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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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Pushing the Envelope

Today, I went to a Vietnamese restaurant for lunch. I hadn’t been there before. The food, though overpriced, was good, but my waitress?

Pushiest waitress ever.

She shows me to a table, and gives me about eight seconds before asking me what I want. It takes me a little while to look over the menu, so eventually she gets the picture and leaves me alone for a few minutes. She comes back and takes my order, and the food is there before I know it. I’m kind of taking my time; the place advertises free WiFi, so I’m having fun on Facebook and taking a bite every minute or so, in no rush.

After a little while (not sure how long), the waitress comes over and asks if I want a box.

WTF?

I have like half my meal left, and since there are about five other occupied tables in this twenty-table restaurant, you’ve been basically watching me take my time in eating. So I politely tell her that I’m working on it still, but if she needs to get me out, I can pick it up. She says no, go ahead.

But a few minutes later, she’s back again, offering a box. I guess I can’t say she isn’t persistent.

Before she comes back a third time, I dump the remainder of the rice onto my tofu plate and eat a little quicker, so at least when she arrives with the check, I have an empty dish to give her, like giving a toy to a toddler to distract them.

I finish pretty quickly, pay, and up and leave without saying much.

Okay, I would’ve understood if there were a line or something, but the place was practically 3/4 empty, and nowhere near closing time. So what’s the rush, Mary Lou?

 

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How Do You Pronounce Your Name, In Your Country?

Today, I hosted the sixth and final film in this year’s Madison Israeli Film Festival. It was a Sunday matinee showing of the 2012 film Foreign Letters by Israeli Filmmaker Ela Thier.

A still from the film

The film takes place in the USA in 1982 and centers around Ellie, a young girl who has recently emigrated from Israel to America with her family. She struggles, but is curious to learn about this strange new place called America where supermarkets give away bags for free and schools have libraries and cafeterias. While at school, she befriends Thuy, a girl who has moved from Vietnam to America with her family several years prior, due to the war. The girls have an unlikely friendship but bond over being outsiders in an America that is predominantly white and English-speaking. Their close friendship is tested by Ellie’s self-proclaimed “boyfriends,” Thuy’s shy and protective nature, and ultimately, betrayal, when Ellie spills one of Thuy’s secrets. But the film ends on a happy note, when Ellie makes a sacrifice in order to win her friend back.

After the film, I gave a short speech and invited some students from our school’s Vietnamese Student Association to the front of the room, where they talked about their lives and their different connections with their own Vietnamese culture and heritage. The two members of the group who were born in Vietnam (including one who just arrived in America this past year for school) wore spectacular Vietnamese outfits called ao dai just like Ellie and Thuy wear in the film when they are dancing together on the rooftop of Thuy’s apartment building. They gave a really solid presentation about Vietnamese culture and traditions, connecting it to things that we saw in the movie, such as Vietnamese clothing, food, and family values.

We had a small crowd, of only about 40 people, but I think any more than that would’ve been overwhelming. After their presentation, they took questions from the audience. All in all, it was a really fun event and I got more than a few compliments from people who attended and those who worked at Hillel.

From the moment I read the description of the movie, I had to see it, and after the first time I saw it, I knew I wanted to see it again and that I wanted to be the host for this one (there were six students on the film committee, each of us hosted a different night) because I love films that have a happy ending but still an urban, gritty atmosphere. Life is awkward sometimes and watching Foreign Letters again helped me feel like even though I’m an awkward person, I’m not alone. I also feel like this film really shied away from stereotypes, and showed a slice of life, something real. The Jewish/Israeli perspective was spot on, and I hope that the Vietnamese perspective was shown accurately, which I think it was. This film is definitely among my all-time favorites.

And of course, there’s the background soundtrack, featuring the fabulous vocals of Chava Alberstein. Watch the trailer here:

Oh, and welcome to my newest country, Latvia (laipni lūdzam!). Maybe I’ll get my first blog hit from Vietnam?

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Sign of a Bright Future?

I mentioned conspiracy theories today in a conversation with someone, so I’d like to address another that recently came into my mind, both while shopping at Marshalls and then later when I was bored because of course, I have a million things that I have to do but end up slacking on.

Sunglasses.

I never liked sunglasses growing up, because I had actual glasses and could never wear real-person sunglasses until I was a teenager and contact lenses saved me from hating myself forever. I kind of have a thing for really funky, almost girly sunglasses, but never granny glasses, never. Actually, I really like the free plastic ones they give away at events – I have one on my dining room table that says “I ❤ ISRAEL” on the side – but I’m a little too old to be wearing them in public and be taken seriously at the same time. Ever since I moved to a very sunny place (Houston) followed by a place that’s not sunny but when it is, it’s blinding due to the snow (Madison), so sunglasses have been nice for things like driving and walking and avoiding eye contact with certain people. Sunglasses are also probably useful in Vietnam and Guyana, the two newest countries on my traffic (welcome!) There are so many cool kinds out there, and they’re usually pretty cheap.

The problem?

Every time I buy sunglasses, just as I start to really love them, they either a) break, or b) disappear. Usually it’s the first one.

I could give you a rundown of every single pair of sunglasses that I ever bought, but suffice it to say that they’ve been stepped on, sat on, crushed in a bag, and of course, forgotten somewhere. It’s almost to the point of laughter – every time I’ve taken a big trip, my sunglasses have been the first thing to go. I lost them early on in Ecuador, someone sat on them when we got to Slovakia, and I sat on them my first day in Israel. Occasionally I acquire new ones before the trip is out, but usually, I wait until I’m like “gee, now that was a situation where sunglasses would have been helpful, and I didn’t have them.” And then I get them, start to really like them, wear them everywhere, only to have something happen to them. And since the cheapest ones at the west side Marshalls (yes, I actually went to both) were over $15, I think that I have solid proof that I have, indeed, purchased and lost/broken all the $10 and under sunglasses in the world.

Anyway.

Just bought soap.