Vietgone

by Marcus Scott

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday October 28, 2016

Raymond Lee and Jon Hoche
Raymond Lee and Jon Hoche  

Assimilation and appropriation play a wicked game of cat-and-mouse in Qui Nguyen's "Vietgone," a war drama that mergers scathing satire and traditional sex comedy. Only there's a catch: It's also a tall tale of the author's parents, who met in a Vietnamese refugee camp in the American Midwest. Just don't tell his parents: In meta-theatrical fashion, the playwright pens himself into the narrative (played by longtime collaborator and muse Paco Tolson), making this unraveling a titillating experience before introducing the other key players.

Quang (played by chiseled Raymond Lee), "a completely made-up man," is a helicopter pilot who has been serving in the South Vietnam Air Force for eight years, married to a woman with whom he has little chemistry and two young children that he has barely seen because of active duty.

During the Fall of Saigon in April 1975, while Quang and his compadres facilitated operations for Vietnamese allies flee by helicopter, he was forced to abandon his family for the greater good when his squad was evacuated. Needless to say, that upon his arrival to the Ft. Chaffee refugee camp in Arkansas, the grief-stricken aviator, perforated with guilt, tries in vain to return to Saigon, even if that means riding across the U.S. to do so.

Tong (played by a stunning Maureen Sebastian), "a completely not-real woman," worked for the U.S. Embassy when Saigon was captured by the People's Army of Vietnam and the Viet Cong of South Vietnam and left behind a younger brother who refused to leave his beloved. With only two tickets to her name, she took her mother with her when she fled to the U.S. To survive the harsh realities, for some time, both of these two people became detached, one emotionally and judiciously. In addition to leaving behind a country, Tong ended a relationship with a major flame and Quang can't seem to remember details about his children.

Unlike his peers, Nguyen has bridged a quirky nexus between third wave Asian-American theater writers like Diana Son, Sung Rno, Han Ong, Chay Yew, Rick Shiomi, and Ralph Peña, and fourth-wave Asian American theater writers like Young Jean Lee, Sam Chanse, Jason Kim, Jiehae Park, Mike Lew, A. Rey Pamatmat and Hansol Jung. With "Vietgone," he manages to address the multifaceted experiences of being an Asian American but also successfully subvert casting traditions and the argot stereotypically associated with the Asian culture as far as the U.S. is concerned. He is also winking at other Vietnamese-American luminaries who are titans in various industries around the world.

Outside the entrance of Stage I within the Manhattan Theater Club, there are even decorative placards listing the accomplishments of celebrated Vietnamese-Americans. Among them are U.S. Circuit Judge Jacqueline Nguyen, fashion designer and "Project Runway" winner Chloe Dao, NBC News and MSNBC anchor Betty Nguyen, U.S. Navy Captain Hung Ba Le, biochemist and astronaut Dr. Eugene H. Trinh, and finally, novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen, winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize.

The latter is more than an interesting choice considering the perspective of various characters in Qui Nguyen's latest play with music and their thoughts on the war. In Viet Thanh Nguyen's debut novel, "The Sympathizer," also told via flashback, follows the coerced confession of a political prisoner in the wake of the fall of the South Vietnamese government, and the character's subsequent exile in Los Angeles.

Both "The Sympathizer" and "Vietgone" have one thing in common: They give divergent perspectives of the Cold War-era proxy war, which has been heavily skewed by influential musicals such as "Hair" and "Miss Saigon." With those musicals, there is a clear consequence of "Vietnam Syndrome," a partisan aversion to overseas military operations by the citizens of the American republic. With "Vietgone," not only does Qui Nguyen explain the importance of U.S. involvement at that time, but he also hints at its zeitgeist.

Due to its commission, with the production taking place in a post-"Hamilton" renaissance, "Vietgone" falls short with its minimalist musical score, which includes slacker-inspired rhyme, '90s Mafioso-era rap references and old-school hip-hop rap flows. Even more so, its inclusion of stereotypical boom-clap melody evokes comparisons to cringe-worthy Long Duk Dong inspired gong music.

Linguistically, the language within the play might wink at the generational gap rather than actual character development. But with its inclusion, it creates a bamboozling gulf of elucidation: Rampant use of cultural appropriation in regards to African-American vernacular and hip-hop with little commentary on its impact on Asian-American youth culture or explanation for why this prop is used throughout. Sure to denunciate the playwright of anachronism is slight.

Predominately set in the summertime 1975, the playwright is trying to produce a heyday ambiance, not unlike early-'90s hip-hop jump-offs DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince's "Summertime" or Ice Cube's "It Was a Good Day." But the form feels trivial here: the rhymes are lazy; the beats, pedestrian. Thanks to acts like Suboi and Nam, the surge of hip-hop in Vietnam is real and "Vietgone" missed a great opportunity to bring Saigon rap to the forefront of the proscenium stage.

The production, designed with Jared Mezzocchi's pop-art projections and directed with verve by May Adrales, faithfully includes soul music of the 1970s including Marvin Gaye's baby-making grooves and Barry White's love hangover slow jams. Perhaps music that echoed this would have been more appropriate?

Irrespective, with a talented cast of entertainers with comic gold chops, "Vietgone" remains a poignant, touching, waggish and even awe-inspiring love-letter to America's global village. One thing is sure; we need more diverse writers like Nguyen, a hipster comic book geek. It's not everyday you'll see tattooed redneck bikers, somersaulting ninjas and stargazing polyamourous hippies within the span of a single production, that's for sure.

"Vietgone" runs through Nov. 27 at Manhattan Theatre Club, Stage I, 131 West 55th Street. For information or tickets, 212-581-1212 or visit http://www.nycitycenter.org/