Rewriting the Narrative: How Vietgone Reclaims Vietnamese Representation

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.

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