If Ernest Hemingway wanted us to write the truest sentence we know about Vietgone, the new play by Qui Nguyen commissioned by South Coast Repertory (SCP), it'd be this: it's a sex story. To be more precise, it's a sex story with a comedic framework that leaves room for drama, relies on historic context, but is told through a modern lens. To make things even more interesting (and to dig even deeper into the specifics), it's a sex story based on Nguyen's parents who had met at a refugee camp in Arkansas. You read that right!
Vietgone is a revolutionary work. It's sexually empowering for Vietnamese men and women who are often times fetishized in Western media. Whenever you see a Vietnamese face on the Vietgone stage, you're not looking at a hooker. Rather, you're looking at a human being with the same complex needs and desires as everyone else.
Nguyen's play is one of the first produced by SCR through its CrossRoads initiative, which aims to highlight diverse theatrical voices and content. Nguyen, who has written plays for Vampire Cowboys Theatre Company filled with LGBT characters and female leads, is certainly a perfect fit. Even the nature of his signature style–his own genre of theatre inspired by comic books, hip hop, and action-adventure content–reflects his ability to bring seemingly unrelated things together and unify them, which is what diversity is.
As part of the CrossRoads program, Nguyen was required to immerse himself in Orange County for ten days as inspiration for his work. The goal was to help playwrights experience the diversity of Orange County contrary to what's portrayed in The Real Housewives of Orange County, The O.C., and Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County. In the ten days Nguyen spent exploring the county, he met people from the Vietnamese American Letters N Arts Association and UCI Libraries' Southeast Asian Archives, and that would later inspire him to write Vietgone.
“Being a writer of my specific genre, I assumed I would write something about Comic-Con,” he explains. “But when I looked through the archives, I found pictures of refugee camps where the first Vietnamese-American immigrants arrived, and one was of Fort Chaffee in Arkansas where my parents met. But I'm not known for writing culturally specific or culturally dramatic material, you know–I write about aliens and vampires [laughs]. So, at the time, I was like 'How the hell do I pull this off?''
But that meant Nguyen had to ask his parents how they met–like, how they really met. And when that didn't work (because it didn't), he'd have to bug them about it. Now, if you happen to be a second-generation Vietnamese American, you know how awkward, difficult, and, even, scary this can be.
“Whenever I'd ask them about how they met, they would just answer me in fables or tell me what I should be doing with my life,” Nguyen says, half-jokingly. “So I ended up forging notes with massive mistakes and reviewing them to my parents. They'd get upset at the wrong details and that's how I finally got them tell me their story. They just smiled each other and said, 'We were just horny.' I was just so grossed out, and that tickled the shit out of them.”
Vietgone is a comedy at its core, but it still has moments of drama interwoven in. After all, the story takes place during the Vietnam War, which isn't a light time for any Vietnamese refugee. “You can't subtract the context. It's a love story that happens during a time where people are losing their families,” Nguyen explains. “There are times where we pull suckerpunches but you can already foretell that in the title of the play. We don't hide the fact that sad stuff will happen.”
Of the entire experience, Nguyen is most proud of the people he works with and seeing his parents portrayed on stage. “My grandma passed away in 1999, and the energy the actors portray is how I remember my grandma interacting with my parents,” he says. “At its core, Vietgone is a love story between my parents and me, and between my grandmother and me. And I want people to know that this kind of story is part of the American fabric–that they're important.”
Vietgone will run at South Coast Repertory from October 4 to October 25. To learn more, visit scr.org.