The History Behind Vietgone: The Fall of Saigon

Friday, March 16, 2018

By Allie Moss and Simon Hodgson

On April 29, 1975, Vietnamese residents of Saigon heard Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” on US Armed Forces radio. What they didn’t know was that it was a coded message for the Americans remaining that meant “Evacuate immediately.” As the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) moved southward towards Saigon, the US Army began Operation Frequent Wind, a plan to evacuate from the country American and international civilians as well as Vietnamese deemed at risk from Communist forces. But American planners failed to predict the speed of the NVA thrust southward. As they drew up lists of the people who would be airlifted to safety, they thought they had weeks. By the time Communist shells started landing on Tan Son Nhut Air Base to the north of Saigon, they barely had hours.
Evacuees from Vietnam on the USS Midway in 1975. Photo courtesy US Navy.
The evacuation of the city was frantic. Huge crowds formed at the US embassy as American helicopters came to rescue US citizens; although they saved some Vietnamese civilians as well, most were left behind. “My father went to the US embassy to escape,” said a Vietnamese American. “Anyone who managed to climb through the fence made it to the helicopters. But he couldn’t get through.” In the sea around Saigon there were so many aircraft trying to land on the US Navy vessels that many pilots ditched their aircraft in the sea or landed on the ships only for their aircraft to be pushed overboard to let others land (exactly what happens to helicopter pilot Quang in Vietgone).

Even after the fighting ended and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam was created in 1976, hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese people fled the country by boat. “My mother escaped on a fishing boat with 60 other people,” said Jenelle Chu, who plays Tong in Vietgone. “Each person had paid 20 ounces of gold for the journey. All my mother carried with her was a hundred-dollar bill, a fifty-dollar bill, a handful of photographs, and two sets of clothes. She was on the boat for 14 days until she reached a refugee camp in Malaysia. She stayed there for eight months until she was sponsored by the Lutheran Church in St. Louis and flew to Missouri.”

Refugees coming off a plane. Courtesy UCI Libraries Southeast Asian Archive.
Those who survived the dangerous journey often endured many months in spartan refugee camps in Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia before they were able to resettle permanently. Thousands of refugees resettled in Australia, Canada, France, Germany, and the United States, where they faced the challenge of starting their lives over: learning a new language, navigating a foreign culture, retraining in a country that didn’t accept their qualifications, and in some cases, creating new families after leaving loved ones behind. These challenges, as well as the complex history of the war, remain present in the cultural heritage of many Vietnamese Americans, including Vietgone playwright Qui Nguyen.

runs through April 22 at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater. Click here to purchase tickets. Want to learn more about the history behind Vietgone? Order a copy of Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series.

Creativity and Chaos: An Interview with Heisenberg Playwright Simon Stephens

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

By Simon Hodgson

Simon Stephens grew up in Stockport, a provincial British town that the playwright once described as a place “on the edge of things.” Today, however, Stephens is a name known worldwide. His 30-plus plays—including On the Shore of the Wide World (2006 Olivier Award) and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (2015 Tony Award for Best Play)—have been staged all over the English-speaking world. But while the playwright continues to travel widely for productions of his works, his imagination is still sparked by the red-brick streets where he grew up. In between Stephens’s trips to New York and Melbourne, we talked with him about inspiration, science, and the human condition.

Playwright Simon Stephens and his two cats at his London home.
Photo by Simon Annand. Courtesy of Simon Stephens.
Where did the idea for Heisenberg come from? How did you come up with these two characters?

I read a story about a woman in my hometown who came to befriend and then deceive—to a quite criminal degree—an old man whom I knew as a child. I became fascinated by what was involved in friendship and deception, and then by what happens to the deceivers if their emotional response to their world takes them by surprise. I wanted to write characters that had the capacity to take themselves and each other by surprise. More than in many plays that I have written, Georgie and Alex are characters who surprise me. I wrote them often not knowing what they were going to say next. That spirit still defines them.

