PICKSINSIX Review: VIETGONE
RAUCOUS COMIC RENDERING OF IMMIGRANT EXPERIENCE
Parent’s love story… Qui Nguyen’s “Vietgone” now playing at Writers Theatre in Glencoe, is first and foremost his parent’s love story set primarily in a refugee camp at Fort Chaffee, Arkansas in July 1975 following the fall of Saigon. As directed by Lavina Jadhwani, the true story, and the hauntingly real events surrounding the traumatic separation from their homeland and loved ones, unfolds as a raucous comic rendering of the immigrant experience. It all comes together extremely well. When this one is over, it will stay with you.
Facts first… The very serious reality of the story is that during this period, the U. S. established and coordinated a Vietnamese resettlement system that aided over 130,000 evacuees. It’s facts first for Nguyen who pulls no punches in establishing how this tale will be told and the range of hopelessness in his parent’s individual perspectives — one desperately seeking to recapture what has been lost and the other struggling to cope with grief and move on. With immigration and family separation issues front and center, “Vietgone” is a piece that has clearly found its time. It is a remarkably touching show that is rapping down the highway at breakneck speed with an imaginative, modern-day voice spewing no-holds-barred language that is very, very funny.
Yes, there are ninjas… Quang (Matthew C. Yee), a helicopter pilot with a wife and two young children he barely knows, is separated from his family following an evacuation flight from Saigon with his wingman, Nhan (Rammel Chan). The strong-willed Tong (Aurora Adachi-Winter) escapes with her mother, Huong (Emjoy Gavino) leaving her brother behind. Quang is determined to reunite with his family as Tong accepts that her future is in America which results in one of the most moving and powerful rap anthems in the show, “I’ll Make It Home.” Quang’s cross-country journey on a motorcycle with Nhan provides both the through line and light-hearted comic road trip moments. Along the way, the story is playing out ninja-style in flashbacks with assorted characters from Vietnam and Fort Chaffee where eventually Tong is courted by Bobby (Ian Michael Minh) who envisions a prosperous, but ultimately ill-fated, future for the couple. And, yes, there are ninjas.
Industrial shell… Jadhwani and the creative team including scenic designer Yu Shibagaki, costume designer Melissa Ng, lighting designer Sarah Hughey with projections and sound by Rasean Davonte Johnson and Kevin O’Donnell and Tommy Rapley's choreography, all utilize a stark, industrial shell that is ingeniously transformed with color, eye-popping graphics and fluid, minimalist scenic elements to effectively stage a variety of locales from Saigon to the refugee camp and the open road.
The takeaway… Understanding the interaction of all cultures and languages is at the heart of this work, embodied in the central Asian American characters and the inspired, table-turning device that results in English being the “othered” language. There are fine performances throughout and several storylines to explore, which explains why Nguyen is already well in development on two sequels based on his family’s immigrant experience.
Lots to discuss… A superb overview of the era is authored by production dramaturg, Carol Ann Tan and the program is abundantly filled with relevant commentary and interviews. Writers has also scheduled two audience engagement events, the first with artists and experts on the Gabriel Ruiz music on September 10th and a pre-show discussion with historians as part of the Sunday Spotlight series on September 16th, in addition to regularly scheduled post-performance talkbacks. There will be lots to discuss.