Rewriting the Narrative: How Vietgone Reclaims Vietnamese Representation

Friday, April 20, 2018

By Taylor Steinbeck

From Platoon (1986) to the Rambo series (1982–2008) to Miss Saigon (1989), “the main protagonist is always a white guy going to Vietnam and [the] Vietnamese are the bad guys being shot at or they are the people who need saving,” said playwright Qui Nguyen in a 2016 Rolling Stone interview. So Nguyen created Vietgone as an antidote to the “white savior” tale. Its characters are proudly Vietnamese and fully capable of saving themselves. By giving his characters dimension and agency, Nguyen attempts to reclaim how Vietnamese people have been represented on stage and screen, and makes them the heroes of their own story.

Tong (Janelle Chu) flirts with Quang (James Seol)
in A.C.T.'s 2018 production of Vietgone. Photo by Kevin Berne.
In Miss Saigon, “Vietnam is a place not worth saving, and America is a holy grail worth killing and dying for,” writes journalist Diep Tran in her American Theatre magazine article “I Am Miss Saigon, and I Hate It.” The protagonist of the musical, Vietnamese bargirl Kim, kills herself so that the father of her child—an American G.I.—will take her son with him to America, suggesting that her son’s life in America would be better than one in Vietnam.

The confident, sexually liberated Tong is Nguyen’s reaction to characters like Kim. Tong is an assertive, feminist character in control of her sexuality. She enjoys casual sex with multiple men at the camp, and is uninterested in being taken care of by anyone. “I’m no Juliet waiting on no balcony,” she raps. “I can save my own kingdom, I’m a badass bitch.” 

In taking on a musical such as Miss Saigon—the most famous theatrical interpretation of the Vietnam War—Nguyen strives to change the Vietnamese narrative that Americans think they know so well. By inverting stereotypes and using American forms, Nguyen breaks down the boundaries between his American audience and the Vietnamese characters onstage. He doesn’t just want Americans to listen to the characters’ story, he wants his audience to empathize with them.

Nguyen’s use of American storytelling techniques is also a reflection of his own identity as a Vietnamese American playwright. Vietgone is not only a Vietnamese story—it’s also a Vietnamese American story, and its embrace of both cultures makes it accessible to a wider audience. Non-Asian American theatergoers can identify with an unfamiliar perspective through Vietgone’s storytelling forms and emotional poignancy, while Asian American audiences can feel uplifted by representation that empowers instead of belittling.

Quang (James Seol) fights Redneck Biker (Jomar Tagatac)
in A.C.T.'s 2018 production of Vietgone. Photo by Kevin Berne.
In an interview with American Theatre magazine, Nguyen spoke about the power of representation: “Everyone deserves a chance to see themselves onstage. With Vietgone, I wanted to address the huge lack of sexually powerful, driven, and complex Asian-American male and female characters on our stages. I wanted to see a sexy Asian male and a sexy Asian female be sexy for something other than being ‘exotic.’ And I wanted to make something that a young ‘yella’ kid could see and feel proud of themselves after seeing it.” Since the play’s 2015 world premiere, audiences of all ages and backgrounds from across the country have responded to Nguyen’s storytelling on an emotional level. “I remember a specific email I received,” said Nguyen, “during the South Coast Rep run of Vietgone from someone who wrote, ‘As an Asian-American kid, it feels like the world keeps telling me that I’m supposed to be weak. But when I saw Vietgone, it made me feel strong.’ That’s the heartbeat of why I do what I do.”

Vietgone has been extended and now runs through April 29 at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater. Click here to purchase tickets. Want to learn more about the storytelling techniques in Vietgone? Order a copy of Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series.

Wearing Many Hats: The A.C.T. Fellowship Project 2018

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

By Taylor Steinbeck

For over six months, 13 young theater artists from various departments of A.C.T.’s Fellowship Program have come together to produce not one, but two plays in a project that will culminate in performances this week. Running April 19–22 at A.C.T.’s Costume Shop, the production features the work of Obie Award–winning playwrights Caryl Churchill and José Rivera with Far Away and Brainpeople, respectively. Both these plays tackle war, fear, and oppression through a dystopian lens, speaking volumes about the world we live in today. In celebration of this project marking the fifth consecutive year of the Fellowship Project, we spoke to some of this year's fellows about their experiences.

The 2017–18 A.C.T. Fellows involved in The A.C.T. Fellowship Project 2018. Photo by Allie Moss.
Nora Zahn (Director of Far Away): Being a part of this project from beginning to end has taught me a ton, especially when it comes to all the tiny details that go into making a production happen at an institutional theater! From changing the smallest phrases in fundraising letters to figuring out the exact coffee-to-water ratio to dye muslin, the sheer attention that has gone into each individual part of this process has been pretty mind-boggling. What an opportunity it has been to work with a badass group of largely women artists on a play as wild as Caryl Churchill's Far Away!

Nailah Harper-Malveaux (Director of Brainpeople): I feel incredibly humbled to work on this show with my three dope queens [Brainpeople actors Laura Espino, Andrea Guidry, and Jeunée Simon]! We are tackling a beast of a play. It's a joy and a challenge to work on Rivera's language and bring his words to life because there is such an incredible poeticism to them. The script is so meaty—we all just wish we had more time to chew on it! 

