You could say Students for a Democratic Society was all about inclusion. In 1969, with the Weather Underground in control and the Vietnam war in full swing, it supported an anti-capitalist revolution, carried out by colonized and oppressed people everywhere in alliance with what we’d now call woke Western white folks. (Violent woke Western white folks, as it happened: “Bring the war home” was an invitation to tear up “Pig City” [i.e., Chicago] in response to the previous year’s Democratic convention.) Our theater community’s current effort to bring inclusion to the arts by producing the work of writers of color, cast with actors of color—a peaceful, more doable revolution—owes a little something to SDS.
Here’s the funny thing, though. The artists whose voices are getting heard now don’t necessarily say what the Weathermen would’ve wanted to hear in anything like the way they’d have wanted to hear it. Case in point: Qui Nguyen’s 2015 Vietgone, getting a bouncy, ingratiating production at Writers Theatre, in that locus of insurrection called Glencoe.
Nguyen’s idea of bringing the war home is to tell the tale of how his Vietnamese parents met and courted as refugees living in the U.S. immediately after the fall of Saigon. How they built a pretty nice life here, in the belly of the beast.
We know these people are his parents because Vietgone starts with an actor (Ian Michael Minh) introducing himself as “Playwright Qui Nguyen” and telling us, with heavy vocal—and, in the script, typographical—irony, that “All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. . . . (That especially goes for any person or persons who could be related to the PLAYWRIGHT.) (Specifically his parents.) (Who this play is absolutely not about.)”
The dad-to-be is Quang (Matthew C. Yee), a former captain in the South Vietnamese Air Force, who got separated from his wife and children during the April 1975 evacuation that preceded the communist takeover of the capital, and who has hatched a quixotic plan to reunite with them (assuming they’re alive) by motorcycling to California from his present residence—the refugee camp at Fort Chaffee in Arkansas—then hopping over to Guam and catching a plane back home. The mom is Tong (Aurora Adachi-Winter), a tough-minded, randy 30-year-old (“If you don’t have children soon,” a suitor tells her, “your ovaries will dry up”), feeling guilty about the brother she left behind but anxious to start over “now that Saigon’s gone.” The two meet very, very cute at the camp, finding it convenient to pair up for sex before true love and a new life take hold.
There are three intriguing things about Vietgone as far as I’m concerned, all of them interrelated. One is that it flips the conventional Anglocentric order by turning English speakers into the Other. The Americans Quang, Tong, and their fellow refugees meet are often solicitous, even sweet, but their speech strikes the exiles as a comic gibberish composed of yee-haw slang. “Whoop whoop, fist bump,” Quang hears a U.S. officer say. “Mozzarella sticks, tater tot, french fry.” This leads naturally to the second thing, which is the vision Nguyen presents of the surreality of the immigrant experience, combining a sense of cultural superiority (especially when it comes to food) with the abject awareness that your strangeness makes you appear inferior, even stupid.
The third thing is the play’s position on the Vietnam war itself, which is not only far from anything the Weathermen might’ve imagined when they were smashing windows in Pig City, trying to spark global insurrection, but also from the “domino theory” that was supposed to have justified American intervention. Quang’s view, in particular, calls into question a lot of lefty assumptions about the war and reminds us yet again of the arrogance of ideology.
Three points of interest should make for a decent evening at the theater, but Nguyen slathers them with idiomatic cuteness (“Yo, what’s up, white people?”) that’s ostensibly meant to distance his immigrant forebears from Asian stereotyping (“Prease to meeting you! I so Asian!”) but ends up overwhelming the characters as much as the cliches. Despite the many compassionate notes in Lavina Jadhwani’s staging and an especially warm performance by Emjoy Gavino as Tong’s mom, the show feels like it’d much rather be seen as an elbow-nudging display of theatrical wit and resourcefulness than an exploration of strength and pain. Nguyen’s unremittingly energetic charm offensive cloys before long and finally turns all but insufferable. v