What’s your interest in Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle?

I have come to science quite late in my life as a space of creativity and imagination and chaos and searching. When I was introduced to this simple particle theory by a scientist friend of mine, I was startled by how deeply it resonated with what it was to be a human being. In the end, the investigation of the dramatist is that aspect of humanity, so anything that resonates with us in that sense should excite us.

How does the play’s title link to the way that Alex and Georgie behave?

The link comes from the theory which states that an observed particle can never be predicted and a particle whose projection is observed has not been fully seen. If you watch something closely enough, you can’t predict what it will do next. If you worry about what it is going to do, you are not looking at it hard enough. I tried to tell a story that dramatized the way that paradox played out in humanity. I have always been, and remain, astonished by the remarkable, sad, frightening, beautiful things human beings can do to each other.

Heisenberg begins at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater March 14 and runs through April 8. Click here to purchase tickets. Want to learn more about playwright Simon Stephens? Order a copy of Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series.

Two Molecules in Space: Heisenberg Arrives at A.C.T.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

By Taylor Steinbeck

Heisenberg director Hal Brooks has received many questions about the title of his play beginning performances next week at The Geary Theater. “People ask me, ‘Oh, is it about that zeppelin disaster? Is it about Breaking Bad? No, it’s not,” says Brooks with a laugh. “Others ask, ‘Is it about Heisenberg, the scientist?’ To that I say, ‘It’s not about Heisenberg. It’s about a relationship—it’s looking at his ideas through a relationship.’”

The cast and creative team of A.C.T.'s production of Heisenberg at the first rehearsal. Photo by Taylor Steinbeck.
At the first rehearsal for Heisenberg, Brooks, an alumnus of A.C.T.’s Advanced Training Program, addressed a room full of faces both familiar and new, and admitted, “I am not a physicist.” With this disclaimer, he briefly explained the science behind Heisenberg. Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle asserts that you cannot measure both the velocity and location of a particle—you can only determine one or the other. An offshoot of this idea is the observer effect, which is what playwright Simon Stephens is interested in parsing out over the course of Heisenberg. The observer effect states that the act of measuring something affects its outcome. Through the characters of Alex and Georgie, the play applies this concept to people, rather than particles. “What’s going to happen as these two living, breathing organisms affect each other?” Brooks asked. “Where are they going to end up, and can we measure that? I don’t think we can, but we can at least follow along as the mystery unfolds.”

Actors James Carpenter and Sarah Grace Wilson at the first rehearsal of A.C.T.'s production of Heisenberg.
Photo by Taylor Steinbeck.
Brooks and set designer Alexander V. Nichols designed the set to reflect the science. “We want for the set to make it seem like we’re witnessing an experiment of sorts, of two molecules in space, attracted and repulsed, pulling together and pulling apart, and putting them in six different locations,” Brooks said. The two actors who will be interacting in this unpredictable space are the New York–based, award–winning, Sarah Grace Wilson, and Bay Area favorite James Carpenter. After years of performing as Ebenezer Scrooge in A.C.T.'s annual production of A Christmas Carol, audiences will have the chance to see him slip into a very different role as reserved Irish butcher Alex Priest. “James has been a gift of a collaborator for so many years,” A.C.T. Artistic Director Carey Perloff said. “I was so glad when we sent him the play and he said, ‘I love it and I’m terrified.’ Those are two good things!”

A.C.T. Artistic Director Carey Perloff and director Hal Brooks at the first rehearsal of A.C.T.'s production of Heisenberg.
Photo by Taylor Steinbeck.
The fact that Heisenberg is a two-person play is one of the reasons Brooks was drawn to it from the get-go. “I read this play and immediately wanted to direct it,” Brooks said. “It’s mysterious. You don’t know what’s going to happen next. And you think, well, there better be a third person coming because I don’t know how these two are going to make it, but that’s not the case. It just keeps persisting. And I find that magical.”

