The American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco, or ACT, is featuring a play that is the first of its kind: it is a boy-meets-girl romantic comedy told through the lens of a Vietnamese immigrant. Qui Nguyen, playwright, based the script off his imaginings of his mother’s and father’s love story.
Ken Savage, the associate producer for the ACT, invited a broad audience to the first read-through of the script on January 23, 2018. Among the invited were our founder, Trami Cron, myself, and Dan and Jenny Do, co-creators of the San Jose Ao Dai Festival.
With bagels and refreshments, members of the production introduce themselves. The cast members hadn’t met before this day. The purpose of the meeting was to hear the input of members from the Vietnamese community and take their advice into account. Savage emphasized their goal of addressing the question: How can one sensitively talk about refugee-ism and war?
The play is set in 1975 in a refugee camp in Fort Chaffee in Arkansas. In an interview with the playwright, Nguyen expresses his longtime desire to write about his parents’ love story and what they went through coming to America, especially since they were always so hesitant to reveal it. He blended assumption with bits and pieces of unveiled truth with his immaturity to create this story. It is a memory play, but not his memory. First generation Vietnamese immigrants often don’t want to reveal these stories to their children, and this is his exploration of these buried truths.
Also within this interview, he explains his experience with Vietnamese stories often being told from a soldier’s perspective and felt a lack of comedy within these stories. He also kept his sixteen-year-old self in mind including modern music and dialogue relevant to his time.
Shami Chaikin, the music director, let us listen to a couple of samples. The song, “Home”, emphasized Nguyen’s vision for a modern, urban feel. With the jazz drums and saxophone transition to the piano, the song sounded very much like east coast hip-hop, akin to “A Tribe Called Quest" and "Nas.” There were no shortage of great beats and "flowery language," reflective of the hip-hop culture.
Vietnamese youths today relate to hip-hop. A common component of hip-hop and rap is its casual use of vulgar language. A few elders among the audience were taken aback by the cursing. Dan Do commented that it made him “feel old”, and he asked that it be clearly communicated that this is an imagining and not a recreation of real events. It was also observed the older generation may be turned off from this imagining. It is another question the production cast and crew will have to keep in mind: who is the intended audience, the elders or youth?
Per the director, Castaneda, this will be the same production with the same script as the premier show in Oregon in 2015, though some content will be specifically catered to the Bay Area Vietnamese community and culture. Natalia Duong, co-director and advisor, will determine what reads well and what is accurate for the Bay Area.
Castaneda explained the expository nature of the play was to make the story more understandable to the audience. A member of the audience wondered the political shade (tone or direction) of the play, to which he answered, “there is none; it is Qui’s [Nguyen] personal truth.” He described it as a “special place that feels alive...it’s a story in song...Qui envisioned it as a “rap pitter-pat.”
He also described the play as taking race and the representation of other ethnicities and debunking and flipping stereotypes, executed with intelligence, cunning wit, and humor. This wrestles with the collision of race. Chopsticks Alley's founder, Trami Cron, hopes the repetitive narratives of white men saving Asian female prostitutes from a lifetime of desperation will be gone forever and replaced by Vietgone. (In case you forgot, does Miss Saigon and Madama Butterfly jog your memory?).
Though this is an immigrant story set in the 70's, the set was made to reflect modern times. It’s urban, level, and “fun”, Castaneda explains, with the floor able to twist and turn, like a turntable. The set is also flexible with the other moods of the play; there is a balcony for the romantic scenes between Nguyen’s mother and father. There were boards with the set design laid out for the viewers; the use of polaroids evoked a sense of nostalgia. The graphic design of the 70s was also implemented with large, neon yellow letters. The costumes used drew inspiration from actual photographs posted on Pinterest for authenticity. The locations ranged from San Diego, California to Canada.
Though this play was written by a Vietnamese man with Vietnamese characters, only three individuals working on the play are Vietnamese: Natalia Duong (Assistant Director), Janelle Chu (photo on left, playing Tong), and Steven Ho (the understudy). Asian parents often push their children towards STEM, medical, or lawyer professions. With this play comes a new age, an age that accepts stories that deviate from the normal male, white perspective. We are in need of these stories of diversities and actors to fill them. If able, go see VietGone when it opens on February 21, 2018.
Here is a 50% discount code you can use towards a few premiere dates: ROADTRIP
Here is a glimpse from a few trailers from different productions of Vietgone.
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Keana A. Labra - Milpitas, CA
Keana is a student at San Jose State University majoring in English Literature and Animation Illustration. She would like to one day integrate her two loves in the form of visual storytelling. She is an avid reader and enjoys studying poetry, mythologies, and philosophical treatises. In her free time, she can be found reading comics, taking pictures, or watching movies. As an Asian American, she would like to shed light on feminist works in the Asian community.