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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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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.

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Flip the Script Friday: Black Lives, Black Words – Part II

Picking up this book again and reading through some of the plays is like…scripts flipping themselves, with a vengeance.

There’s been so much anger these past few weeks, and it’s been more than just race. Everywhere from on our screens to in the streets, women are under attack. It’s the Women’s March of 2017 all over again…

…but this time, they’re fighting back.

Two plays from Black Lives, Black Words that I read this afternoon exemplify the struggles of both race and gender, and go about them in very different ways.

First, in, Officer Friendly by Rachel DuBose, we see an alarming image of racial discrimination and gender bias smashed up against one another like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in a trash compacter. In eight stop-motion-like scenes, we see the full range of feeling from Nina, a black woman, in an encounter with white male “Officer Friendly,” as he is known, at a bus stop. In the blink of an eye, the scene shifts from active suspicion of Nina, to the officer evading all of Nina’s logical and appropriate questions, to an attempt to cajole a false confession out of Nina, to a “mind if I stand here with you?” which turns into a “my you’re pretty,” which turns into a “let me protect you.” That was a long sentence, but as Nina gets on the bus, it’s a giant sigh of relief. In Call and Response by Becca C. Browne, the characters are all female and African-American, but the pain and oppression is still present. A seven-year-old girl approaches Claire, who is sitting in Chicago’s Millennium Park, feeding the birds. Their conversation begins with the girl asking Claire why she is not attending the march. As Claire reveals the facts, that her sister Della was murdered by a police officer, the girl mysteriously echoes her words – as if she has experienced this exact same moment before. As Claire is just about to ask the girl her name, along comes Brianna, a protester, who is leading a call-and-response chant about Aiyana Stanley-Jones, a seven-year-old girl who was murdered. When Claire learns this, she is immediately inspired to join the march, along with the girl, who reveals that she is Aiyana Stanley-Jones, and asks Claire to say her name.

My Thoughts: Although these two plays probably don’t go together in anyway, it feels like they should. DuBose’s play takes a tense situation that happens all too often and all too quickly and slows it down, beat by beat, whereas Browne’s play is a notably calmer atmosphere which is more surreal, but escalates to a frenzied chant. Rhythm and cadence is something that we take for granted, but in these two short pieces, I can see how time can be played with and manipulated for the purposes of showing what’s really there.

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Flip the Script Friday: Black Lives, Black Words – Part I

I think this has been my longest blog hiatus since I began it back in 2013. July and August really came and went fast for me. On July 31, I submitted chapter 3 of my dissertation, and on August 1, I left for my 9th ATHE, in Boston. I spent four days catching up with friends, making new ones, and participating in the activities of the conference. I stayed in Boston a few days longer to visit with my grand-big Dan, and he took me to Maine for the very first time, where we saw the beaches of Ogunquit and Kennebunkport, and had dinner in Portland – now I’ve been to every state east of the Mississippi. Only seven more states to go – anyone up for a trip to North Dakota, South Dakota, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Oregon, or Hawaii?

I’ve spent most of August trying to figure things out for the fall. I’m going to be teaching COMM ARTS 100 – Intro to Speech and Composition. I’m (hopefully) going to finish the final 2 chapters of my dissertation in the next 2 or 3 months. I’m also going to be considering my post-graduation options, probably going on the job market, and just figuring out life and stuff in general.

I have missed y’all and the blog, so what better time to start back up than the present, with everyone’s favorite, Flip the Script Friday – with a twist. Politics have been crazier than ever, especially this summer, and with no signs of it slowing down, I thought – what kinds of thoughts can I contribute, in my own little way? A friend of mine is starting a blog about playwrights of color. Rather than copy her idea, I’m modifying FTS (what a cool new acronym!) for the near future to focus on this fantastic book of short plays I’ve found in the library. The book is entitled Black Lives, Black Words and was published in 2017 by Oberon Books, with Reginald Edmund as editor. It is part of an international project to increase black visibility in the theatre, and includes some really poignant scripts. Rather than flip the scripts, I’m going to write up short synopses of some the pieces in the book and share some of my thoughts. I’ve only read the first few, but hopefully I’ll be able to fit the rest of the book among my regular, non-research reading and write more. And now, here is the first of the plays from the book I’ll be reviewing:

#Matter by Idris Goodwin

Synopsis: A conversation on race emerges over Facebook between acquaintances Kim (black) and Cole (white). In response to Kim’s post of “a hashtag and three words,” Cole posts “a hashtag and three words.” The conversation becomes more and more explosive and acrimonious, from scientific to personal, with an unexpectedly sad ending.

My Thoughts: Goodwin really lays it all out there, and concisely summarizes both sides of an argument in a way that comes off as individual and thoughtful rather than preachy and trite. Both Kim and Cole feel victimized by prejudice AND guilty of it at the same time, for different reasons. I feel like it’s like a high-five where the hands just completely miss each other. Both characters speak valid points – sometimes they listen, but they do a lot of talking past each other. What’s really intriguing, though, is the playwright’s continual return to the phrase “perfect star,” – as if that’s a third race.

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Flip the Script Friday: Tim Kelly, The Uninvited

And after a month way too busy for words (as evidenced by the lack of entries), I’m back. I don’t know how much I’ll be posting, but it’s Friday the 13th, so I thought it would be appropriate to bring back Flip the Script Friday with a selection from 13 Plays of the Ghosts and the Supernatural. Today’s selection? The Uninvited by Tim Kelly.

