By Qui Nguyen
Directed by May Adrales
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited
“This agony inside of me ain’t providing me any time to think/About anything beyond the sitch we’re now living/Gotta go hard, gotta be tough/gotta move forward towards a new dawn, a new dream, a new hope.” – Tong
On a recent visit to Vietnam, two glaring disparities were evident: there is a noticeable divide between rich and poor Vietnamese citizens; and there is a noticeable disparity between the welcoming offered by the Vietnamese to visiting Americans and the enormous guilt these visitors harbor regarding the War in Vietnam. Most of the passengers on the cruise ship that docked in Haiphong (the Port City for Ho Chi Minh City) chose to visit the War Remnants Museum to assuage years of guilt. I chose to join the small band that wandered into the streets of that City and Danang to experience the lives of the residents. The visit to the Museum served to provide some closure for the participants to the memories of dividedness American and Vietnamese people experienced before, during, and after the Vietnam War.
Playwright Qui Nguyen navigates the rugged territory between the past reservoirs of blame and guilt and the current need for the Vietnamese people to “move on.” His challenging play “Vietgone” also carefully examines the stereotypes of how the Vietnamese “feel” about the American presence in the Vietnam War and debunks traditional thinking about those deep feelings. Mr. Nguyen accomplishes all of this by focusing on a love story between Quang (Raymond Lee) and Tong (Jennifer Ikeda) who meet at the Refugee Camp at Fort Chaffee in El Dorado, Arkansas. Tong piloted the last helicopter leaving from Saigon after America pulled out just prior to the arrival of the Vietcong and leaving his wife Thu (Samantha Quan) and two children Trang and Quyan behind. Tong fled South Vietnam with her mother Huong (Samantha Quan) leaving her boyfriend Giai (Paco Tolson) and brother Khue (Jon Hoche) behind.
Tong is content to stay in America and do what she needs to do to acquire the skills she needs to be successful beyond the Refugee Camp. Quang on the other hand wants to return to Vietnam and reunite with his family. These disparate goals are interrupted by the bond that develops between the pair that transcends the physical attraction that initially brings them together. Playwright Nguyen has developed characters with believable conflicts that drive an intriguing and transformative plot.
Like memory, the mindscape of “Vietgone” warps time with exquisite anachronisms (Tong and Quang rap!) and – as “explained” by the brilliant Paco Tolson portraying the playwright Qui Nguyen – its endearing story “often hops back and forth in time” in 1975 and 2015. Under May Adrales’s careful direction, Jennifer Ikeda, Raymond Lee, and the ensemble cast deliver captivating performances permeated with honesty and authenticity. Their relationships encapsulate the struggles of Vietnamese refugees and introduces audiences to a new perspective on a war that has plagued the conscience of America for decades. Tong’s decision to return to Fort Chaffee and the 2015 “postscript” brim with catharsis and hope.
For the refugees who were forced to flee Vietnam, their arrival in the United States has enriched the diverse fabric of the nation. Similarly, “Vietgone” adds to the richness of the understanding of how love transcends indifference and adds richly to the dramatic fabric of contemporary American theatre.