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

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.

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