Welcoming Humor: An Interview with Vietgone Director Jaime Castañeda

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.

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