Heisenberg begins at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater March 14 and runs through April 8. Click here to purchase tickets. Want to learn more about A.C.T.’s production of Heisenberg? Order a copy of Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series.

Welcoming Humor: An Interview with Vietgone Director Jaime Castañeda

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

By Taylor Steinbeck

When theater-makers Jaime Castañeda and Qui Nguyen were both living in New York, they’d seek out each other’s work. Castañeda was the artistic associate at Atlantic Theater Company, while Nguyen was writing for his downtown theater company, Vampire Cowboys. “Qui and I were always plotting to hatch a project together,” says Castañeda. “We have similar tastes and we’re both hip-hop theater nerds.” Their similarities run deeper than music. Like Nguyen, Castañeda is a first-generation American—raised in Texas by parents who emigrated from Mexico. “A lot of Qui’s story relates to my own experiences,” he says. “It really has me thinking about my parents and how their history informs me as a person.” In celebration of Vietgone’s opening night this week, we talked to Castañeda about his direction for this hilarious and heartbreaking play.

Director Jaime Castañeda. Photo by Ahron R. Foster.
Vietgone is a funny show set in a not-so-funny time. How do you plan on navigating these tone shifts?

One of the best ways to cope with something tragic is by not only embracing what’s dark about a moment, but also welcoming humor to it, and that’s Qui’s natural sensibility as a writer. What makes Vietgone uniquely Qui is that he takes what seems like a traditional immigrant story and turns it into this wild, epic road-trip fantasia. There’s fights and there’s music and there’s dancing and there’s sex. It’s all in Qui’s head—that’s what makes this a fun ride.

How does the Vietnam War fit into this narrative?

I always describe any theatrical event or story that’s based in reality as just one person’s truth, and this is Qui’s truth. This is the pursuit of his truth within his own family, and it feels honest and raw because he’s asking real questions. Vietgone strips away the politics of the war and our historical baggage because it’s not really about the war itself. It’s a story about Vietnamese immigrants dealing with difficult circumstances. And it’s these circumstances that are the foundation for what brings two people together, and brings about Qui’s birth.

Nhan (Stephen Hu) and Quang (James Seol) flee Vietnam during the fall of Saigon. Photo by Kevin Berne.
What’s your approach to storytelling?

I always aim to create theater that is inclusive and accessible to many different cultures. I try to approach a play by looking at the intersections of race and story, while staying true to a specific cultural point of view. My hope is that a lot of communities will be able to interact with Vietgone, but I’d be especially happy if it generated some excitement within the Vietnamese community.

Vietgone runs through April 22 at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater. Click here to purchase tickets. Want to learn more about Jaime Castañeda’s direction? Order a copy of Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series.

From Saigon to the States: A Brief History of the Vietnamese Refugees in Vietgone

Friday, March 2, 2018

By Simon Hodgson

As Communist tanks rumbled south toward Saigon in April 1975, American strategists raced to implement Operation Frequent Wind, the plan to evacuate at-risk Vietnamese allies and US civilians. Despite opposition to the American military presence in Vietnam, thousands of Vietnamese had worked alongside US personnel in the war—as military servicemen (such as Vietgone’s pilot protagonist Quang Nguyen), interpreters, administrators, doctors, drivers, nurses, and analysts. When the Americans evacuated, more than a million Vietnamese—fellow soldiers, co-workers, spouses, children—were in danger.

A Vietnamese family at Fort Chaffee, Arkansas. Courtesy UCI Libraries Southeast Asian Archive.
Tan Son Nhut Air Base was the main route out of Saigon; planners had scheduled dozens of flights by military transport aircraft. But when the North Vietnamese started shelling the airstrip, the Americans were forced to use helicopters, carrying far smaller numbers. Thirty thousand Vietnamese were eventually airlifted to safety, with a hundred thousand more escaping on US warships. Almost all the departing Vietnamese believed they would come back soon, when it was safer. Most would never return.

