When playwright Qui Nguyen working on his play Vietgone four years ago, no one seriously thought Donald Trump would one day be the President of the United States of America. It was long before he descended his gaudy Trump Tower escalator to announce his candidacy and malign Mexican immigrants as criminals, drug dealers and rapists. But now Nguyen’s sexy, genre-busting “All-American love story” musical – which has its final performances this week in New York City – about how his parents met at a refugee camp in Arkansas in 1975 feels all the more vital in the way it addresses issues of race, immigration and female empowerment. Even though it’s a wild, enjoyable ride – complete with comic book tropes, kung fu fights and ninjas – he did create it to correct Asian and immigrant stereotypes.
“Growing up, every Vietnamese narrative on the planet – from Platoon to Rambo to Miss Saigon – the main protagonist is always a white guy going to Vietnam and Vietnamese are the bad guys being shot at or the are the people who need saving,” he says. “I remember watching those moves as a kid, and I remember how shitty it felt feeling like the alien. They have no agency for their own narrative; all of the yellow characters are there to serve the white characters’ narrative. In Vietgone, I specifically wanted the Asian characters to be their own heroes.”
It was also years before buzz began to circulate for Lin-Manual Miranda’s new musical Hamilton, so Nguyen wasn’t exactly prepared for the comparisons to “the world’s biggest musical ever.”
“Lin and I are the same age, our influences are the same; obviously he’s a far more talented, legitimate hip-hop artist than I am. I have a much more Nineties influence; I don’t freestyle or anything,” Nguyen explains. “But Lin and I do have very similar goals for both shows: He cast his with non-white, Latino and black actors to give them an opportunity to play these roles. Vietgone has a similar motivation, but instead of non-white actors, it was Vietnamese characters. I just wanted to make them as relatable as possible.”
Plus, he explains that he wanted to present characters that would inspire a younger Asian-American audience. “There’s another version of me watching, an Asian-American kid who sees this and says, ‘Wow that’s a sexy Asian male, a sexy Asian female! Sexy because they’re complex characters, not because they’re exotic or a whore or a virgin. They’re not exoticized. A 14-year-old can look up and see their parents and not have all the baggage that makes my parents and me different, so I wanted to make them sound very modern.”
Nguyen accomplishes this by throwing any thought of realism out and adopting a satirical worldview to lighten the mood. What that means is that the characters, although they were born and raised in Vietnam, don’t sound the way one might expect them to. Or as the the performers bluntly state at the top of the show, don’t expect this stereotype: “Herro! Prease to meeting you! I so Asian! Say Cheesu!” Rather, Tong, the female lead announces: “Yo, what’s up, white people?” And male lead Quang offers: “Any of you fly ladies wanna get up on my ‘Quang Wang?'” And any American character talks in a garble that sounds like: “Yee-haw! Get’er done! Cheeseburger, waffle fries, cholesterol!”
Perhaps the boldest, and most threatening to typical whitebread theater audiences, is the fantastic way in which Nguyen writes his female characters. Tong (played by actress Jennifer Ikeda) talks dirty, likes sex and isn’t afraid to show that she’s smarter than many of the men around her. As she raps late in the show, when she thinks her romance with Quang has fizzled: “Love is just some bullshit story/ A poetic veneer why we get horny … I just needed your dick to scratch a little itch/ If you wanna fall in love, go find some other bitch … I’m not some little girl dreaming for her prince/ I can save my own kingdom, I’m a badass bitch!”
“I hate that sex for women is taboo, whereas sex for men is celebrated, so I wanted to have that,” Nguyen explains. Although all his plays feature strong female characters, this one seems especially brash since she’s inspired by his mother’s story, but he doesn’t seem to shy about the fact that the woman who gave him life also had physical needs. “My mom is a wannabe feminist. She was raised in the Seventies and she’s Asian, but a lot of this stuff, as she’s gotten older, she really loves talking about,” he explains. “When we were kids, she didn’t want to talk about sex at all with her kids. But after I wrote this play and I got married she definitely opened up about it. When it came to that song in particular, I understood where it came from. I remember when I’d broken up with someone she’d say, ‘Just hook up with someone else real quick, because that will make you feel better.’ She gave that advice because that’s how she feels about it.”
That said, neither of Nguyen’s parents have come to see a production of Vietgone, since the storylines remain too difficult for them to relive – even interpreted by his bawdy, comedic vein of storytelling. Ultimately, despite the tumultuous personal and political themes embedded in this story, he hopes that people will be able to see the message of understanding as the topic of new immigrants coming to America is being fiercely debated.
“In a time, when refugees are being so demonized, especially with Mexicans and Syrians, it’s especially important to remind people that refugees are people,” Nguyen says. “The American story isn’t always about people running to America for opportunity, sometimes it’s about running away from a place because they’re going to die. They still love that place, but they can’t be there anymore.”