‘Vietgone’ gets hung up on the war but gets some things right

Jon Hoche and Raymond Lee in South Coast Repertory's 2015 world premiere of Vietgone by Qui Nguyen. Photo by Debora Robinson/SCR.

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As befitting the fortieth anniversary of Vietnamese refugees landing in the U.S., the South Coast Repertory last week world premiered the play “Vietgone” by New York-based Qui Nguyen and directed by May Adrales. It was a fun way to spend an afternoon, lots of jokes and interesting funny characters. As a comedy, it’s a success.

But Vietgone is trying to be more than just one long sex joke. It’s trying to send some messages in there, and though I can feel the effort, I can’t identify what that overarching message is. Instead, the whole play is just one big hang-up about the war, nothing about Vietnam the real country or Vietnamese the real people with a life and aspirations outside of the Cold War made hot. But then again we should not ask a comedy to be a documentary or a sociology text.

As the South Coast Repertory’s first foray into Vietnamese-themed plays, it’s great. Of course it can be better — all things can be better. The hope is that SCR will continue with a second, third, and more steps that are, in fact, better.

Vietgone has a cast of five outstanding actors, and other than the two leads each plays multiple roles. The time is 1975, Saigon is falling, and people have to decide to stay or to leave. The lead male character Quang (Raymond Lee), a helicopter pilot, wants to pick up his family and fly to the U.S. 7th Fleet waiting just outside Vietnamese territorial waters, but the chopper is full of refugees, so he and his buddy Nhan (Jon Hoche) fly them out while Quang’s own family gets left behind.

Meanwhile, the female lead Tong (Maureen Sebastian), an American Embassy employee, gets two tickets out of the country. She wants to take her brother Khue (Hoche) but he wants to stay because his true love is staying too, so she takes her mom Huong (Samantha Quan) instead.

Now one thing you need to know about Tong is that she’s the contrary of a demure Asian stereotype. Here’s a Vietnamese woman who’s comfortable with her decisions, her sexuality, her body. When her would-be suitor Giai (Paco Tolson) exclaims, “But you’re a woman,” she shoots back, “I’m well aware of my genitalia.” When she wants sex, she tells the man, “Let’s do it.” Um, do what exactly? “Do it. Intercourse. Copulate. Play hide-the-hot dog.”

And to ensure nobody mistakes Tong for a not-strong woman, the writer uses a common though not particularly creative tool: Make her say “fuck.” A lot. And “bitch.” And “assholes.” Apparently a potty mouth is a sign of strength.

For every counter-stereotype, however, the play evens out with an ultra one. When Quang’s wife Thu (Quan) visits him at the air base, the two stand awkwardly apart, one saying “It’s good to see you” to the other.

And while Quang is a badass pilot with a quick tongue, Giai, on the other hand, is your quintessential effeminated Asian wimp, who cries like a baby because Tong rejects his marriage proposal. Ummm, because we want to make sure people know Asians act like that?

So, anyway, these people end up in the refugee camp at Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, where they face new choices. Tong is confident she made the right choice and immediately prepares for a new life, but her mother is not so sure. Quang and Tong meet, and they fall in love, or maybe in lust, who knows. Quang still wants to save his family, and his buddy Nhan will support him.

They get hold of a motorcycle, and the two embark on a journey across the country, back to Camp Pendleton with a plan to return to Vietnam and take up arms again.

That buddy-film premise is actually Vietgone’s opening scene, with Quang and Nhan rapping,

“They stole my peep’s freedom
so I’m coming to kill them
Call me their arch villain
Can’t stop me I’m willin’
to die for this vision
Of a Vietnam that’s free
from those evil VC”

Like a formula buddy film, the two males travel across the American Southwest, learn things about themselves, their new country, and become Vietnamese-Americans.

If the play is just a raunchy sex comedy, it’s successful. If the play is trying to make a point, I’m not sure what that point is.

Some of my friends loved the play. Tram Le, the Associate Director of the Vietnamese American Oral History Project at UC Irvine, loved the play “for its portrayal of Vietnamese people in a complex way.” Clinical psychologist Suzie Dong-Matsuda thought it “exposed the audience to the intense pain and the long suppressed voice of the 1st generation Vietnamese (my parents’ generation).”

Maybe it’s just me, but I saw nothing like it.

There are mini-points that did come up. For example, the mini-point that not all Vietnamese helplessly ended up on American shores. The mini-point that South Vietnamese military were not lazy asses relying on the Americans to fight their battles — Quang and Nhan, after all, are going to go back and fight. “Funny fact, South Vietnamese fighting for South Vietnam too,” an elderly Quang would say later.

Another mini-point is one of my pet peeves — Americans who think Vietnamese hate America’s involvement in the war.  When I landed in this country in the early 1980’s, well-meaning natives would chant “Ho-Ho-Ho Chi Minh” when they learned where I came from, as if that’s a favor or a sign of being on my side or something.

As he rides through the country, Quang meets a long haired hippy (Tolson) who lost a brother in Vietnam. The hippy says, “From the bottom of my heart, the bottom of my soul — I just wanna say, from me, from us, from America — we are really fucking sorry.”  For what? “For what we did to your country.”

Quang blows his top, tells the hippy he sounds “dumb as a motherfucker” and raps,

“So tie your ribbons around your old oak trees
But save your sorries and ignorant apologies
Don’t put words in the mouths of those who died
Cause it was through their sacrifice that I have my life.”

This is where it also shows Nguyen is not careful with his words.  In the same rap, Quang repeats several times,

“You lost a brother
I lost my whole country
You lost a brother
I lost my wife and kids
You lost a brother
Motherfucker, I lost everything I had”

Really? Did he just do that? Did he just diss someone who died “that I have my life” just because he thinks he lost more? I am sure Nguyen did not mean that, but that’s how the words came out.

So how are Vietnam and the Vietnamese reflected in the play? At one point the playwright (also played by Tolson) sits down for an interview with his father, the now-70-year-old and heavy-accented Quang, and asks about Vietnam. Quang keeps getting distracted into other topics, until he asks the playwright point blank, “Why you care so much about Vietnam War?” “Because I want to write something about you.” To which Quang notes, “My life is more than the eight years I fight.”

Nguyen should have listened to that nugget of wisdom. Vietnam is more than the 20 or so years of American involvement. Let that be a guiding principle for other plays the SCR plans to target the Vietnamese-American community.