In the camps, the new migrants found a strange and regimented new world. Rows of olive green canvas tents stretched out for miles, surrounded by fences. Green portapotties at regular intervals. Lines of water faucets, with Vietnamese bent over them, washing their clothes in cold water using the blue plastic washbasins that each family was issued. White, wooden administration buildings with queues of people waiting to fill out resettlement forms. 

A Vietnamese boy eating a cookie, Fort Chaffee, Arkansas.
Courtesy UCI Libraries Southeast Asian Archive.
For most refugees, the resettlement process started with sponsorship letters from American families, small-business owners, community organizations, and churches across the nation. After exchanging information about the size of the household, each Vietnamese family would travel to the sponsor’s hometown. In Vietgone, Tong is sponsored by a family in El Dorado, Arkansas. Some Vietnamese families would find support, generosity, and love. Others would encounter greed and cruelty, as small-business owners exploited the newcomers. For many refugees, assimilation would continue to be marked by enduring discrimination, prejudice, racism, and intolerance.

The 130,000 Vietnamese who arrived in 1975 represented a sizable demographic addition, yet they were just the tip of the iceberg. By 2014, the Vietnamese American population in the US had grown to 1.3 million, most of them refugees in the 1980s and ’90s who had braved danger and piracy to flee by sea. While their backgrounds and their journeys were different to the wave of 1975, almost all shared a drive for a life free from fear and oppression. In a nation founded by migrants and at a moment when the issue of refugees and deportation is more divisive than ever, the Vietnamese who came to America in the last five decades continue to show resilience and resourcefulness in the face of ongoing challenges.

Vietgone runs through April 22 at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater. Click here to purchase tickets. Want to learn more about the history in Vietgone? Order a copy of Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series.

Cadence, Rhythm, Flow: An Interview with Vietgone Composer Shammy Dee Part One

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

By Elspeth Sweatman

Vietgone composer Shammy Dee began performing at a young age, but it was in junior high school that he discovered his medium: hip-hop and the smooth turntables of the DJ deck. Since releasing his debut album Transcripted Thoughts in 2006, Shammy Dee has produced and performed on many other music projects, such as DJing for top brands including Louis Vuitton, Jimmy Choo, and Burberry, as well as for celebrities including Mary J. Blige, Michael Bublé, and the Kardashians. In anticipation of Vietgone’s hip-hop takeover this Thursday, we sat down with Shammy Dee to chat about his process and the inherent energy of hip-hop. This is Part One.

DJ and hip-hop artist Shammy Dee. Photo by Robbie Jeffers.
What’s your favorite thing about Vietgone?

It’s good writing. I love the comedy of it. At first, the premise of the play—a love story based during the Vietnam War—didn’t sound like something I would relate to, but I found myself really caring for these characters and hoping that it would all work out, which obviously it did because Qui exists. When I first read the raps and heard them, I was like, “Oh cool. Qui’s a head, a hip-hop head.” If you’re a fan of hip-hop culture, you’ll catch the writer’s subtle nods and winks to hip-hop artists like JAY-Z. And that’s a dope moment. It pulls you into the play.

How did you go about creating the music for this production?

Over the course of a couple weeks, I read through the play multiple times, making notes about the impulses that I had, ideas that I thought could fit. Then I created multiple versions, at least three passes—if not more—of each song. What was interesting was when I showed these versions to Jaime [Castañeda, Vietgone's director], he gravitated toward my initial impulses, the passes that are very organic, with not a lot of synthesizers or samples. So we’re leaning toward acoustical instruments: drums, guitars, strings. When we grouped all the passes we liked together and listened back, we found the common thread to them was the organic feel.

Composer Shammy Dee. Photo courtesy Shammy Dee.
What does hip-hop add to Vietgone?

