Review: ACT’s ‘Vietgone’ a brilliant, thrilling ride

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The biker (Jomar Tagatac, left) gives a one-finger salute to both Nhan (Stephen Hu, middle) and Quang (James Seol) in “Vietgone” at the Strand Theater in San Francisco. (Kevin Berne photo)

There is a powerful moment between the Playwright and his father, a moment that speaks volumes about their relationship. The father Quang, who was part of the April 1975 fall of Saigon, relocated to a refugee camp in Arkansas shortly after. Quang, like many of his country men and women, understood the casualties of war. Not because it was read in a book, or seen in a film, but lived.

The powerful moment came when the Playwright reminded his father that the Vietnam War was known historically as an abject failure, one of the great mistakes in military history.

This infuriated his father. “When your house is on fire and you lose everything,” his father thundered, “you do not want to hear from your neighbor that moving into the house was mistake in first place.”

A poignant moment in a play loaded with them, a reminder that the war for many was not a nine-volume documentary or a Broadway play based on an Italian opera.

“Vietgone” by Qui Nguyen, running through April 29th at American Conservatory Theatre is so fresh, exciting, irreverent, crude and critical. It is masterful in the way it is loaded with ingredients that don’t seem to fit when looking at the separate pieces, but in the context of the play, are thrilling.

The story follows the characters Quang (a fantastic, rangy turn by James Seol) and Tong (strong and sassy Jenelle Chu), who 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 play does not move in a linear fashion, and one of the most brilliant aspects of its construction is how it blends multiple genres and styles, anachronistic and otherwise. Directed with a sharp, steady hand by Jaime Castañeda on a wildly inventive scenic design by Brian Sidney Bembridge, the play is responsible for covering vast expanses of the United States, ultimately landing in the home of Quang and Tong.

Aside from Quang and Tong, Jomar Tagatac, Cindy Im and Stephen Hu cover 16 roles, including every biker, racist, flower child, hippie and naval captain Quang comes across through their motorcycle trek towards California, along with his buddy Nhan (Hu).

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Huong (Cindy Im) holds her daughter Tong (Jenelle Chu). (Kevin Berne photo)

Nguyen’s play is loaded with many whimsical elements and an interesting take on perspectives. Characters who are American speak a certain way, where captains say things like “Whoop whoop, fist bump. Mozzarella sticks, tator tot, french fry,” which translates to, “You should be very proud. You saved many lives today. Congratulations.”

The rap music in this play, which was composed by Los Angeles-based DJ Shammy Dee, is brilliant in the sense that the lyrics, spit out in breakneck speed by the characters, get out so much information, anxiety, hope, anger and defiance which continues to inform the story. Take these lyrics from Quang, which shares his feelings with a visceral passion:

“I’m broken, but unbreakable Defeated/yet undefeatable
Unstoppable ‘gainst the impossible
I’ll get home however implausible
Just watch me – unfazeable
My tenacity’s unwaverable
My love for my kids and Saigon – Indestructible.”

What Nguyen has done with this show is create a world which is hilarious yet hunkers down with a revealing and succinct passion when it must. It doesn’t just reveal the immigrant experience in the new land that doesn’t want them, but the old land that was taken from them. There are those who have been left behind, but they sometimes return in the horrors of a dream.

Playwright’s dad warns him about writing just a funny play. This play, however funny it is, functions on so many brilliant levels. It is in fact laugh-out-loud funny. How can you not love Im’s many characters, which include the foul-mouthed, sex-starved mother who we later learn is more than just a wise-cracking ball of comic relief. Her arc speaks so strongly to a mother’s loss as she was forced from one world to another, the horrors coming through her soul and revealed to the universe with breakneck precision.

I cannot stress enough the importance of a story such as “Vietgone.” As a San Jose resident, a city that boasts the largest Vietnamese population in the country, two times bigger than the next city on the list, we see evidence of the Vietnamese diaspora daily. A play such as this one gives critical and cultural perspectives and allows us to examine the horrors and collateral damage of the Vietnam war through the eyes of a second-generation child of Vietnamese immigrants. But we also see a beauty and perseverance from this community, a perseverance that this nation was built on.

The power of Nguyen’s words and the perspective he shares, playful, angry or otherwise, is a gift, so necessary, and hopefully another boost to continue giving marginalized communities a greater voice on the American stage.

What a wonderful play.

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 Word: A play that is so varied, with all the disparate elements brilliantly interwoven, and a thrilling, magical ride.
Stars: 5 out of 5
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

One Reply to “Review: ACT’s ‘Vietgone’ a brilliant, thrilling ride”

  1. This is a fantastic play, well performed by the cast. Playwright Qui Nguyen pulled off the marvelous trick of throwing together a whole bunch of things that shouldn’t work together and making it fit together perfectly by the powerful, understated conclusion.

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