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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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