Costume Designer Bree Dills, directors Nora Zahn and Nailah Harper-Malveaux,
Production Manager Spencer Jorgensen, and Assistant Production Manager Olga Korolev
at the first rehearsal of the A.C.T. Fellowship Project 2018. Photo by Taylor Steinbeck.
Miranda Ashland (Marketing Manager, Far Away Ensemble Member): I’ve taken a huge step in my understanding of how to market a show–or, in this case, two shows. Not only have I built on the knowledge I've learned from my time as a fellow, but I gained new skills through this project.

Far Away ensemble members Laura Espino, Andrea Guidry, Jeunée Simon, Rachel Stuart,
Taylor Steinbeck, Miranda Ashland, and director Nora Zahn in rehearsal. Photo by Mia Carey.
Rachel Stuart (Fundraising Manager, Far Away Ensemble Member): It felt so amazing to exceed our fundraising goal by thousands of dollars. Everyone was so helpful and I definitely learned a lot about raising money for a not-for-profit theater in managing my first campaign. While I'm happy we have extra funds to funnel into our show, my favorite part of this project has been collaborating with all the different departments. It's been fun getting to interact with fellows I normally don't get to work with. 

Bree Willard (Set, Prop, Projection, Graphic Designer): Wearing many hats in this project has given me insight into what it takes to problem solve for the different parts of a production. I've been able to use the visual design skills I’ve developed as the Graphics Fellow and apply them practically. 

Set and prop designer Bree Willard making papier-mâché mannequin heads. Photo by Miranda Ashland.
Mia Carey (Stage Manager, General Manager): It has been extremely rewarding to be deeply involved with these shows from the beginning—when they were just an idea—to now, when I am able to help run them every night.

The fellows involved with this year's project are: Miranda Ashland, Mia Carey, Tessanella DeFrisco, Bree Dills, Ilyssa Ernsteen, Nailah Harper-Malveaux, Spencer Jorgensen, Olga Korolev, Lealani Drew Manuta, Taylor Steinbeck, Rachel Stuart, Bree Willard, and Nora Zahn.

Far Away and Brainpeople run April 19–22 at The Costume Shop, 1117 Market Street. Tickets are free to the public, but require a reservation. Click here to reserve your tickets. For more about A.C.T.’s Fellowship Program, click here.

From Hip-Hop to Martial Arts: An Interview with Vietgone and Begets Playwright Qui Nguyen Part Two

Friday, April 13, 2018

By Michael Paller

Growing up in Arkansas with Vietnamese refugee parents, Qui Nguyen loved hip-hop, action movies, and comic books. So when he began writing plays, he filled them with these passions: martial arts in Begets: Fall of a High School Ronin, superheroes in Men of Steel, and zombies in Alice in Slasherland. Many of these works were written for Nguyen’s Obie Award–winning “geek theater” company, Vampire Cowboys. We caught up with Nguyen in anticipation of his takeover of A.C.T.'s Strand Theater this upcoming week—Vietgone is playing in The Rembe and Begets is playing in The Rueff—to talk to the man behind the work. This is Part Two.

Artwork for A.C.T's Young Conservatory production of Begets: Fall of a High School Ronin. 
In a moment when the issue of refugees is more charged and divisive than it’s been for generations, what do you hope an audience might take away from Vietgone?
Politics can quickly dehumanize people, while the goal of art, stories, and plays is to remind people of our humanity. I want to remind people that refugees are people. They’re not terrorists or rapists. Most of them, if not all, are just people trying to escape a situation in which they’re victims. Like my parents, they aren’t running to this country for a better job, they’re coming because it’s life and death.  

Were there other Vietnamese American kids in your neighborhood growing up? Did you feel like an outsider?

It was me, my brothers, and another Asian family who lived across town. They were Chinese, the Tams, and we became close friends, but because they lived across town I hardly ever saw them. I didn’t know that I was experiencing more or less racism than other kids. It was my childhood and I didn’t know anything different. From my perspective, everyone got shit. The Black kid got shit for being Black, the Asian kid got it for being Asian, the fat kid got it for being fat, the pretty girl got it for being slutty.

We’re also doing your play Begets: Fall of a High School Ronin with the Young Conservatory starting April 17. What might we learn about you or your work by seeing the two plays side by side?

I like fights! And I tend to write with a lot of slang. Artistically, I look at the world in very different colors. I try to find a fun angle for everything. I can write realism but I don’t really like doing it, especially in theater. I like to move an audience but also to have fun with them. So a lot of my shows, especially the Vampire Cowboys ones, are about having a party. By seeing these two shows side by side, you’ll get a pretty good picture of who I am as an artist.

The Young Conservatory’s production of Begets: Fall of a High School Ronin begins performances April 17 at The Rueff at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater. Click here to purchase tickets. Vietgone has been extended and now runs through April 29 at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater. Click here to purchase tickets. Want to learn more about playwright Qui Nguyen? Order a copy of Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series.
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