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Regional Reviews: Cincinnati

Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park
Review by Rick Pender | Season Schedule

Sami Ma and Hyunmin Rhee
Photo by Mikki Schaffner
Qui Nguyen's Vietgone operates on a remarkable array of levels. It's a drama about Vietnamese refugees in the United States. It's a romantic comedy about a man and a woman drawn into an illicit and desperate relationship. It's a satire of American pop culture and our nation's inappropriate imposition of Eurocentric values. But it also uses many of the tropes of those traditions and circumstances, expertly and often humorously turning them on their heads.

On the Playhouse's Shelterhouse stage, the play opens with an actor (Julian Remulla) in the role of the Playwright welcoming the audience with a disclaimer. "All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. (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.)" As the playwright places us squarely in 1975, he introduces Quang (Hyunmin Rhee) and Tong (Sami Ma), who are quite obviously 30-year-old versions of his parents. So it's easy to imagine from the get-go where this story is headed. But there's a lot more going on before we get there.

Quang is a strong-minded one-time helicopter pilot from South Vietnam who helped hundreds of refugees escape as Saigon fell to communist forces. In the chaos of those departures, his wife and two children were left behind. Fiercely independent Tong is among those being rescued. Her brother chooses to stay back while arguing with and eventually convincing their strong-willed widowed mother Huong (Olivia Oguma) that Tong will need parental support in the U.S. Before long all of them end up in a refugee camp at Fort Chaffee in Arkansas, a strangely foreign place unlike anything they had expected. Quang yearns to return to Vietnam and recruits his new friend Nhan (Viet Vo) to be part of an unlikely plan involving a cross-country motorcycle ride which is threaded through the narrative. Tong must contend with her mother's constant carping about her dislike for America and her own intention to get back to Vietnam.

Huang and Tong are strongly attracted to one another, despite his marital status and her abhorrence of a serious relationship. They eventually and enthusiastically give in to their natural instincts. Nhan convinces Huang that a return to Vietnam, now ruled by the Viet Cong, would have a dire outcome. Even though there are societal norms that need to be overcome, we find ourselves rooting for their romance–which we could see from the outset was the likely outcome.

The central characters in Vietgone all speak Vietnamese, of course, rendered in articulate, conversational English–sans any trace Asian accents or stereotypes. Instead, a series of incidental minor American characters–played by Asian actors Remulla, Vo, and Oguma–in Nguyen's clever writing conceit, speak "spouting American nonsense which sounds very American but yet incredibly confusing for anyone not natively from here." That means a lot of amusing gibberish including, "Yee-haw! Get 'er done! Cheeseburger, waffle fries, cholesterol!" And "Nascar, Botox, frickles!" It's a particularly humorous aspect of Vietgone.

The elements of romantic comedy are particularly turned upside down in an "OBLIGATORY MONTAGE" of predictable clichés about falling in love, danced to Hot Chocolate's "You Sexy Thing." During their motorcycle trek across the U.S., the sensible Nhan seriously tries to convince Huang not to return to Vietnam. But their journey is interspersed with several laugh-inducing encounters, including one with a racist biker that devolves into an overdone, slow-motion martial fight capped off by a pair of ninjas. There's another scene with a classic pair of stoned hippies. The effect of such moments might seem jarring at first glance, but Nguyen's script and smart, coherent direction by the Playhouse's Joanie Schultz weave these seemingly disparate themes and elements into a surprisingly satisfying result.

Nguyen's script employs a series of rapped monologues by Huang and Tong. She voices her plan for the future, "Gonna start again–get my heart past this pain," while he tries to determine "Where the hell am I going I don't know but I'm knowing." Such moments effectively reveal their inner turmoil, underscored by Jennifer Fok's intense and provocative lighting design. This is an especially powerful aspect of another searing rap as Huang reacts, answering the hippie's empty-headed, knee-jerk apology for what America did to Vietnam. He boils over with anger at all he lost: his family, his whole country–"Motherfucker, I lost everything I had."

Vietgone's final scene is a subdued but moving moment that's an interview in 2015 with Huang, now 70, by his son, the Playwright character, who is seeking more detail about the impact of the war. Huang keeps derailing the conversation with miscellaneous (and rather hilarious) stories about parenting, but finally he delivers a powerful monologue about maintaining his Vietnamese identity and angry that Vietnam has become "a symbol for a mistake ... This is not how any Vietnamese wants Vietnam to be remembered."

Qui Nguyen's inventive, vibrant play is expressly not a story about a horrendous war. In fact, according to the Playwright character, "It's a story about falling in love." As such, it's a much more meaningful and creative portrait of real people from Vietnam.

Vietgone runs through June 2, 2024, at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, 962 Mt. Adams Circle in Eden Park, adjacent to Mt. Adams, Cincinnati OH. For tickets and information, please visit or call 513-421-3888.