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Poor Yella Rednecks

Theatre Review by Marc Miller - November 1, 2023

Jon Norman Schneider and Maureen Sebastian
Photo by Jeremy Daniel
The curious thing about Poor Yella Rednecks, Qui Nguyen's Manhattan Theatre Club follow-up to his well-received, autobiographical Vietgone of several seasons back, is that its title characters aren't rednecks at all. They're in redneck territory, certainly, 1980 Arkansas, and surrounded by obnoxious, potentially violent cracker white boys. But the refugee Vietnamese family at the center are hardworking, thoughtful, ambitious if quick-tempered, and more sinned against than sinners. Poor Yella Rednecks is lively and affecting, and Maureen Sebastian knocks Tong, the put-upon wife and mother struggling to adjust to alien territory, out of the park. But it does make one serious misstep.

Rap. Whatever the Nguyens are up against, and they're up against plenty, they're compelled to stop every few minutes and give out with a rap to pre-taped music, generally a loosely structured lament about the rage and resentment they're feeling at the moment. Every time the music cued up, my heart sank. Like a lot of rap, most of these numbers seize an emotion and restate it over and over in slightly different ways, neither advancing the action nor telling us much about the character that we didn't already know. "Poor yella rednecks, we demand respect/ Ain't gotta lotta money but we're still damn perfect," goes the title song, many times. Guys, you're sympathetic and commendable in many respects, but you're not perfect. Neither are 90% of your rhymes.

Get past all that and you have a rewarding family saga told in flashback. At the start, the aged Tong is being interviewed by a stand-in for the playwright (Jon Norman Schneider), her English tentative and her enthusiasm for having their story told minimal. "Only white people like to watch a play," she asserts. "All sorts of people watch plays, mom." "Yeah, all sorts of white people." Nonetheless we're off, with the long-ago courtship of Tong and Quang (Ben Levin), the handsome, pour-on-the-charm immigrant wooing her in the back of a Ford pickup at their refugee camp. He had a wife and two kids back home, but soon he and Tong are married, poor, and the parents of a five-year-old son, Little Man, charmingly played by a puppet with Schneider's voice.

Hardship and oppression lurk everywhere. Huong (Samantha Quan), Tong's mother, lives with them and helps care for Little Man while Tong is off at an unrewarding waitressing job at a diner. But she's meddlesome and judgmental, and she commits one vengeful act on Quang that practically destroys the family. Quang is unemployed most of the time. Little Man gets picked on at school because he speaks no English–really, not one word? Two family crises, one after the other, tear Quang and Tong apart, to the brink of divorce. Tong is then courted by Bobby (Paco Tolson), the boring, stable white guy who offers stability and material comforts, if not passion. But he speaks in a halting pidgin English. Is he trying to speak Vietnamese, and does it come out for our benefit as "me am so sorry"? I wish Nguyen were clearer on this.

For such a singular time and place, it all sounds somewhat generic, doesn't it? And it is, but Nguyen introduces several diversions. Deliberate anachronisms–Tucker Carlson, Mitch McConnell–keep us listening. Supporting characters played by the actors above, plus Jon Hoche, liven things up: a flirty bar girl (Quan); an unctuous Brit narrating Tong's life Alastair Cooke-style (Tolson); two redneck punks torturing Little Man (Tolson and Hoche). Another narrator emerges: Stan Lee (Tolson), no less. Period music supplies commentary of its own: "Nine to Five," "Eye of the Tiger."

And oh, the fights. Little Man, trained in the defensive arts by his grandmother, perpetrates a kung fu rampage on the bullies. Tong, reduced to mild shoplifting at a low point, leaps and kicks her way out of two grocery clerks' clutches, though she still gets arrested. Qui Nguyen has staged the battles with Bruce Lee intricacy, all the more impressive when one of the combatants is a puppet.

The set by Tim Mackabee is on the busy side, with huge letters spelling "YELLA" changing color and moving around while hiding other scenic elements, but some fun surprises lurk behind them. Valérie Thérèse Bart's costumes, Lap Chi Chu's lighting, and Shane Rettig's sound design are all assets, and May Adrales directs her cast to go broad and funny most of the time, but tones things down when needed, as in a pair of tender Quang-Tong love scenes. The actors, several of them Vietgone veterans, switch identities on a dime and are especially good at changing ages: Sebastian goes from 30 to 75 in a snap, and makes Tong's simmering emotions real and heartrending, even when delivering them in a misbegotten rap.

Stock situations populate the stage–deceit, adultery, poverty–but they're rendered sincerely and touchingly. And Nguyen's overriding goal, as he relates in a finale rap ("I wrote this so my kids could witness/ A tale where the yella kids get to be the protagonists") is ably met, however wince-worthy that and every other false rhyme is. When it's speaking, Poor Yella Rednecks is mostly a well-told tale. Now if Nguyen would just lose the boom box.

Poor Yella Rednecks
Through November 26, 2023
Manhattan Theatre Club
New York City Center Stage 1, 131 W. 55th St.
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