In 1975, rap was not exactly a thing.
Sure, there were influences of rap music and definitely sampling that took amazing beats from the 1970s and placed them into later rap songs, but as a whole, 1975 wasn’t exactly the year when rap burst onto the scene.
None of that matters to playwright Qui Nguyen. In his rollicking and irreverent comedy “Vietgone,” which has its official opening on at the American Conservatory Theatre on Wednesday, March 7th, Nguyen brings forth a play that chops down every convention and rule of time and space, turning it on its head.
The story follows the characters Quang and Tong, who may or not be the playwright’s parents. They meet in a refugee camp in America after the 1975 fall of Saigon, where they are supposed to start new lives now that their old ones in Vietnam are no more. The United States is not at all what they thought it would be, because, well, witnessing beauty everywhere is not exactly what happens when they are stuck in that camp in rural Arkansas. But love begins to bloom after both have suffered significant losses, and Quang heads out on a kick ass road trip which explores the vastness of the good ol’ US of A along with his buddy Nhan. What ensues on that road trip is wild, wacky, cussy and hugely rappy, filled with a bevy of colorful and memorable characters, played by an ensemble of three.
There are so many reasons why director Jaime Castañeda wanted to work on this piece. He was very familiar with Nguyen’s work in New York from Nguyen’s company Vampire Cowboys, and other critically acclaimed plays such as “She Kills Monsters.” Like Nguyen, Castañeda is a first-generation immigrant, whose parents were both born in Mexico. And Castañeda also found his way into the play through its unique anachronistic soundtrack, a piece that is set four years prior to the landmark rap song “Rappers Delight,” a song widely credited as the first song in the genre.
These elements sold Castañeda immediately.
“One of my points of entry is that I know Qui’s work and I know Qui,” said Castañeda. “Qui is telling the story of his parents seeking refuge, leaving his family behind and leaving a country that was experiencing pretty tough circumstances.”
Like Nguyen, Castañeda has shot up the ranks in the theatre world, now the associate artistic director at La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego. He is a deeply rooted Texan, having grown up in San Antonio, attended Texas Christian University as an undergrad and finished his Master of Fine Arts at the University of Texas, Austin. And as someone who has a diverse hip-hop mind, Castañeda has found excitement in creating both the physical and audial worlds of the play.
“Qui and I are of that generation that grew up listening to the golden age of hip-hop, the mid to late 90s, when east coast was battling with west coast rap,” said Castañeda. “Hip-hop has gone in cycles, and now we are seeing more live performance. Looking at Jay Z’s last tour or Kanye West, they are playing with live instruments. And we are using synthesizers, different types of basses, different drums in our show. We have married all of these instruments with Qui’s lyrics.”
There’s also the issue of how to produce a play with so many different locations, each having its own significance to the story.
“We wanted the space to be a space we can play scenes in that evokes military barracks, practical space, community centers and refugee camps,” said Castañeda. “How do we tell a story where the characters are on the road? Some scenes are three minutes long or five minutes long, and we are plopped into space. Lots of what we tell the audience becomes normal for them. How we physically landed the production was of really grave importance.”
What is also of grave importance is representation. The significance of a play written by a first-generation Vietnamese-American playwright, led by a first-generation Mexican-American director, playing at a major regional theatre is not lost on Castañeda. He readily acknowledges the lack of administrators and producers of color amongst the League of Regional Theatres in the United States, and wants to do his part to change that.
And for the next seven weeks, Castañeda is ready to help tell an important immigrant story.
“This is my groove and work I like getting done. I love smart comedies that subvert racial stereotypes and present people of color in different circumstances.”
WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO
American Conservatory Theatre presents “Vietgone”
Written by Qui Nguyen
Directed by Jaime Castañeda
Through April 29th
Running time: two hours, 10 minutes with one intermission
The Strand Theater
1127 Market Street, San Francisco, CA
Tickets range from $25 – $90
For tickets, call (415) 749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org