TR Robertson ….The newest production at the Lyceum Theatre marks the San Diego premiere of playwright Qui Nguyen’s contemporary look at the end of the Vietnam War through the eyes of his parents. Nguyen is known for instilling pop culture, stage violence, and multi-media into his productions and the result is a fast paced, energetic and cleverly designed production which keeps the audience’s attention throughout the 2 ½ hour performance. The play features rap, ninjas, motorcycles, quick set changes, hilarious fight scenes, actors and actresses portraying a variety of characters, profanity, simulated sex and above all a story of the power of love.
Nguyen is a playwright and TV/Film writer and co-founder of the Vampire Cowboys of New York City. He is an OBIE award winner and “Vietgone” has won a 2016 Steinberg Award, a LADCC Ted Schmidt New Play Award and was a 2016 Kennedy Prize Finalist. He has said he is the founder of “geek theatre”. He currently is a screenwriter for Marvel Studios. “Vietgone” premiered in 2015 at the South Coast Rep in Orange County. Nguyen said he will possibly be writing a 3 or 5 play series with “Poor Yellow Rednecks” slated to open in April at South Coast Rep.
This play has been referred to as “a love story like no other”. The story line centers around Quang and Tong (representing Nguyen’s parents) in 1975, as they flee Vietnam trying to escape from the encroachment of the Viet Cong. Quang is a captain in the Vietnamese Air Force, having been trained in the United States. He has returned to Vietnam and assists flying survivors to the USS Midway. Quang is married, with two small children, they do not escape Vietnam. When additional flights are stopped, Quang is trapped on the ship and arrives in the US, becoming a “soldier lost in a foreign land”. Tong is a young woman, trying to escape with her brother, only to find out her brother wants to stay due to a woman he is in love with. Tong is forced to escape with her mother Huong, who she has a very shaky relationship with. They will end up in one of the several refugee camps established in the United States at the end of our involvement in Vietnam.
Photos by Daren Scott
A cast of 5 extremely talented actors and actresses lead the audience through the story of the difficulty different families had in this tumultuous time period. The play wove humor, tension, anger, confusion and love into the story line, presented with great emotion by the cast. It can be said the play is a tragedy wrapped with humor surrounded by a love story with a happy ending. Three of cast member would portray a variety of characters who played a part in the life of Quang and Tong.
Making his San Diego Rep debut is Ben Levin, having appeared in a number of television shows and films. Levin brought to the play the emotions of a man leaving his family behind but driven by a desire to return to his home to get his family, only to find another love along the way. He also portrays the older Quang at the end of the play and his emotional speech to his son, Qui, about the war from a Vietnamese viewpoint is eye opening. Playing his love interest is Katherine Ko as Tong. Ko has performed in a number of productions, has toured with Shikira and is a trained dancer, owning her own Korean traditional dance studio. Ko presents Tong as a woman caught between leaving her country and her brother, dealing with a difficult mother, convinced she will never fall in love. We also learn that Tong, like many others, was selected to be sent to a foster family in the U.S. to help her assimilate into our culture.
Lawrence Kao was an audience favorite for his portrayal of Nhan, Khue, Asian Guy and American Guy. He brought both humor and a serious side to his role with ease. Kao has also been in a number of films and is making his San Diego Rep debut. Also an audience favorite was Shaun Tuazon as the playwright, Bobby, Hippie Dude, Redneck Biker and Giai. Tuazon had, perhaps, the hardest role for the variety of roles he portrayed. He displayed tremendous acting range in the different unusual characters. Tuazon has performed in a number of local theatre productions. Emy Coligado also plays a number of characters in the play ranging from the mother of Tong, Huong, to a Flower Girl, Thu, American Girl, to Translator. Coligado has also performed in a number of television and film roles as well as on Broadway in “Miss Saigon”. As Tong’s mother she brought emotion to a woman caught between loving her country, confused in being in a new country and trying to come to some sort of reconciliation with a daughter she does not understand.
Unbeknownst to most Americans is that there were 4 refugee camps established in the United States to hold the influx of refugees from Southeast Asia, established at the end of the war. The resettlement process was called “Operation New Life”, begun in 1975, first involving over 125,000 Vietnamese being placed in these refugee camps for assimilation into the U.S. Between 1975 and 1985 over 2 million Vietnamese would flee Vietnam trying to escape the Viet Cong trying to find refuge in many different countries. These were located in Pennsylvania, Florida, Arkansas and at Camp Pendleton in California. Tong and Quang end up in Fort Chaffee, Arkansas. Quang’s friend and air force buddy, Nhan, has also fled with him. Nhan and Quang will also leave the refugee camp to travel by motorcycle to Pendleton with the intention of returning to Vietnam to get Quang’s family. They will experience a series of adventures, mishaps and encounters that will affect their perspective of the United States. As fate would have it, Quang and Tong will meet, a relationship will slowly develop, with a hardened Tong fighting all the way. They both learn “Love doesn’t make you weak, it’s what makes you strong during the fight”.
This play is as much a history lesson as a story of different families struggling to assimilate into a new and different culture, trying to find what the future holds for each of them. Nguyen is showing us the other side of the Vietnam War few Americans ever hear about, the effect the war had on the people of Vietnam who opposed the Viet Cong and wanted America to help them. Quang says, “The war came to us, America gave us hope”. Most Americans simply hear about the opposition to the war here in the states and see the war as our intrusion into another country, not realizing that millions of Vietnamese wanted us to help. Once the United States left Vietnam and refugees arrived here, we hear little about their struggles, their feelings of leaving their homeland, their feelings of isolation in these refugee camps, their language difficulties, lack of jobs and hope this new country will offer them something their country did not.
This contemporary play will be on stage at the Lyceum Theatre, next to Horton Plaza in San Diego, until February 18th. It should be noted the play does have explicit language. Tickets can be purchased by calling 619-544-1000 or go to www.sdrep.org.