Photo: Jesse Dittmar / Courtesy, Qui Nguyen
Before his play Vietgone became a success, Qui Nguyen was known mainly as a co-founder of the New York theater company, Vampire Cowboys. Specializing in what was dubbed “geek theater,” the troupe developed an ardent following by producing low-budget, action-packed plays with titles like “Alice in Slasherland,” “Fight Girl Battle World.” “Soul Samurai,” and “Aliens Versus Cheerleaders.”
But Nguyen always knew at some point he wanted to tell the story of his parents, who escaped from Vietnam when Saigon fell in 1975, met up at a relocation camp at Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, and eventually married and settled in El Dorado.
“The reason I became a writer in the first place is that I wanted to tell my parents’ story,” he said in a recent telephone interview from his home in Los Angeles, where he writes for television.
What: TheatreSquared’s “Vietgone”
When: Wednesday – Sunday through April 8
Where: Nadine Baum Studios, Fayetteville
Cost: $25-$44; a limited number of $10 are available for those under 30 years old
Tickets: 479-443-5600 or theatre2.org
Nguyen had grown up hearing stories about his parents’ lives in Vietnam, as well as stories about his grandparents and cousins in that war-ravaged country. He also read books about Vietnam and saw movies like Platoon and Rambo, and musicals like Miss Saigon, where the Vietnamese characters ended up with supporting roles in their own stories. He wanted to tell the story from a different point of view.
“I knew I was going to write that story,” he said. Not wanting to be disrespectful of a subject as serious as the refugee experience, Nguyen assumed he would need to wait until he is older and “interested in writing more boring sh*t,” like playwrights he admired, but wasn’t sure he could emulate. “The truth is, I’m a really immature dude,” he says, noting his interest in superheroes, ninjas, samurai and hip-hop. “That’s just who I am.”
Several years ago – and married with children of his own – Nguyen decided that he didn’t want to wait until his parents are dead to tell their story.
“I finally just said, Screw it. I’m going to write the story the way I write,” he said. “I’m going to tell it in my voice, with hip-hop and ninjas and irreverent comedy and stuff I want to do.”
The result is Vietgone, which does, indeed, tell the story of Tong and Quang, two Vietnamese refugees who meet up in Arkansas. Though the story is fundamentally a serious one, dealing with serious ideas, the rambunctious telling of it is shot through with humor, sex, hip-hop and pop culture – pretty much what one would expect from a playwright whose most popular work previously was “She Kills Monsters.”
More than just telling his family’s story, it was important to Nguyen to create strong Asian-American characters.
“Vietgone is basically the anti-Miss Saigon,” Nguyen told American Theatre magazine in a 2017 interview. “It’s about the Asian-American characters being the ones with agency over the narrative. They’re not a prop for the typical straight-white-male lead to learn from or to save. It’s not their story. It’s our story. We get to be the heroes.”
Even though Vietgone was commissioned by South Coast Repertory, in Costa Mesa, California, Nguyen never imagined it being widely produced, or even produced at all.
“I’m just a dude who likes to write funny stories,” he said. “My writing process isn’t magical or intricate. It more just, what do I like? I did a lot of things in Vietgone just because I wanted to, not because there was necessarily any dramatic reason for it.
“Vietgone is partially a superhero version of my mom and dad. Is my dad that cool? No, he’s just a regular guy. Is my mom that much of a feminist and that strong? No, she’s fallible too. But in this thing, he’s Superman and she’s Wonder Woman.”
The popularity of the play has been tremendously gratifying for Nguyen.
“The response has been wonderful,” he said, particularly the response he’s gotten from young Asian Americans who have seen the play. “They get to see their parents as just as much a part of the history of this country as the Pilgrims, just as much as the Irish and the Italians. We get to be part of that. And they get to see their parents a cool and vital and vibrant, and as sexy, without being exotic.
He mentions one time in particular, when a group of refugee kids saw the play in Oregon.
“They didn’t thank me for telling their story. They were only sixteen years old. What they said was that they all wanted to be like Tong and Quang. That moved me. That’s the stuff that matters to me,” he said.
Nguyen and his two younger brothers grew up in El Dorado, Arkansas, where they were one of just two Asian families (the other was Chinese) in a mostly African-American neighborhood. He joined the drama club in high school and majored in theater at Louisiana Tech University, with an emphasis on acting. He later earned a master’s degree in playwriting from Ohio University.
It was in graduate school that Nguyen wrote Trial by Water, an early, overly serious and reverent stab at telling the Vietnamese refugee story. Though it was produced off-Broadway in New York in 2006 and received respectful notices, he describes the play now as “tremendously bad.”
Vietgone is the first of a planned series of five plays about Nguyen’s family. The second in the series, Poor Yella Rednecks, centers on Tong and Quang’s early married life in Arkansas. Like Vietgone, the sequel was commissioned by the South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, California, and will be given a reading at the theater’s annual Pacific Playwrights Festival in late April.
Vietgone opened at TheatreSquared on March 14 and continues through Sunday, April 8.