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Flip the Script Friday: Qui Nguyen, Vietgone

It’s the second Friday of the year, and even though I’ve been pretty slack on Flip the Script Friday in the past, I’m committed to getting up more of these, and completing some older ones that still remain incomplete. Or getting rid of them entirely.

Maybe I should just start a Flip the Script blog. That’s a blog no one will read.

Anyway, because I am a selfish human, but a selfish human who recognizes the excellence of a good script, here’s my take on Vietgonea play with music by the ever-talented Qui Nguyen.

Vietgone Poster
Image Credit: Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, royalmtc.ca

Basics

Vietgone premiered on 4 October 2015 at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, California, USA.

Characters

  • Quang Nguyen – Handsome young Vietnamese pilot for the American army during the Vietnam War, 20s.
  • Tong Thi Tran – Sexy and strong-willed Vietnamese refugee, 20s.
  • Huong – Tong’s outspoken, critical, but flirtatious mother, 60s.
  • Nhan– Quang’s best friend. Boisterous but also sometimes more cautious, 20s.
  • Bobby– American soldier, white, 20s.
  • American Girl, American Guy, Asian Girl, Asian Guy, Captain Chambers, Flower Girl, Giai, Hippie Dude, Khue, Ninjas, Playwright, Protestors, Redneck Biker, Thu, Translator – Minor characters, played alternately by the actors who play Huong, Nhan, and Bobby.

Setting/Plot

1975, across America, but mostly in Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, with a few scenes in Vietnam. After a brief, presentational introduction by “the playwright”(he’ll be important later), two parallel plots occur. First, Quang and Nhan are driving on a motorcycle across America from Arkansas to California, with hopes of reuniting Quang with his wife and kids left behind in Vietnam (“Blow ‘Em Up”). Meanwhile, Tong and her mother Huong escape Vietnam, ending up in Fort Chaffee, where Tong plans to start over (“Gonna Start Again”). As Tong realizes how America’s not all that it seems, and Quang is forced to leave Vietnam for the USA, their distaste for their situations grow (“I’ll Make It Home”). Flashing back to the road trip to California, again, Quang finds solace in the drugs of the times (“Mary Jane”) before arriving home, where he squares off against his new acquaintance Tong as Act I ends. Act II rewinds to the scene where Quang and Nhan are doing drugs with a hippie couple, whose comments cause Quang to suddenly reexamine his own situation (“Lost a Brother”), and then we fast-forward again to where we left Quang and Tong at the end of Act I. We see Quang and Tong’s relationship “develop,” as it were, with a few more flashbacks to Quang’s trip and Tong’s life in Vietnam, and then we see the plots meet up: Quang tells Tong of his plans to drive a motorcycle across the country to California, to catch a plane back to Vietnam, and Tong tells Quang her plans to leave Fort Chaffee and move in with a foster family, and they part (“I Don’t Give A Shit”). Back in California, Quang realizes the mistake he’s making, so he returns to Fort Chaffee for Tong. In the final scene, we fast forward again, to the present, where an older Quang is being interviewed by his son, “the playwright.” A few gaps in the story are filled in, and then (presumably), the telling of Quang’s story begins…

Major Themes

My Prerogative

This play is all about perspective. From scene to scene, we never really know if what we’re seeing is accurate, and who’s telling the story – Quang, Tong, or the playwright. You sort of wonder where this is all going – the jumps in location, the forwards and backwards of time, the minor characters, the singing – but each scene adds a piece to the puzzle which is life for Vietnamese refugees in America during and after the war, and their identities (and those of their children, as we see with the playwright). I think that this theme of what’s real and what’s not really reflects the Vietnam War to a T; Americans weren’t hearing the real story when it was happening, and decades later, the children/grandchildren of refugees get one account of the war from their families who lived through it, and another version from an American-made history textbook in school.

What We Have Here…Is A Failure To Communicate

Going off the last theme of the nebulousness of the historiography of the Vietnam War, the lapses and irregularities in communication are also key to understanding the gestalt  of Vietgone. No Vietnamese is spoken in the play – only English – but the way that Nguyen chooses to have the characters express themselves is worth mentioning. From the very beginning, Nguyen tells the audience outright that the way to discern which characters are Vietnamese and which characters are American is that the Americans will be the ones speaking broken, stilted English (“Yee-haw! Git ‘er done! Cheeseburger, waffle fries, cholesterol!”). This draws on stereotype, but not in the way you might expect it to; rather, this reversal allows the audience to imagine the perspective (see above) of the Vietnamese characters who tell this story. Even Bobby, the American soldier, only speaks grammarlessly (“Town good food. Bring you can I.”) illustrating the lack of attention paid by the Americans to the very people they are supposed to be helping. The song breaks are very interesting; even though they’re inconsistent, they’re very telling of the characters’ inner thoughts. Which is what they’re designed to do, but it comes out in rap, which you wouldn’t expect from a play that mostly takes place in the disco and country-western era. My favorites are Tong’s “Gonna Start Again,” which really packs a punch and shows the gathers-no-moss, takes-no-prisoners attitude of the character, and Quang’s “Lost a Brother” which shows a vulnerability to this buff, tough guy dragging his friend around the country on a motorcycle. It’s not a traditional use of music in a play, but then again, nothing about this play is traditional.

