I’m so glad I got to see Vietgone, the terrific play that just opened at City Center.
VietNam is all too often seen in the US through the lens of war: the period roughly from the early 1960’s to 1975 when US soldiers fought to keep the southern half of the country from being ruled by the North Vietnamese. The war created deep fissures in American society, ranging from Francis Cardinal Spellman’s “…but right or wrong, my country” to the Berrigan brothers burning of draft files. The war was raging when I was in high school, and many of our conversations revolved around it, especially about the boys we knew, or were dating, who had been drafted or were likely to be, or who had served and died. Today, the war occupies an unresolved place in Americans’ consciousness, and for many politicians it’s become de rigeur to say that they would have served, had it not been for …[insert phony excuse of your choice here]… But we really haven’t heard a lot from the Vietnamese who resettled here – now Vietgone gives them a voice.
The plot revolves around a couple, Tong and Quang, who meet in a refugee camp in Arizona after the American evacuation of Saigon. At the beginning, the “playwright” announces that the play is not based on real people, (but we know that Qui Nguyen has essentially recreated his parents’ story).
The story moves back and forth not only in time, but also between Saigon, Arizona and California – the ingeniously placed screens with their graphic-novel projections let us know where and when the action is taking place. There are three central threads: Tong and her mother adjusting to life in the refugee center in Arizona; Quang and his buddy Nhan as they leave the refugee center, via motorcycle, to California, where they hope to then go back to Vietnam; and, Tong and Quang’s love story. We also see flashes of their former lives and the family members they left behind. Music plays a key role in this play – throughout are snippets of great Motown songs (especially Marvin Gaye) that set the tone for the scenes. The songs created for this play, mostly in rap, provide insight into the character’s inner turmoil as they try to answer questions many of us will hopefully never have to ask – do I have to leave? will I see them again? how can I cope? can I go back?…
All of the actors are superb – Jennifer Ikeda and Raymond Lee who play Tong and Quang – and hats off to Jon Hoche, Samantha Quan and Paco Tolson, each of who play no fewer than 4 roles.
The dialogue, while often pointed, is very witty. At the end, it takes a more serious tone, but it works as Quan tries to explain to his son that VietNam is more than a war. I think this sentiment is relevant not only to VietNam, but also to places in the world that we’ve come to know through conflict and flight – Syria, Iraq, the Democratic Republic of the Congo…. The play also vividly brings home how some people view American intervention as the possible salvation for their war-torn countries; for them our pacifist tendencies are rooted in naiveté, and will not produce peace. Perhaps that’s the greatest strength of this play – it makes us realize that there are many points of view, and whether or not you agree, they’re worth listening to, because they come from a different experience of the same event.
Be sure to see Vietgone. Yes, it’s a play about war, but it’s also a celebration of resilience.
You’ll come out thinking, but also laughing.