Stylistically, Vietgone is a huge mountain to climb. This production only gets part way up. But it’s an interesting evening — and provocative in productive ways.
Off the top, an actor impersonating the play’s author Qui Nguyen tells us that this script is definitely not about his parents. The main characters, Quang and Tong, are “a completely made-up man” and “a completely not-real woman” he says — and, if anybody in the audience rats him out to his real mom and dad, they’re assholes.
More reliably, the playwright tells us that, even though Vietgone is about Quang and Tong escaping from Vietnam during the fall of Saigon in 1975, “This is not a story about war. This is a story about falling in love.” It’s also about the massive project of reinventing oneself as a refugee.
Tong is a fantastically original character. The way she puts it, she’s unlike every other Vietnamese woman. She’s assertively sexual — and determinedly unsentimental. When she and Quang meet at a refugee centre in the middle of nowhere in Arkansas and have sex for the first time — on her initiative — Quang refers to the act as making love. Tong laughs and corrects him: “What we just did had nothing to do with love.”
But she’s not a bag, even though she thinks she is. Tong defends herself, but she’s also honest and caring. And she’s living her life on her own terms. Throughout, actor Alison Chang is frank, funny, and persuasive in the role.
Structurally, the big problem with Vietgone is that it takes forever for Tong and Quang to meet, so Act 1 wanders around trying to figure out what it’s about and what it should do. Because the script pings from one short, chronologically disconnected scene to another and, because relationships are barely sketched in, I found I didn’t care much — even when the stakes were technically high. Quang is forced to leave his wife and two young children in Vietnam, for instance, but the script’s flippancy discourages emotional investment. The naval officer who tells Quang that he can’t go back to get his family, speaks in bad Vietnamese that comes across as vulgar gibberish, for instance.
Stylistically, the script’s freewheeling nature pays off more consistently. Anachronistically, both Quang and Tong rap, which allows them to speak their inner truths, for example. “I’m broken,” Quang raps, “but unbreakable Defeated/yet undefeatable/Unstoppable ‘gainst the impossible/I’ll get home however implausible.”
Fortunately, Vietgone finds its focus in Act 2. Tong starts to open up to Quang, but he has believed her “just friends” line — and he feels ethically and emotionally compelled to return to his wife and children. The narrative resolution to this dilemma is sophisticated — and, thanks to Christopher Lam’s performance as Quang, moving.
I haven’t talked yet about the script’s take on this character, but it’s audacious, given the overwhelming political consensus. As a helicopter pilot in the South Vietnamese military, Quang fought alongside American forces. He defends US military involvement in his country and the script gives him the respect and room to do so. For me, it was a good reminder that, despite my long-held take on the Vietnam War, compared to somebody like Quang, I have no idea what it was like to be there.
I suspect Vietgone would look better with the kind of production budget that would allow for a pop-culture phantasmagoria. This United Players mounting doesn’t have that. But it does have intelligence and strong central performances. And the script disrupted my thinking, which I appreciate.
VIETGONE By Qui Nguyen. Directed by Keltie Forsyth and Louisa Phung. A United Players production at the Jericho Arts Centre on Friday, June 3. Continues until June 26. Tickets.
NEVER MISS A REVIEW: Sign up for FRESH SHEET, my weekly e-letter about the arts.
And, if you want to help to keep independent arts criticism alive in Vancouver, check out my Patreon page.