Qui Nguyen’s Vietgone is a clever, innovative, swift and lively piece of theater that tells the story of the playwright’s parents, Vietnamese refugees who met at Fort Chaffee, a refugee camp in Arkansas. To do so, it uses 1970s cultural references and satire; bright, broad imagery; and music, including hip-hop and rap, along with a killer fight with dark-clad ninjas that outdoes any kung fu movie — a fight that earned a sustained round of applause from the opening-night audience for both the actors’ athleticism and the astonishing choreography. Vietgone, a regional premiere directed by Seema Sueko, opens the Denver Center for the Performing Arts Theatre Company’s season and is the first production mounted under the leadership of new artistic director Chris Coleman.
The script stands stereotypes on their heads, with an American soldier whose misuse of words, clumsy speech and plain dumb demeanor mirrors the image that some white people have of Asians, while the highly articulate Asian characters use smart, up-to-date slang. Tong, a stand-in for the playwright’s mother, is anything but the submissive Asian woman of Hollywood tradition; she’s spirited, sarcastic and sometimes downright mean. Quang, representing Nguyen’s father, is a tough military veteran, trained as a helicopter pilot in the United States and a dedicated fighter on the side of the Saigon regime.
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Beneath all the inspired craziness, there’s a touch of depth. “This is not a story about a foreign war," says the play's study guide. "It’s a story about falling in love in the land of Harleys, hot dogs and ‘howdy.’” But Vietgone can’t help being a story about war as well as love. Quang has had to leave his wife and two children behind in Vietnam, and is torn between his yearning for them and his growing feelings for Tong. When he comes across an anti-war protester — a caricature of a doped-up hippie — he explodes in rap: This hippie has no understanding of what happens in war, he rages, has never seen a killing or lost someone he loves to bombs or bullets. And one of the most potent moments occurs when the war comes back to haunt Tong’s dreams.
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Love provides the spine of the narrative. Both lovers are quick-witted as written, and portrayed by lively and very attractive actors: Quang by Glenn Morizio, with Lisa Helmi Johanson as Tong. But I didn’t sense real warmth or sensuality between the two of them. And although there are some touching scenes, as when Tong and her mother finally talk honestly together (before that, the older woman was portrayed as simply selfish and cartoonishly controlling), most of the serious dialogue — fortunately, there isn’t much of it — falls a bit flat and goes on a little too long.
There’s an interesting meta-level here: Qui Nguyen is writing about his parents as he sees them, and who our parents are in their deepest selves remains a mystery for most of us. But do the characterizations we’re seeing in this world of time shifts and cartoon flashes come close to reality? Nguyen’s father — aka Quang — has every reason to hate war protesters and excuse the well-known corruption of the Saigon regime. Does the playwright share his views?
Perhaps the best scene in the play occurs at the end, when the Playwright (yes, he’s a character) is sitting at a table with his father in the present time. Quang has lost his military swagger. He’s now an old man, bent-backed and chuckling, more interested in memories of his son’s babyhood than the exigencies of war and exile. But when the Playwright comments that the Vietnam War was a mistake, Quang roars to furious life, and suddenly the handsome, passionate young soldier of the past is before us again. In that moment, we understand that perhaps we’ve been looking through a kind of double lens all evening.
Vietgone, presented by the DCPA Theatre Company through September 30 in the Ricketson Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, denvercenter.org.