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Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley

Vietgone
City Lights Theater Company
Review by Eddie Reynolds


Amanda Le Nguyen and Jomar Tagatac
Photo by Christian Pizzirani
On the surface a story detailing the journey of some Vietnamese immigrants as they escape the fall of Saigon in 1975 and land in a refugee camp in Arkansas, Vietgone is actually an irreverent, topsy-turvy, wild ride of a moving and engaging love story–in this case, a story based on how the playwright's parents actually met. But as their story is told, Qui Nguyen keeps us guessing if Vietgone, which premiered in 2015, is also a romantic comedy, a sex-and-expletive-packed action adventure, a rap-and-rock-infused musical, a parody about recently arrived immigrants' views of America, a tale of stark realism, or one closer to fantasy. The answer is yes to all.

City Lights Theater Company has assembled an absolutely sizzling, crackerjack cast of five under the incredibly imaginative and insightful direction of talented and wildly popular director (and playwright) Jeffrey Lo to stage a not-to-be-missed Vietgone. From the opening greetings to the audience of "What's up, bitches? ... Yo, there's a whole lot of white people up there" to the final moments when holding back tears is almost impossible for cast or audience, Vietgone is a nonstop series of scenes that elicit a lot of laughter, many memories (especially for those of us in the baby boomer generation), and much re-thinking and re-evaluation about a war that most in the audience probably entered the theater with a low regard for and a desire to forget.

The plot of the story, if it were told in a normal timeline sequence, begins with two people who are among the last to escape Vietnam–each leaving behind someone who loves him or her. Quang, an eight-year South Vietnamese veteran of the war, reluctantly leaves a wife and two young kids he barely knows, while Tong escapes both the Viet Cong and a boyfriend who desperately wants to marry her but whom she only mildly likes. Quang and Tong meet in a refugee camp in Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, and have a hot time in bed together (many times), with seemingly no strings attached. Quang then convinces his best friend and fellow escapee Nhan to make what will be a life-changing trip across America on a motorcycle to head back to a family Quang isn't sure are still alive in a country he has no clue if he can actually get back into safely.

It is that journey that begins the play, with bits of the story's Vietnam and Arkansas bookends spliced in along the way in no particular order. Since we are warned before the play begins not to "repeat/retweet anything about my parents" in this "boy-meets-girl love story" by someone who identifies himself as The Playwright, we start to expect the story's romantic, happy ending early on. However, it cannot be predicted how it will be told through Qui Nguyen's eclectic, electrically charged script punctuated by the original rap songs of Shane Rettig. Our ride will be as wild as that of Quang and Nhan as they motor across the country and meet hippies, good ol' boys, and even Ninja Turtles in exotic places like Amarillo, Oklahoma City, and Albuquerque.

Bay Area favorite Jomar Tagatac returns to a play he performed in at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theatre and Sacramento's Capital Stage Company. As City Lights' Quang, he is nothing short of stellar. His face is often a map of his own journey: the pain of loss of family, home, and country; the shock and anger of landing in a place where he does not want to be; the constant impatience and sheer determination to return at all costs to his family against the odds of doing so all remaining alive. His Quang longs for a home "where we were heroes, where we count for something" and is disgusted by this new country where "we aren't worth shit." His anguish is palpable when he moans, "Here I may be living, but I am not really alive." When he turns to rap to expose his innermost anguish, repeatedly he defiantly chants, "However impossible this is, I'll make it home."

But there is one thing that causes Quang to look longingly over his shoulder back toward Arkansas as he heads west toward the California coast and hopefully on to Vietnam. That persistent tug on his heart is Tong, the thirty-year-old immigrant who was supposed to be only a quick, hot fling, but who became a good friend with benefits. And now, on Quang's journey, his longing eyes say something more.

As Tong, Amanda Le Nguyen raps in song her excitement about her new home of America, even if she must begin living in barracks with a mother who often embarrasses her by flirting with younger guys and who nags her to go back to Vietnam. Amanda Le Nguyen's Tong has a wonderfully sarcastic, unfeeling edge that shows the strength she brings to begin the rough journey of becoming an American in a land not always welcoming. At the same time, she provides glimpses of vulnerabilities as she aches for a brother left behind and of fears that she could in fact fall in love with a man married to another. Tong does all she can to convince Quang that "love is bullshit," telling him with a rough edge in her voice, "Do not fall for me ... because I am not going to fall for you back." But her voice and countenance hold a glimmer that she does not believe what she is saying.

Each of the other three cast members plays one key role and several other, lesser roles. Melissa Mei Jones comes close at times to stealing the show as Huong, Tong's foul-mouthed, flirting mother. She speaks with a bitter dislike of anything American, mocking with great fun–at least for the audience–everything from the food to a bashful, bumbling American soldier who likes Tong. When she walks, she mostly stomps with defiance, but her steps and her tone begin to soften as the story's pieces come together and Huong transforms to being much more loving of her rebellious daughter than her deliciously snappy, smart-aleck attitude displays for much of the story.