A Sign of the Times

Usually, I stick with two major themes, but I wanted to discuss a third: time. After seeing this play and reading the script several times through, it took me some time to wrap my head around the timeline of events. For some people, this would be a major headache, but for me, it helped me make discoveries about the characters, and why they acted in the ways that they did – why Quang seemed to be living in his own world one minute and down on the ground in the next, and why Tong was so jaded and angry at the world. This definitely makes it a play that’s better when performed than just read, which is what it’s meant for, obviously, but I think that if I saw it again now, I would notice some very different things than I did the first time around.

My Thoughts

I saw Vietgone  last year in Minneapolis, with a good friend of mine in the role of Quang (he did really excellent work, by the way) and loved the whole experience. The theatre chose surtitles for the location changes (smart move) and had amazing sound/lighting effects. But as far as the script goes, despite the blurriness of the timeline, and the confusing minor characters, it’s fun, it’s fresh, it’s meaningful, and it’s just so different from what’s out there today. I wish that I could see this play again, somewhere, sometime, because it really deserves to be seen and analyzed by more people. This would be a really fun script for a round table read-and-study session. I feel like it would be hard to use this play in something like an intro curriculum, but it would fit into something on theatre from multi-ethnic American voices, which is a syllabus that I now have to create.

How I’d Flip It

The production I saw was pretty fantastic, and as I read the script, all I could imagine was what I saw on stage in Minneapolis. A traditional proscenium arrangement would still probably be the only way I could see it happening; I feel like a thrust stage would make it too pageant-y, and in the round, it would feel too claustrophobic. This is also a play which requires an all-Asian cast, without question. One thing I would love to see would be a brick wall as a backdrop, rather than the black scrim that the theatre in Minneapolis utilized. I don’t know why I feel this way, especially since this play isn’t urban at all. Maybe, actually, what I’m imagining, is something in the way of – fortifications or something. Something to reflect both the physical war in Vietnam, and the continuation of the war in cultural terms, between races and between generations (Tong/Huong, Quang/Playwright). The production I saw did not use much camo, if any, and I feel like those are the colors that I see, maybe with some red and yellow for the flag of Vietnam, but nothing too disco/flashy.

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“Yes! We Have No Bananas”: A Tale of Public Domain

I’m sure most of you know what the term public domain means: works including books, plays, films, stories, and music, among other things, which are beyond the limits of their copyright, meaning that they can be freely adapted by others for different projects without any payment to an individual or organization for the rights to the material. Things in the public domain are those that have been around for centuries, such as the works of Plato, Shakespeare, and Jane Austen.

Different countries have different copyright laws, but the most universal rule is that a work becomes public domain on January 1 of the seventieth year after the creator’s death. Due to some adjustments in American copyright law, there hasn’t been a January 1 “Public Domain Day” for a while, but in 2019, that rule expired for works published in 1923, which include The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran, Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, and the ever popular standard “Yes! We Have No Bananas.”

Image result for yes we have no bananas
Credit: wikipedia.org

Despite this hullabaloo of excitement over all this new material, 2019 also marks 70 years since 1949. So, I thought that I’d look up some of the lesser-known folks who kicked the bucket in 1949, to see whose work you can freely adapt. So you don’t have to.

Vyacheslav Ivanov (1866-1949)

Born in Russia, Ivanov was a poet of the Russian Symbolist movement who traveled the world, and earned degrees from schools in Germany and Italy. He is known for his theatre theory, in which he compared Dionysus to Christ, arguing that arts were a “utopia” which could bring religious belief back to a skeptical society, although he eventually turned to mysticism himself. He wrote several books of sonnets, but his two plays Tantalus (1905) and Prometheus (1919) look the most tantalizing.

Elin Pelin (1877-1949)

Born Dimitar Ivanov Stoyanov in Bulgaria, he is known as a “narrator of Bulgarian country life.” His pen name came from pelin, meaning “wormwood,” an homage to his rustic roots. In addition to writing, he was also a librarian and a museum curator. His genre of choice was children’s literature, but his novel The Gerak Family  (1911) is about a Bulgarian country family dealing with the rapidly modernizing world. I feel like it could become something fish-out-of-water-y, like a family-based reality show type of deal. Not quite Breaking Amish, but more like a fun, sitcom type thing, like The Middle with a pinch more reality. Sorta.

Elisheva Bikhovski (1888-1949)

Bikhovski was a Russian-born Christian writer who strongly identified with the Jewish culture. Known in her writing by the mononym “Elisheva,” she eventually immigrated to Israel, where she spent the rest of her life translating texts between English, Hebrew, and Russian, and teaching at a progressive school. She wrote her Futurist poetry and short stories in Hebrew. Despite achieving moderate success in the literary world and embarking on tours of Europe, she died in poverty, working as a librarian and a laundress. Her 1929 novel Alleys takes place in 1920s Moscow’s bohemian scene, where men and women, Jewish and Christian, mingle and contemplate a new, post-revolution Russia. A modern-day adaptation might look like New Girl, although I’m not sure how nicely “quirky and adorkable” and “post-Czarist Russia” coincide.

