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BWW Review: VIETGONE deconstructs Vietnam immigrant tropes with laughter at American Conservatory Theater's Strand Theater

BWW Review: VIETGONE deconstructs Vietnam immigrant tropes with laughter at American Conservatory Theater's Strand Theater
Quang (James Seol, front) and friend Nhan (Stephen Hu, back) embark on a motorcycle trip from Arkansas to California in Qui Nguyen's Vietgone.

You know the tables have turned when the immigrants speak colloquial American English of the '70s while their awkward but well-meaning Anglo hosts stumble through in "Long time. No see." pidgin exclamations.

It's one of many aspects that make Vietgone by Qui Nguyen a refreshingly upending night of theatre. It's also an extremely funny and sexy night of theatre at American Conservatory Theater's Strand Theater.

Nguyen gathered up the Western stereotypes about the Vietnamese expatriate experience and more general Orientalisms, and director Jaime Castaneda lets his talented cast dismember them with a pop culture scalpel. This ain't no Flower Drum Song or Miss Saigon. Instead, the tone may remind one more of Song Liling's ironic deconstruction of the plot of a popular Puccini opera in M. Butterfly.

Erstwhile biker dudes Quang (James Seol) and Nhan (Stephen Hu) are on a "born to be wild" trip back to their future - at least what they fervently imagine is their future - first to California and then to the Vietnam from which they were airlifted after the fall of Saigon. Tong (Jenelle Chu) and her mother Huong (Cindy Im) have landed in a refugee camp in Arkansas, where Huong bemoans that fact that her son, Tong's brother, is not with them.

Quang and Tong react very differently to their uprooting. He's still "there" and thinks only of returning, while she pragmatically decides to make the best of "here" since she sees few options. That dispassionate outlook is a source of great frustration to Huong who bemoans their lot, conveniently forgetting the trouble they left behind.

Tong's passion is equally pragmatic. When she and Quang connect, it is in the here and, more importantly, the "now" for her. "Don't become the girl," she tells Quang when his behavior telegraphs more traditional dating expectations.

What feels refreshing about Vietgone is it provides South Asian audiences - either those who lived the experience or the generations they bore - the chance to see their story told from an authentic point of view that is also blessedly normalizing. The pain, the joy, the struggle, and the love are all there, but rather than being exotic they are simply real.

For white audiences or others who don't share the lived currency of the Vietnam side of the war, Vietgone is an opportunity to examine the accepted "truths" about that experience and to start to see themselves in "the other." Please thank playwright Nguyen for the chance to do so gently nestled in the lap of laughter.

The evening is bookended by sequences involving a stand-in for Nguyen (Jomar Tagatac) who sets the stage - it's about his parents - and then steps into the action at the end to wrap things up in a tender sequence with a now years-older Quang. The son makes a case for the importance of telling the story while the father sweetly makes the case for what is really important in life.

BWW Review: VIETGONE deconstructs Vietnam immigrant tropes with laughter at American Conservatory Theater's Strand Theater
Huong (Cindy Im, left) walks in on Quang (James Seol, center) and Tong (Jenelle Chu, right) in bed in Qui Nguyen's Vietgone, playing at A.C.T.'s Strand Theater.

Vietgone runs through April 29 at American Conservatory Theater.

Images: Kevin Berne


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