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

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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