In such works as She Kills Monsters, Six Rounds of Vengeance, Alice in Slasherland, Aliens versus Cheerleaders, and Living Dead in Denmark, Arizona-born Vietnamese American playwright and screenwriter Qui Nguyen brings a fresh perspective to the stage, incorporating martial arts, horror, and irreverent humor within a comic-book sensibility. (He’s also a writer for Marvel Studios and founder of the New York-based Vampire Cowboys troupe.) He gets more serious, but no less wild, in his latest drama, Vietgone, a semiautobiographical look at the Vietnam War inspired by his family’s real experiences. “All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental,” the playwright (Paco Tolson) announces to the audience at the very beginning. “That especially goes for any person or persons who could be related to the playwright. Specifically his parents. Who this play is absolutely not about. Seriously, if any of you peeps repeat or retweet anything you’ve seen to my folks tonight, you’re assholes.” Nguyen and director May Adrales then tell the story of “a completely made-up man named Quang” (Raymond Lee), a former South Vietnamese soldier who is living in a refugee camp at the Fort Chaffee military base in Arkansas. A married man with two children he has not seen in several years, Quang is trying to get out of America and go back to Vietnam to be with them. “In Saigon / City in Vietnam / Shot up by the Viet Cong / They stole my peep’s freedom / so I’m coming to kill them / Call me their arch villain / Can’t stop me I’m willin’ / to die for this vision / Of a Vietnam that’s free / from those evil VC,” he raps. “You can’t stop me / I’m like a pissed off Bruce Lee / With a hi-ya, a kick, and a kung fu grip / We’ll come out swinging / We don’t give no shits.”
Quang is heading to California on a motorcycle with his friend Nhan (Jon Hoche), where they’ll catch a flight home. The time shifts between April and July 1975, as Quang and Nhan get out during the fall of Saigon and Quang develops a sexual relationship at Fort Chaffee with the cold and carefree Tong (Jennifer Ikeda), despite the protests of her grandmother, Huong (Samantha Quan). But through it all, Quang just wants to reunite with his family. “We don’t belong here. We belong there,” he tells Nhan. “There, we’re heroes. We’re sons. We’re men. There, we count for something. Here, however, we ain’t shit.” On their travels, they encounter a hippie dude (Tolson), a flower girl (Quan), and a redneck biker (Tolson); meanwhile, flashbacks reveal the tough decisions Tong had to make when she chose to leave Vietnam for America. “The communists are going to be rolling into our streets any day now with the mind to make dead all of us who aren’t waving red flags and you’re going to stick around to get riddled with bullets?” she says to her brother, who won’t leave his girlfriend. “I’m not going to let you die here. I can’t. I can’t. That would destroy me. It would absolutely destroy me.” Quang and Tong might be sleeping together in America, but they are both after something they may not be able to find again.
A production of Manhattan Theatre Club in association with South Coast Repertory, where the play debuted, Vietgone turns genre clichés inside out while toying with stereotypes, including who speaks with what accent. Passionately directed by May Adrales with a frenetic warmth, the hip-hop immigrant tale — with a sweet nod to Hamilton — is colorful and energetic, taking place on Tim Mackabee’s impressive set, featuring a giant billboard, a horizon backdrop, and tiny telephone poles that represent the American road, creatively lit by Justin Townsend. Jared Mezzocchi’s projections, including graphic-novel-like drawings, set the time and the tone; the scene in which Quang and Nhan race for the helicopter to escape Saigon is absolutely breathtaking. Lee (tokyo fish story, Four Clowns) and Ikeda (Love and Information, Marie Antoinette) have a strong chemistry, while Vampire Cowboys artistic associate Hoche (Soul Samurai, The Inexplicable Redemption of Agent G), Quan (Masha No Home, An Infinite Ache), and longtime Nguyen collaborator Tolson (Fight Girl Battle World, Men of Steel) have a ball in multiple roles. The play is not as polished as it could be; several moments could be tightened up, and its clever but unusual storytelling techniques are not for everyone, obviously, as a chunk of older people left at intermission. But they should have stuck it out, as the rest of us did, who were caught up in this compelling love story about home that is both funny and moving, historical and contemporary, given the current debate over immigrants and refugees from around the world.