The Uninvited Logo

Photo credit: Somerset Valley Players

The Basics

The Uninvited is based on a novel by Dorothy Macardle. It was made into a movie in 1944. Interesting facts (about the movie): the screenplay was written in part by Dodie Smith, and it was apparently “the first movie to deal with ghosts as entities rather than illusions or misunderstandings.”

Characters

  • Stella Meredith, an 18-year-old who owns a country house, for some reason.
  • Commander Brooke, her grandfather.
  • Pam, a woman who, along with her brother, looks at Stella’s house and eventually buys it.
  • Roddy, Pam’s brother
  • Lizzie Flynn, their maid. She’s Irish, but for some reason I pictured her as a sassy black lady like Leslie Jones. She has the best lines.
  • Wendy, an actress and medium who is a friend of Pam and Roddy’s.
  • Max, a painter and friend of Pam and Roddy’s.
  • Mrs. Jessup, a nosy neighbor.
  • Dr. Scott, a doctor of some sort.
  • Miss Holloway, Stella’s nurse who is incredibly creepy.

Setting/Plot

A house on a cliff in Cliff End (western England), “the present.” Keep in mind that this play was written in the 1940s. The entire play takes place in the drawing room of a country house. Stella is selling the house, against her grandfather’s wishes, to Pam and Roddy, who come with their sassy maid, Lizzie Flynn, AKA the true star of the show. Weird things happen right from the start, when Pam feels a chill in a random part of the room. Strange goings-on at their housewarming prompt the four friends (Pam, Roddy, Max, and Wendy) to investigate the mysterious deaths of Stella’s parents, Llewellyn (a painter), and Mary (whose portrait hangs above the fireplace), at the possible hands of Carmel, a Spanish woman who lived with them as well, when Stella was a baby. Wendy leads the group in a seance, which brings some spiritual activity, eventually revealing some truths about the Meredith family. Oh, and in the end, Pam suggests that Roddy write a play about everything that’s happened, which is a major eye-roll moment.

Major Themes

Lights, Smells and Sounds

A creepy old house wouldn’t be complete without flickering lights, odd smells, and random noises. In this case, the light is a night-light that comes from the nursery where Stella was raised, in addition to a weird glow around the portrait of Mary; the smell is that of a distinctive mimosa; and the sounds of crying, and a music box. The spirits are very much present, possibly linked through their artifacts, despite no one in the Meredith family currently residing in the house.

Art and Soul

The centerpiece of the play is a painting of Mary Meredith, the former matriarch of the Meredith family who died mysteriously, and whose painting Pam desperately wants to give Stella. Commander Brooke, for some reason, staunchly refuses that it be moved, to which I’m like…wow, it’s not even your house so stop micromanaging. Many of the arts are represented, including theatre (Wendy, an actress); literary (Roddy, a writer), and visual arts (Max is a painter. We never really find out what Pam does for a living). Wendy, Roddy, and Max have the most in common with the spirits. Although it’s Wendy who leads the seance and gets possessed, and Max who recognizes the woman in the mysterious sketch Roddy and Pam find in the house, it’s Roddy who eventually faces the spirits head-on.

How I’d Flip It

It seems like a pretty interesting living room drama, akin to Blithe Spirit. It would need some retooling in order to see it in “the present,” but it might work. The special effects would be fun to work with, especially with the color blue, and the very descriptive scene where Stella sneaks into the house and communicates with the spirits of the dead, in a very Poltergeist “they’re here” moment.

The Last Word

Of course, Lizzie Flynn has the best line of the play:

LIZZIE: What sort of heathen mischief are you up to now?

WENDY: We’re hoping to make contact. (LIZZIE looks grim).

LIZZIE: With whom, may I ask?

MAX: Mary Meredith, we think.

LIZZIE: (Dubious) She’s going to come out from wherever she is and talk to you, is that it?

WENDY: It doesn’t happen that way…

LIZZIE: I wouldn’t know.

WENDY: The spirit will spell out things with the glass.

LIZZIE: What if the spirit don’t know how to spell? (Knock at the front door. LIZZIE is cynical about WENDY’s efforts.) Maybe that’s Mary Meredith. (she exits)

Image result for leslie jones ronda banks

Photo credit: Bella Bronson/Getty Images

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Flip the Script Friday: Howard Brenton, #aiww: The Arrest of Ai Weiwei

Today’s Flip the Script Friday comes from my play collection. Here’s a contemporary play about a controversial and misunderstood real figure – the late Ai Weiwei of China. Accordingly, this play is called #aiww: The Arrest of Ai Weiwei, by Howard Brenton.

Basics

#aiww: The Arrest of Ai Weiwei by Howard Brenton, based on Ai Weiwei’s account in “The Hanging Man” by Barnaby Martin, premiered at London’s Hampstead Theatre on 11 April 2013.

Characters

  • Ai Weiwei
  • Airport Official
  • First Police Guard/First Army Guard
  • Second Police Guard/Second Army Guard
  • “Minder”, an interrogator
  • “Professor”, an interrogator
  • “Sportsman”, an interrogator
  • Thin Young Man, a recorder
  • and B, high officials in Zhongnanhai
  • Other policemen and security men

Setting/Plot

2011, Beijing Airport. Ai Weiwei, a Chinese artist, is about to fly to Taipei, when he is detained by officials for questioning, and subsequently held captive for 81 days.