By George Maguire
Five years ago, playwright Qui Nguyen dazzled us with the pyrotechnics of his autobiographical deep-dive into his family with Vietgone at American Conservatory Theatre’s Strand Theater.
He has returned with Part 2 – Poor Yella Rednecks which takes us deeper into the family’s upheaval from Vietnam in the 1970s to 1981 El Dorado, Arkansas, as the playwright now interviews his mother. The play fixates on the trials of cultural change, language barriers and of course the challenges and truths held-back by his parents.
…The show’s production values alone though are worth a visit…
Similar to Part 1, Nguyen peppers his play with hip-hop, rap, comic book heroes, profanity, martial arts, puppetry, cowboys, and an enormous well of humor and bold ideas. Once again Jaime Castaneda directs the vivid production with imagination and verve.
The parents Tong (gloriously played with depth and passion by Jenny Nguyen Nelson) and Quang (a deeply moving Hyunmin Rhee) are assimilating into American “cheeseburger” culture. They live with Grandma Huong (obscenity-spewing and knife-wielding Christine Jamlig) and their young son Little Man (portrayed as a wooden puppet movingly brought to life and voice by gifted Will Dao). Little Man will of course grow up to become the playwright himself.
There is a bold attempt by the playwright to utilize language as a key to the challenges faced by assimilating immigrants. All Vietnamese speak in colloquial English and the Anglos (Jomar Tagatac’s hysterical Bobby, for example) speak in broken Vietnamese as we might hear them. It’s a clever idea that is interesting but not well defined.
Too often this play is interrupted by a “rap” song defining the inner feelings of the character. When the gambit works (as with Tong) it can support the text, but for this reviewer it too often stops the momentum. When the playwright settles into simple and moving narrative, as he does in a gorgeously acted barroom seduction scene between Ms. Jamlig and Mr. Rhee, he reveals enormous talent, and one wants to say “Trust your instincts and give us your words.”
The show’s production values alone though are worth a visit. Tanya Orellana’s massive and eclectic set, with the apartment elevated above the stage floor, is a character in itself. Interestingly, this is the second play I have seen designed by Ms. Orellana, and the second time I have seen a set elevated in vision above the main floor. Part of her set for Fefu and Her Friends (also at ACT,) had a similar kitchen set piece. Yi Zhao’s lighting design is a wonder of neon, roving spot lights, and illuminated glory. Jessie Amoroso has done lovely and character-driven costume designs. Jake Rodriguez’s sound, Shammy Dee’s original music and Yee Eun Nam’s projections add other sterling elements to the production.
Like Vietgone 1, there are so many ideas emanating from the mind and heart of the writer. As this is the second part of a trilogy, we eagerly await Mr. Nguyen’s next step.
ASR Contributing Writer George Maguire is a San Francisco based actor and director. and a voting member of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. He is a Professor Emeritus of Solano College. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
|Production||Poor Yella Rednecks|
|Written by||Qui Nguyen|
|Original Music||Shammy Dee|
|Directed by||Jaime Castaneda|
|Producing Company||American Conservatory Theater (ACT) - The Strand Theater|
|Production Dates||Thru May 7th|
|Production Address||1127 Market Street
San Francisco, CA
|Tickets||$25 – $60|
|Reviewer Score||Max in each category is 5/5|
|Aisle Seat Review PICK!||----|
|"Oh boy! The second installment of Qui Nguyen's autobiographical "Vietgone" trilogy is just as exciting, creative, and rewarding as the original produced by ACT five years ago."||Broadway World|
|"Two things lift this poignant tale far out of the ordinary. It’s based on the playwright’s actual life story—these are his parents, his grandmother, he himself as a child—and it’s an imaginative and wonderfully comical retelling of that story. "||Local News Matters|
|In “Vietgone,” playwright Qui Nguyen tells the story of how his parents met after escaping the Vietnam War and landing in the same resettlement camp in Arkansas. It’s a tale of traumatic displacement written and performed with unstoppable comic verve that sneakily brings the reality of the refugee experience vividly to life."||Los Angeles Times|