Tasi Alabastro is Quang's loyal pal Nhan, who goes along for the motorcycle ride across the sprawling flatlands of America. The big guy holds on for dear life on the back of the bike, bursting with a spirit of eternal optimism, a joy for his new life, and an undying loyalty to his "bro." Nhan does not want to be seen as an immigrant ("Immigrants talk funny"), and he quickly tries to pick up American ways like giving everyone a "high five." Tasi Alabastro also plays, among a number of other roles, the brother/son of Tong and Huong who chooses to stay behind in Vietnam because of his love for the woman with whom he wants to spend his life. With this performance, he provides a visually powerful lesson for us all–especially with the current, heartbreaking events in Ukraine–of the courage and sacrifice such harrowing choices demand.

Vivienne Truong is delightful in the many and varied roles she portrays, from a love-sick crybaby back in Vietnam who only wants the not-at-all-interested Tong to marry him to an American soldier in Arkansas named Bobby who speaks hilariously of his love for Tong in crude, broken Vietnamese (but heard by us in nonsensical English). As The Playwright, Vivienne Truong not only opens the evening with the warning not to contact the parents whose story is being exposed but also helps close the two-hour evening in a scene almost forty years later where The Playwright is coaxing his now sixty-something father, Quang, to tell him about the Vietnam he knew.

It is in this final sequence that we hear a different take on America's entrance and participation in the war now seen by many as one of this country's major disasters. The Playwright coaxes from his father a moving, tearful account by a man who was fighting for his country and family and what it meant to him when the American soldiers arrived. Together, director Jeffrey Lo, Vivienne Truong, and especially Jomar Tagatac create a scene that will remain seared in my own memory for years to come.

The mishmash of scenes switching back-and-forth in time and place occur clearly and cleverly through astute direction with the help of projections on a big screen designed by Dan Lydersen that place us in locations with period-appropriate pictures and helpful headlines. Ron Gasparinetti's scenic design highlights the crisscross of highways Quang and Nhan traverse and the many road signs of the time they encounter. The 1970s era comes to bell-bottomed, fringed, and sun-glassed life through the colorful, often fun costumes of Melissa Sanchez. George Psarras's sound design fills in other reminders of the times (including a wonderfully selected series of '70s rock music), while Ed Hunter's lighting keeps us focused on the correct spot as scenes mix, blend, and switch with well-planned alacrity.

In Qui Nguyen's telling, 1975 Vietnamese immigrants speak to each other in slang, expletives, and full-commanded, perfectly pronounced English. The Americans they meet speak in everyday clich├ęs strung together in ways that make no sense ("Asshole, Botox, freckles"). For those Americans who have learned some Vietnamese, they speak in the kind of broken phrases (translated here into English) that sound like the ones that Vietnamese have often been scripted to say in American films and TV shows (e.g., "Nice to meeting you, old lady"). Lines and situations continuously elicit loud waves of laughter from the audience as some set-ups seem straight from a TV sitcom (like a horny mother who has just made a pass at a guy half her age and then walks into her room to find him humping her twenty-something daughter in a bunk bed). Action scenes that smack of kung fu movies or Cartoon Channel shorts, and other scenes full of funny-smelling cigarettes that could be from a Cheech and Chong flick all intercept the story's progression in wonderful and unexpected ways.

The bottom-line effect is that Vietgone gives a new narrative to the final days of a losing war that many baby boomers want to forget as being disastrous and a national embarrassment–one told from a totally different perspective than award-winning films like Platoon, Apocalypse Now, Good Morning, Vietnam, or an ever-popular musical like Miss Saigon. In Vietgone, the Vietnamese characters take control of their lives in an otherwise powerless situation. They are confident, intelligent, sexy, and ultimately successful in ways none of the native-born Americans around them are. For a contemporary generation of immigrants' children who have grown up with images of their parents as weak and submissive– both in the way they may have been treated in real life and especially as depicted in films– Vietgone is an empowering, energizing retake on what coming to America meant for their families and, ultimately, for them. For the rest of us, City Lights Theater Company's Vietgone by Qui Nguyen is a different take on that war and what it meant to the immigrants who came to our country, and a clearer understanding of what their entrance and life here was truly like–a learning that could help us in how we see and deal with today's new arrivals from countries where war, hardships, and hostilities have driven them to our shores.

Vietgone runs through April 24, 2022, at City Lights Theater Company, 529 S. 2nd Street, San Jose CA. Patrons must show proof of full vaccination and must wear masks at all times inside the theater. For tickets and information, please visit cltc.org.


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