On the surface a story detailing the journey of some Vietnamese immigrants as they escape the fall of Saigon in 1975 and land in a refugee camp in Arkansas, Vietgone is actually an irreverent, topsy-turvy, wild ride of a moving and engaging love story–in this case, a story based on how the playwright’s parents actually met. But as their story is told, Qui Nguyen keeps us guessing if Vietgone, which premiered in 2015, is also a romantic comedy, a sex-and-expletive-packed action adventure, a rap-and-rock-infused musical, a parody about recently arrived immigrants’ views of America, a tale of stark realism, or one closer to fantasy. The answer is yes to all.
City Lights Theater Company has assembled an absolutely sizzling, crackerjack cast of five under the incredibly imaginative and insightful direction of talented and wildly popular director (and playwright) Jeffrey Lo to stage a not-to-be-missed Vietgone. From the opening greetings to the audience of “What’s up, bitches? … Yo, there’s a whole lot of white people up there” to the final moments when holding back tears is almost impossible for cast or audience, Vietgone is a nonstop series of scenes that elicit a lot of laughter, many memories (especially for those of us in the baby boomer generation), and much re-thinking and re-evaluation about a war that most in the audience probably entered the theater with a low regard for and a desire to forget.
The plot of the story, if it were told in a normal timeline sequence, begins with two people who are among the last to escape Vietnam–each leaving behind someone who loves him or her. Quang, an eight-year South Vietnamese veteran of the war, reluctantly leaves a wife and two young kids he barely knows, while Tong escapes both the Viet Cong and a boyfriend who desperately wants to marry her but whom she only mildly likes. Quang and Tong meet in a refugee camp in Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, and have a hot time in bed together (many times), with seemingly no strings attached. Quang then convinces his best friend and fellow escapee Nhan to make what will be a life-changing trip across America on a motorcycle to head back to a family Quang isn’t sure are still alive in a country he has no clue if he can actually get back into safely.
It is that journey that begins the play, with bits of the story’s Vietnam and Arkansas bookends spliced in along the way in no particular order. Since we are warned before the play begins not to “repeat/retweet anything about my parents” in this “boy-meets-girl love story” by someone who identifies himself as The Playwright, we start to expect the story’s romantic, happy ending early on. However, it cannot be predicted how it will be told through Qui Nguyen’s eclectic, electrically charged script punctuated by the original rap songs of Shane Rettig. Our ride will be as wild as that of Quang and Nhan as they motor across the country and meet hippies, good ol’ boys, and even Ninja Turtles in exotic places like Amarillo, Oklahoma City, and Albuquerque.
Bay Area favorite Jomar Tagatac returns to a play he performed in at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theatre and Sacramento’s Capital Stage Company. As City Lights’ Quang, he is nothing short of stellar. His face is often a map of his own journey: the pain of loss of family, home, and country; the shock and anger of landing in a place where he does not want to be; the constant impatience and sheer determination to return at all costs to his family against the odds of doing so all remaining alive. His Quang longs for a home “where we were heroes, where we count for something” and is disgusted by this new country where “we aren’t worth shit.” His anguish is palpable when he moans, “Here I may be living, but I am not really alive.” When he turns to rap to expose his innermost anguish, repeatedly he defiantly chants, “However impossible this is, I’ll make it home.”
But there is one thing that causes Quang to look longingly over his shoulder back toward Arkansas as he heads west toward the California coast and hopefully on to Vietnam. That persistent tug on his heart is Tong, the thirty-year-old immigrant who was supposed to be only a quick, hot fling, but who became a good friend with benefits. And now, on Quang’s journey, his longing eyes say something more.
Vietgone runs through April 24, 2022, at City Lights Theater Company, 529 S. 2nd Street, San Jose CA. Patrons must show proof of full vaccination and must wear masks at all times inside the theater. For tickets and information, please visit cltc.org.
Read the full review by Eddie Reynolds for Talkin’ Broadway here.