Quote of the Day: A great deal of learning happens when we allow ourselves to be uncomfortable and experience a different point of view. Mina Morita, director of Vietgone by Qui Nguyen, on stage at the Guthrie Theater through October 16, 2022.
Vietgone is a Vietnamese refugee story, a war story, and above all a love story. The play opens with actor Viet Vo welcoming us to the show as playwright Qui Nguyen, assuring us that “this is not my parents’ story,” although, it is, and an admonition, “If you see them, don’t tell them about the play.”
Then, the lights change, the backdrop becomes a vibrant display of color, giving the feel of movement in a video, as Quang (Hyunmin Rhee) pops out riding a motorcycle with sidekick Nhan (Eric Sharp) riding behind. They are riding from a refugee camp in Fort Chaffee, Arkansas to Fort Pendleton, California in hopes of getting back to Vietnam and rescuing Quang’s wife and two small children who he left behind as he escaped a fallen Saigon in 1975. Quang, who was trained at Fort Pendelton, flew helicopters during the war, and was on one of the last ones to leave the country. He doesn’t know what happened to his family.
Back at the refugee camp, Tong (Emjoy Gavino) and her mother Huong (Rebecca Hirota) are trying to figure out what the future holds for them. Huong wants to go back to Vietnam to look for her son Khue (also played by Eric Sharp) and doesn’t like anything about America, especially the food. Tong has other ideas. She sees America as a land of possibilities, even as she’s wrestling with what, and who, she left behind. She wants to control her own destiny. When Bobby (also played by Viet Vo), a soldier at the refugee camp, takes an interest in her, she considers a future with him, even though she has started a relationship with Quang. It’s complicated, to say the least.
Interspersed in the drama of this play are moments when the characters step out of the narrative and perform a rap/hip hop song that speaks of their inner turmoil. Tong’s solo was particularly emotional, filled with anger and fears about the future and a deep, deep desire to be in charge of her own life. Quang’s verses also give us a sense of what he’s going through, the mental torture of not knowing what happened to his family, falling in love with another woman, and trying to do the right thing. There are moments of levity, too, when the ensemble dances and raps together, finding unity in a difficult situation. Rap consultant Oscar Pagnaroth Un worked with the cast on the lyrics. Darrius Strong choreographed the movement, adding expression, emotion, and characterization to this piece.
I was in the audience on Sunday afternoon for this dynamic, and sometimes disturbing, show. The force of the rap/inner dialogue hits you over the head from the first scene. They don’t hold back on the f-bombs, so be warned. I went from moments of thinking, “Everyone should see this show to get another perspective of a very turbulent time in history,” to thinking, “This isn’t a show for everyone,” mostly because of the harsh language. I couldn’t help thinking about the other people in the audience, the ones who lived through this era, and wondered how it was effecting them. For me, I appreciate learning history from another perspective. The final scene of the play, where the playwright interviews his father, was the most emotional and meaningful. We all deserve to tell our stories, and at the very least, share them with our children.
Mina Morita does a fine job of directing this play and getting to the heart of the story, as well as bringing out the humor and complex emotions. The creative team works magic through lighting (Masha Tsimring), set (Lex Liang), sound and projection (Mikhail Fiksel and Nicholas Hussong). Aaron Preusse directed the fight scenes, which reminded me of films where the action is put in slow-motion. Very cool. A tremendous production overall.
You can see Vietgone at the Guthrie Theater through October 16, 2022.
Go. Create. Inspire!
Journaling Prompt: Do you know the story of how your parents met?