Skillfully directed by Brian Balcom for its regional premiere at American Stage, “Vietgone” is a look at the Vietnam War from a South Vietnamese perspective. It artfully combines a drama, a sex-comedy, and an unconventional boy-meets-girl story to a hip-hop soundtrack. Think a Vietnamese “Hamilton” with rap and foul language peppered throughout the production.
Until experiencing “Vietgone,” I never thought about the other viewpoint. Envision having someone come to your country, fight beside you for your freedom for years, then retreat, only to apologize for ever being involved. Like a slap in the face, the message comes across that saving your life was a mistake. To many Americans, the immigrated Vietnamese were the ones we were fighting. Indistinguishable between the North or South, the “yellow people” were treated as second-class citizens.
IF YOU GO
‘Vietgone’ at American Stage.
Through Nov. 3. $44. American Stage, 63 3rd St. N., St. Petersburg. americanstage.org.
Starring Jeff Kim (Quang), Sami Ma (Tong), Jodi Kimura (Huong), Kenny Tran (Nhan), and Vi Tran (Bobby), “Vietgone” is a moving immigrant love story from a first-person perspective. Emotions in the play are grounded in reality, but the action that the characters take goes further than most display in their everyday lives. It’s a visually-heightened story about destiny, resilience, courageousness, and above all, finding love during the most challenging of times.
The playwright Qui Nguyen has a background in Marvel comics, so the stunning set designed by Jerid Fox utilizes Nguyen’s comic book style with minimal leveled set pieces. It allows visual projections by Fox, sound by assistant director Benjamin T. Ismail and engineer Diantre’ Butler, and lighting by Chris Baldwin to help transition the story from Vietnam to America as seamlessly as the set changes.
Before the play began, the playwright explained that although the show is set in 1975, if the story told by Quang and Tong sounds anything like his parents' story, it was purely coincidental. He said the Vietnamese actors won’t sound the way we’d expect. Tong came out and scanned the audience.
“Damn, there’s a lotta white people up in here,” she said, which is met with a wave of laughter.
Vietgone examines two very different sides of bravery. Quang leaves Vietnam against his will. He’s a South Vietnamese helicopter pilot and rescues dozens from the Fall of Saigon. Quang and his best friend Nhan are on the USS Midway. When Quang asks to return to his helicopter to save his wife and two children, the translator relays that his copter was pushed into the ocean to make way for incoming planes. Kim exceptionally evokes Quang’s feeling of helplessness, the frustration of being trapped. Upon his arrival at camp, he finds a motorcycle and fixes it up for a cross country journey to California accompanied by his best friend, Nhan. His goal is to take a plane and then a boat back to Vietnam.
Under the pretense of returning home with him, Nhan joins Quang on strange encounters (like when a racist on a motorcycle beats up Nhan). Quang rescues him, and gets embroiled in a fight sequence with ninjas; it’s a funny scene, but one that the playwright could have easily left out. They have their first experience with a burrito or, as Nhan says, “a fat spring roll” and smoke a joint with a pair of married, free-love hippies.
In truth, Nhan wants Quang to realize that death or internment camp awaits a South Vietnamese soldier upon his return to Vietnam. He wants him to let Quang’s wife move on without him. Nhan says, “… you’re dead. We all are. We died the moment the VC crossed Newport Bridge into Saigon, and you flew us the f— outta there to save us.”
On the other side, with only two plane tickets, Tong has voluntarily come to America, leaving behind her fiancé, her baby brother, and his girlfriend (but bringing her meddling mother, Huong). Kimura, as Huong, is hysterical. She uses silverware as chopsticks, complains about the food, refuses to learn English, and is entirely unimpressed with the accommodations at the barracks.
“This place is terrible,” she says. “Are we actually going to sleep in bunk beds? Bunk beds? When did we sprout penises and join the army…. I thought everything would be super-nice here in America. That’s sorta what they advertise.”
Tong seeks to move forward by learning the language and finding a foster family to help her find a job and her own place, integrating into the culture. She is a strong, stubborn woman with no intention of needing a man until Quang wakes her from a nightmare of her loved ones left behind. Upon waking, Tong suggests they have sex as she has no intention of falling in love.
The juxtaposition of Tong’s willingness to become Americanized and Quang’s desire not to is showcased in the first rap song together, “I’ll make it home.” Tong sings, “I’ll make this new place my homeland, home, I’ll make it home” and Quang counters, “I’ll make it back to my homeland.”
Despite her best attempts, the story evolves into their love story. While Tong and Quang provide the drama, it is Huong and Bobby that are the comedic gems in the production. Tran, in a blonde wig, plays the American soldier who speaks terrible, broken Vietnamese and is deeply enamored with Tong. He eventually convinces her to date him, but to his dismay, Quang returns from California to steal her away.
Tong counters, “I have a boyfriend,” to which Quang responds, “That’s cool. I have a wife.”
At the close of Vietgone, Tong and Quang are elderly, and their adult playwright son is interviewing his parents, writing their story, bringing the tale to an emotional full circle.
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