Hip-hop makes it more accessible. The play definitely stands on its own—the writing is that strong—but music has a sneaky way of connecting people who wouldn’t connect otherwise. Hip-hop also gives the show an energy that you wouldn’t get if it was a traditional play. With hip-hop theater, songs can either create additional context or expand a moment. You can dig deeper into an emotion with a song, rather than saying “I’m upset.” Music can create that feeling, just like a movie score does. These songs in Vietgone pull you in because, just like with Hamilton and other hip-hop theater pieces, you’re experiencing storytelling in a different way.

Vietgone runs through April 22 at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater. Click here to purchase tickets. Join us at The Strand this Thursday, March 1 for an evening of hip-hop music, culture, and conversation. Enjoy discounted drinks and live music mixed by DJ Shammy Dee beginning at 6 pm, and a postshow panel featuring director Jaime Castañeda, playwright Qui Nguyen, DJ Shammy Dee, and hip-hop historian Jeff Chang. Want to learn more about the hip-hop in Vietgone? Order a copy of Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series.

Breaking Binaries: M.F.A. Third-Year Actors Present The Last Days of Judas Iscariot

Thursday, February 22, 2018

By Taylor Steinbeck

Is mankind inherently good or evil? This long-debated question is at the center of Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis’s dark comedy, The Last Days of Judas Iscariot. “In a society plagued by the need to define everything from identity to justice in a binary,” says director David Mendizábal, “it is in the gray area that we will find discovery, change, and progress.” The M.F.A. Program’s third-year actors will be tasked with unpacking this heady idea in their last full-length production as M.F.A. students. To celebrate its opening at The Rueff tonight, we talked to four of the actors—Lily Narbonne (Fabiana Aziza Cunningham), Vincent J. Randazzo (Judge/Caiaphas the Elder), Oliver Shirley (Butch Honeywell/Saint Peter), and Justin Edward Keim (Simon the Zealot/Sigmund Freud/Saint Thomas)—about diving into the gray area and performing as the class of 2018 for the final time.

M.F.A. third-year actors Justin Genna, Adrianna Mitchell, Oliver Shirley, and Peter Fanone in
rehearsal for The Last Days of Judas Iscariot. Photo courtesy @ACTMFA2018 on Instagram.
What has your experience been like acting in this play?

Randazzo: What's been really great about working on this play is the muscle of Guirgis. For the past three years we've studied argument in Shakespeare and Shaw, and to apply that education to a contemporary writer like Guirgis has been really helpful, especially since this is a courtroom drama (albeit a very heightened one). So it's this fun mix of dense, heightened text but also this rough-and-tumble vernacular.

Narbonne: Playing Cunningham has been a wonderful challenge. Of all the large roles I’ve played , this is the first woman whose character is not concerned with love or her social status. This play is really about the big questions having to do with the history of Christianity, the existence of God, justice and mercy.

How do you hope audiences will respond to this production?

Shirley: I hope audiences will walk away with a renewed sense of how complex issues of “right and wrong” and “good and bad” can be. Things today often get categorized into one or the other, and what this play asks of its audience is to consider the gray area.

The M.F.A. Program class of 2018 in rehearsal for The Last Days of Judas Iscariot.
Photo courtesy @ACTMFA2018 on Instagram.
What does it feel like knowing that this is the final time the class of 2018 will be performing a full-length show as M.F.A. students?

Keim: Sad as all hell. I never want to stop working with these people. Over the last three years we have created such a cohesive "company"; it feels like we can do anything together. We know so much about each other—our ticks, what makes us laugh, what makes us cry—we can pull so much out of each other. It truly is a gift to work with people you feel so connected to; that's where the best work comes from. But the more I think about the connection I've made with these incredibly talented artists, the more I am confident that I'm going to hunt these people down in the future to work with me. This ride ain't over.

The Last Days of Judas Iscariot runs February 22 through March 3 at The Rueff at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater, 1127 Market Street, San Francisco. Click here to purchase tickets.

