Vietgone, the rom-com antidote to Miss Saigon about two Vietnamese refugees in Arkansas getting laid and finding love, is opening at Manhattan Theatre Club this month in co-production with South Coast Repertory. Those refugees are playwright Qui Ngyen’s parents, by the way—this is a family story. I dialed Nguyen at his new digs in L.A. (he’s writing for TV now) to find out how this Vampire Cowboys co-founder got all uptown to MTC with the true story of his horny parents in a Southern American refugee camp.
“A voice beyond my race.” This is what Qui Nguyen found with Vampire Cowboys, the company that produced his body of work after Ma-Yi Theater Company’s production of his very first play, Trial By Water,a solemn piece about Vietnamese refugees. Qui was in his early 20s when Trial By Water came to the stage, with playwrights such as David Henry Hwang serving as his role model.
Qui’s Vietnamese parents, owners of a soul food diner in Arkansas, flew in to NYC to see his first production. His mother watched, not devoid of all pride, but shook her head. “This doesn’t sound like you,” she said. “Doesn’t sound like me?!” Qui responded, with understandable outrage. “With the violins, these sounds of ocean waves, everyone so solemn? You cuss! You like hip-hop!” his mother scolded.
From his mother’s skepticism of his somber first effort, Qui Nguyen set out to figure out what “sounded like him.” It seems we can thank Qui’s mom for inspiring such downtown hits as Fight Girl Battle World and Alice in Slasherland—full of his now-trademark comic-style action, sexy adventure, and glorious vulgarity. So how does a “lowbrow” champion like playwright Qui Nguyen end up at the highbrow Manhattan Theatre Club? My happy conclusion: tenacity and authenticity.
Vietgone was written in response to a commission from South Coast Rep, one of the few theaters in the nation that commissions a playwright to write whatever they want. Qui always knew that he wanted to write about his parents, though he had assumed he wouldn’t tell their story until he was far more “mature.” But something happened. Part of the commission at South Coast included going into the Orange County community for inspiration. Turns out Orange County has the largest population of Vietnamese in the nation, and there he discovered photographs of the Arkansas refugee camp where his parents met. That sealed it. He had no choice: his parents’ story would be told now, in all his “immaturity,” Vampire Cowboys style.
Stick to writing funny plays, son, this stuff too sad for old man like me to recount just to help you write just another war story.
“So what does ‘maturity’ mean to you?” I asked Qui, who’s now forty years old. “I used to think maturity equaled a kind of seriousness,” he said. “I used to think that I’d have to, you know, change my style, my voice, to succeed, to be taken seriously, to write about serious things.”
A beat drops.
Love is just some bullshit story
A poetic veneer on why we get horny
But I don’t need your flowers or your love shout-outs
Just gimme what I need and get the hell on out
Oh - Call me a whore as I kick you out the door
But lemme be clear - yo, this is the score
I just needed your dick to scratch a little itch
If you wanna fall in love, go find some other bitch.
He used to think that to make a living of writing, he’d have to change his style, but it turns out that the more Qui Nguyen stayed true to himself—to his dirty-mouthed, martial arts loving, hip hop talking ways—the more success he’s found.
Those viewing the play in the context of his body of work may see Vietgone as an evolutionary step forward. As a fellow playwright, I think it is a victory. Some “next level shit,” as Qui would say. Nguyen is able to use the same tools that brought his Vampire Cowboys audiences such great pleasure—the sex jokes, the fight scenes, the “candy,” as he calls it—and apply it to his own origin story. He didn’t have to get serious to deliver the audience a story about real people with some seriously fucked up backstories finding love. Real people who aren’t white. Or black. Vietnamese people.
“I used to use humor, to like, distract people from the fact that I’m Asian. I wouldn’t let them get to me ‘cause I’d get to them first,” said Qui. “Self-defense,” I suggested. “Yeah,” he replied, “it’s self protection. The same thing that got me into martial arts. It’s verbal martial arts.”
On the other side of this call, I’m giddy: Qui just said his plays are verbal martial arts. Yes! Exactly. Then we talk about comedy as a means to deflect and endure pain.
“I have taken painful things that have happened, I’ve written the comic version of that painful thing, just to process it, just to not hold on to that anger,” but, said Qui, he doesn’t “write jokes for jokes’ sake. The things I like the most, they’re not comedies, they are these blends,” he says, referring to the stylistic inventiveness of films like 500 Days of Summer and Kill Bill. It seems to me Qui Nguyen is doing pretty well at writing the kinds of things that he himself would like.
REDNECK BIKER/THE PLAYWRIGHT
According to the real life accounts of Quang Nguyen, this is exactly how this fight went down.
Back-up yee-haw! HELP!
Unfreeze: The REDNECK BIKER swings a punch at QUANG, but QUANG does an elaborate capoeira’esque cartwheel to avoid.
Badass music begins playing.
And suddenly in the most badass martial arts fight ever to be seen on a theatrical stage, QUANG and the REDNECK BIKER go full-on kung fu madness on each other.
Suddenly in the middle of the fight, Ninjas appear.
REDNECK BIKER/THE PLAYWRIGHT
Yep, that’s right. His back-up were ninjas. True story!
There’s a lot of fancy moves, punches, and kicks thrown. But in the end, QUANG defeats the redneck and his sidekicks.
Let’s get the hell out of here. Arizona blows.
“When you’re in your twenties, you think you’re being rebellious, but really you always want some approval. I’m forty, you know, and now I don’t care. I’d rather get a bad review for something that sounds like me than get a good review of something that feels like I’m faking it.”
After Vietgone opened at South Coast Rep a kid wrote to Qui, saying that he’s been taught that “as an Asian he’s weak, but that Vietgone made me feel strong.” So far, that’s his favorite review.
“People talk a lot about the last monologue, you know,” (about the war) “that it’s this revelation,” explained Qui. But for the Vietnamese people in the audience, the revelation is that these “Vietnamese characters are falling in love, they’re having sex.” Like people do.
His parents have yet to see their son’s take on their sex lives in Arkansas after the fall of Saigon. Sex lives that Qui really, really wanted to know nothing about. “They’re Vietnamese, you know, they don’t want to answer my questions about Vietnam. They don’t want to answer my questions about being in the refugee camp.” As Qui kept at them, asking them how exactly they came together in Arkansas, his mother busts out with “we were just horny.” And when Qui cringed, she kept on going—giving him “way more” than he wanted to know.
That’s why Vietgone is a sex comedy. With hip hop. And Kung fu fighters. With a serious post-Saigon twist. It’s all true to the American son of two Vietnamese fighters against the Viet Cong.
I asked him how the rehearsals at Manhattan Theater Club. “They’re killing it. This is, for most of them, their second go at it; it’s my third go, so we’re kinda coming at it knowing that it’s gonna be okay, there’s confidence. And now it’s this next level shit.”
Vietgone, by Qui Nguyen,directed by May Adrales, featuring Jon Hoche, Jennifer Ikeda, Raymond Lee, Samatha Quan, and Paco Tolson, runs October 4 – November 27 at Manhattan Theater Club. For tickets and further info, visit www.manhattantheatreclub.com.
TRISTA BALDWIN is a playwright and co-founder of Workhaus Collective, which just wrapped up a decade of new work with its 25th production. Her own plays include Eye of the Lamb, American Sexy, Sand, Patty Red Pants and Chicks With Dicks: Bad Girls on Bikes Doing Bad Things.