Qui Nguyen’s ‘Vietgone’ raps through Vietnam War, universality of Asian American experiences

Kevin Berne/Courtesy

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It’s disconcertingly easy to talk about the Vietnam War in an air-conditioned lecture hall or to simply argue about its politics — whether it was an overdrawn, elaborate mistake, whether it was all for nothing. As “Vietgone” playwright Qui Nguyen said, “Politics can quickly dehumanize people.”

Presented by the American Conservatory Theater, or ACT, Jaime Castañeda’s rendition of Nguyen’s “Vietgone” reminds us that wars are not fought by political ideologies but by men and women, mothers and fathers, siblings and children.

Nguyen finds the only appropriate way to tell this story to a contemporary American audience — one where the majority may have been born after the Vietnam War — through hip-hop, ninjas and pop-culture references ranging from “Dirty Dancing” to “The Matrix.”

To take jabs at the entertainment industry’s habit of whitewashing and portraying generalized Asian characters, the play’s white characters are portrayed solely by Asian American actors who speak only in stereotypical, non sequitur phrases and words such as, “Yee-haw! Get’er done. Cheeseburger, waffle fries, cholesterol!” The Vietnamese characters, however, speak in a modern-day, American-English dialect — “Yo — what’s up, white people?” one character asks.

Though “Vietgone” is set in 1975 at the end of the Vietnam War, the play is refreshingly not another anti- or pro-war story. Instead, we follow Quang (James Seol) and Nhan (Stephen Hu) — friends as connected as siblings — along with Tong (Jenelle Chu) and Huong (Cindy Im) — daughter and mother — as they learn to reconcile with their unexpected identities as refugees.

It should be noted that three of the five actors confidently slide into four to six other roles each. Impressively, Jomar Tagatac plays everything from a hippie to a redneck biker to a pair of incompetent lovers — all to great comedic effect.

Along this journey, the play also morphs into a romance tale, a musical, an action film and a comedy, deftly handling all genres while presenting a responsible, touching and refreshingly original account of the lives of Vietnamese refugees.

Similar to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton,” the story of Nguyen’s play unravels through hip-hop. Composer Shammy Dee provides acoustic-based, hip-hop instrumentals, while the players rap their inner confessions and turmoil.

At times, Seol’s and Chu’s rapping feels unnatural, even off-key and awkward at its weakest moments. Beyond this misstep, hip-hop truly finds its place within “Vietgone.” As a genre essentially born out of disenfranchised and marginalized Black communities, now the most dominant genre streamed in America, hip-hop is appropriately used in order to tell the story of an entirely different group of outcasts.

Most of “Vietgone” is colored through these vibrant musical numbers and humorous dialogue, but the play also manages to impress in almost every aspect of its deceivingly simple technical production. Scenic designer Brian Sidney Bembridge’s stage remains simple, but it efficiently allows its story to unfold through its minimalism. A blank wall sits in the middle of a large, round platform, which spins with each change of location and time period, transitioning seamlessly.

Kevin Berne/Courtesy

Kevin Berne/Courtesy

Background projections provided by the projection designer, Chris Lundahl, fit perfectly onto the stage when the characters need to look like they are aboard a U.S. naval ship or speeding on a highway in Arkansas. These projections never obscure the actors, thanks to lighting designer Wen-Ling Liao — whose homage to “Kill Bill” during Quang and Nhan’s spontaneous ninja fight sequence beautifully reduces the actors to dancing black silhouettes.

Throughout the two acts of “Vietgone,” the older, white majority of the audience was noticeably less receptive to the humor — humor that resonates with the Asian American experience, such as the play’s overly dramatic mother who constantly badgers her kids about finding someone to marry.

Although Nguyen’s treatment of volcanic familial relationships, feelings of displacement and romance will certainly touch Asian Americans through their specific, intimate details, the play’s accessibility knows no boundaries or walls. What’s poignantly American about “Vietgone” is that it’s entertainment for everyone.

“Vietgone” will run through April 22 at ACT’s Strand Theater.

Contact Lloyd Lee at [email protected].