Qui Nguyen’s Vietgone Repudiates the Prevailing Vietnam War Narrative

Retelling American history through hip-hop may have a well-known antecedent, but retelling the Vietnam War from the perspective of Vietnamese and Vietnamese-American people is certainly new.

Jomar Tagatac is in danger of being typecast. At the start of Christopher Chen’s Caught (at Shotgun Players), the actor addressed the audience directly from center stage, claiming he was a dissident Chinese artist named Lin Bo. (This declaration turned out to be rather fraught.) Tagatac is also the first person we see and hear from in Qui Nguyen’s Vietgone. This time, he takes on the alter ego of the Vietnamese-American playwright who’s telling the story of how his parents first met. But this A.C.T. production (through April 22) has much more in mind for the actor than having him play another meta character who stands inside and outside of the narrative.

He has multiple roles — six, at last count — like the rest of the cast in Vietgone that demonstrate their comedic and dramatic range. Set in and around the Vietnam War, Nguyen’s point of view is a lively repudiation of American narratives (certainly cinematic ones like Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, or Coming Home) that treat the Vietnamese people as if they were background players in the conflict. Nguyen, however, isn’t dismissing the traumatic effects of the war for either side. He’s merely supplanting the American characters we’re used to seeing with Vietnamese and Vietnamese-American ones.   

Each scene in Vietgone has the visual impact of a panel in a graphic novel meant for adults. The scenic designer Brian Sidney Bembridge opts for a minimalist approach. A walkway hovers above the main set and hosts shorter scenes, sudden interjections, that provide background information to the central storyline. Chris Lundahl, the projection designer, unites the scenes together, whether short or substantial, by casting canary yellow supertitles across the backdrop between the entr’actes. They, and the era-appropriate soundtrack, provide a campy, tone-setting punch like a “Zlonk” or a “Blam” graphic from the 1960s Batman TV show.

Nhan (Stephen Hu, left) and Quang (James Seol, right) fly a helicopter full of people to safety in Qui Nguyen’s “Vietgone” (Kevin Berne)

It’s counterintuitive to think that a certain amount of levity would suit a subject like the aftermath of the Vietnam War, but it does in just the right amount. Director Jaime Castañeda is careful to focus our attention on the emotional lives of the actors and the work they’re doing. He often places them center stage. Even when they’re off center, usually to express an uncomfortable emotion or thought, they appear to step out of the sets they’ve been given, to become larger than life. This is most apparent when the two principals start to rap.

Quang (James Seol) meets Tong (Jenelle Chu) at an Arkansas refugee camp in the early 1970s. Quang arrives there with his best friend and army buddy Nhan (Stephen Hu), Tong with her sardonic mother Huong (Cindy Im). Nguyen structures Vietgone along parallel tracks of time by telling Quang’s and Tong’s separate journeys from Vietnam to the United States and their present-day lust-to-love story. The rap songs they sing function as strategically placed monologues that lift the energy on stage. They don’t suddenly turn Vietgone, a dramedy, into a quasi-musical or a derivative of Hamilton.  

Tagatac returns again later to play a hopeless rival for Tong’s affections. If he has yet to perform the role of The Fool in King Lear, he comes close here to conveying that character’s willingness to selflessly serve someone he loves. He also participates in Vietgone’s unexpected and satisfying ending. Nguyen travels across oceans and continents, drifting back and forth in time and through a variety of moods, from rage to humor to sorrow. But he wrapped them all up together in one final tender scene. In a suburban living room, a son asks his father to talk about the past. It’s that conversation that Nguyen affectionately recounts in Vietgone.   

Vietgone, Through April 22, at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater, 1127 Market St. $35-$95; 415-749-2228, or act-sf.org.

Tags: , , ,

Related Stories