamese, we hear it as modern, colloquial and Tarantino-level-profanity-laced English. When American characters show up speaking English, it’s rendered in a buzzwordy gibberish that sounds recognizably American but means nothing: “Yee-haw! Get’er done! Cheeseburger, waffle fries, cholesterol!”
The Americanese is a clever device that Nguyen uses — but smartly doesn’t overuse — to subvert a Western, American, majority-white theater audience’s ingrained expectation that the default is what looks and sounds like them. Countering stereotype, the immigrants are centered as our relatable protagonists, and the Americans are the pidgin-speaking Other.
The very existence of “Vietgone” as a play makes the outcome of Quang and Tong’s flirtation a foregone conclusion, but their courtship is not without obstacles. Those include a friendly but dull American G.I. (Minh again) with an eye for Tong; her stubborn mother, Huong (a delicious Emjoy Gavino); and Quang’s left-behind wife and children, to whom he’s doggedly determined to return, even as his loyal best friend Nhan (Rammel Chan) tries to get him to accept his new lot.
Quang’s tenacious guilt provides a semi-extraneous, road-trip plot thread. As Nguyen’s time-hopping narrative jumps between Vietnam and Arkansas, it also intermittently follows Quang and Nhan on a motorcycle trip back across the southern U.S. to California, where Quang hopes to hop a flight back to the home he no longer has.
That motorbike ride ends up on a few too many detours, and both Nguyen’s script and director Lavina Jadhwani’s slightly timid staging meander just a tad as well. In particular, the rap sequences fail to flow. The half-dozen musical interludes seem intended as modernizing release valves for the considerable pressure Tong and Quang are under, but Nguyen’s repetitive rhymes (set here to original beats by composer Gabriel Ruiz) aren’t quite expert enough to pass muster, and they’re a little too dry in Adachi-Winter and Yee’s mouths. The fevered interjections feel more like interruptions.
And yet Jadhwani could stand to lean a little harder into Nguyen’s other splashes of heightened color. Jadhwani’s cast is mostly up to the over-the-top task, but in terms of the visual and physical possibilities Nguyen’s mash-up aesthetic offers, the director and her design team leave too much on the table. Still, that’s no reason to miss this refreshingly different take on the refugee question and a stimulating story of love finding a way — from Southeast Asia to the American South.
Kris Vire is a local freelance writer.