Of note: the three authors I just mentioned wrote in Russian, Bulgarian, and Hebrew, respectively, so unless you speak any of those languages, any English translation is probably under some kind of copyright, although you might be able to wheedle your way around that.

The next three writers on the list, however, wrote in English, so bombs away.

Rex Beach (1877-1949)

This guy’s life is a best-seller in itself. Beach was born in Michigan but raised in Florida where his father grew fruit trees. After graduating from law school in Chicago, he got a case of gold fever and headed for Alaska in 1900. Unsuccessful in panning for gold, he turned to writing. (But first, in 1904, he scored a silver medal for the USA as a part of the water polo team at the St. Louis Olympics.) Beach’s books mostly centered are life in the wilds of Alaska. His most popular novel, 1906’s The Spoilers, about gold miners and corrupt government officials in Nome, was adapted for the screen five times, so maybe that’s not the prime candidate for redoing, but some other interesting titles of his include Too Fat to Fight,  The Goose Woman, and Oh, Shoot. The end of his life was no less dramatic, as he shot himself in his home in Sebring, Florida, at age 72, and when the house was being remodeled in 2005, the bullet that killed him was still embedded into the wall. Final fun fact: he and his wife are buried on the campus of Rollins College, as he was the first president of the college’s alumni association.

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Christmas Casual

It’s been a busy month, but now that I have a moment to breathe, I would like to take this opportunity to record an observation. Not really a rant, if you will, but more of a “why?”

So, today, I flew from Baltimore (where I spent 6 days visiting my parents) to Dallas, TX and then on to Austin, TX for APO Nationals, which start in 2 days so I have no idea why I am here other than a cheap flight. Well, that is a pretty good reason. It’s also Christmas, as most of the world knows (and if you don’t believe me, just go to http://www.isitchristmas.com) and I feel like every year, it gets a little crazier.

I’ve flown on Christmas Day before, but let me tell you. Once I cleared security (wearing my brown coat, gray quarter-zip sweatshirt, and jeans) all of a sudden, everywhere, it was…

RED. GREEN. RED. GREEN. SHINY. SHINY. PLAID. FLANNEL. CANDY CANES. RED. GREEN. SHINY. GREEN. RED.

It was like stepping into a bizarre world where everyone wears one color and looks like idiots. I saw flight attendants with floppy Santa hats, parents and children in matching onesies, and other items of clothing that would look more appropriate in an L.L. Bean catalog than an airport. I mean, there’s festive, but then there’s ridiculous. Do you really need that shiny hat? When you are wearing red plaid pajamas in public, what are you really telling the world? Are you an adult, a child, or just trying to fit in? Children get a pass on this one; under a certain age, they don’t get to choose what they wear for the most part, but seeing entire families marching around the airport in matching flannel hoodies with reindeer antlers makes me wonder if any of these people looked in a mirror before entering the house.

When I got off the plane in Dallas, it was the same deal, but once I left the airport in partly cloudy and 71-degree Austin, it was back to summer winter and Christmas who. At least I got to meet up with Sarah for dinner at a vegan place, and took a walk down 6th Street in attempt to find an open store (which I did!) to purchase a Coke, a pastry, and a comb.

But for all of you out there who wear matching flannel plaid Christmas pajamas outside of your house…please, reconsider. Freedom of religion good, freedom of fashion choices even better.

And that’s why we should all go back to dressing up in formal attire for air travel.

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Flip the Script Friday: Qui Nguyen, She Kills Monsters

Last Friday I was on my way to Minneapolis for APO Region Rally (the very last one), followed by a quick weekend jaunt to Baltimore for a wedding, but I’ve been reading some plays recently, so I wanted to get back in the groove of Flip the Script Friday. Here comes the first of 2 Qui Nguyen plays I’ve read recently, the fantastic fantasy that is She Kills Monsters.

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When Life Gets You Down…Monologue

Real talk.

October has been a more difficult month for me than I thought. One of the most difficult months of my life, in fact. I won’t go into any more details, but I will share with you one way I dealt with it.

Last night, I was awake at 2 AM. Still fully dressed, still fully stressed, and I just wanted to scream at the world.

Then, I thought to myself…where have I heard that phrase before? And then I realized…

It’s from a monologue in Anna Deavere Smith’s Fires in the Mirror.

So, I immediately tore up my apartment looking for my copy, and eventually found the monologue I was looking for in an anthology.

And there I was, whatever-past-two in the morning, sitting on the floor of my living room, leaning against my couch, loudly reciting a monologue called “The Coup” as loudly as I could. It got me out of my head for a bit, and I actually enjoyed myself. I followed it up by pulling my copy of bash off the shelf and reading iphigenia in orem, then rounded out the night by sitting on my bed and reading a humorous monologue out loud.

Then I went back to reality.

It was an unusual attempt at self-care, but not an unwelcome one. I would recommend.