The Mischievous Artist: An Interview with Vietgone Playwright Qui Nguyen Part One

Tuesday, February 20, 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 to chat about Vietgone, a play that combines his passions with the story of his parents. This is Part One.

Vietgone playwright Qui Nguyen. Photo courtesy Qui Nguyen.
We’ve read that you joined your high school drama club to meet cute girls, but since then you’ve written 12 plays and cofounded a theater company. What’s kept you in the theater besides the cute girls?

[Laughs] Right now I’m working in TV and film but I still go back to theater because in theater I know my mission. In TV and film I’m more of a workhorse, but in theater my artistry is specific; I know my voice and the context that I bring there. I’m creating shows for a younger demographic and creating characters that often don’t get depicted in a certain way. I had to write Vietgone because those are five really good roles that don’t exist for Asian Americans and their stories aren’t being told.

On the surface, Vietgone doesn’t resemble your other plays. Where did the idea for it come from?

It’s the play I’d always planned on writing. The first time I tried to write anything about my family was a play called Trial by Water, which was a big bag of garbage. My mom saw it and said, “It’s interesting but it doesn’t sound like you. You’re mischievous, you’re funny, and you goof around. None of that is on the stage.” It was one of the most profound criticisms I ever got. So I created Vampire Cowboys to explore who I was as a mischievous artist. When I got “old enough,” I thought I’d write my parents’ story. My parents are older now, and I have kids. At some point I thought, “I’m never going to become this mature artist. So I’m just going to write this play using all the tools in my toolbox, and see what it sounds like.”

Why did you choose to use rap as a major part of the musical landscape?

My brain doesn’t think in terms of melody. It’s an extension of being a writer and picking up words and seeing how I can play with the rhythms. I first fell in love with rap when I was freestyling on the corner with my friends. It’s part of who I am.

Vietgone begins at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater February 21 and runs through April 22. 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.

In Memoriam: Alan Stein

Friday, February 16, 2018

By A.C.T. Publications Staff

A.C.T. mourns the loss of Alan Stein, beloved Chair of A.C.T.’s Board of Trustees from 1988 to 1997 and a consummate advocate for and supporter of arts and culture across the Bay Area. A theater-loving Columbia College graduate with a distinguished career in finance, Alan first became involved at A.C.T. in the 1970s, shortly after relocating to San Francisco from New York. In the early days, he worked closely with Artistic Director William Ball to stabilize the company and orient it toward the future.

Carey Perloff and Alan Stein at A.C.T.'s Producers Circle Dinner at The Geary Theater, 2013.
Photo courtesy of Drew Altizer Photography.
In 1988, with A.C.T. facing economic challenges, Alan returned to the board, becoming chair months before the Loma Prieta earthquake. In the wake of that disaster, with The Geary in ruins, Alan pointed the way forward with the words, “The show must go on.”

Alan’s energy, persuasiveness, and financial know-how, developed during a career that included leadership roles at Goldman Sachs and Montgomery Securities, was paramount to A.C.T.’s recovery in the 1990s. He played an active role in hiring Artistic Director Carey Perloff and nurturing her creative vision, and was instrumental in the campaign to rebuild The Geary. His courage, commitment, and irreverence ushered in a new era for A.C.T. and helped stimulate the enormous growth the company has witnessed over the past two decades.

As emeritus chair, Alan served as the campaign co-chair for A.C.T.’s first endowment campaign that secured more than $30 million. Today, Alan and his wife Ruth are remembered throughout A.C.T. in the conference room at 30 Grant that bears their name, and in the Christmas Carol characters Alan and Ruth—two of the jolliest guests at the Fezziwigs’ party.

A.C.T. owes an immeasurable debt of gratitude to Alan, a generous and visionary leader who worked hand in hand with three artistic directors, ensured the company’s long-term financial stability, and played numerous roles across five decades of A.C.T.’s history. We will miss him enormously, and we celebrate his remarkable life.
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