One of New York’s hottest plays may not be going to Broadway, but it is coming to Minnesota.
Mixed Blood Theatre Company announced Wednesday that it will stage the regional premiere of “Vietgone,” a comedy that closed earlier this month in New York after an enjoying an extended run at Manhattan Theatre Club. The play about Vietnamese immigrants acclimating to life in the States is by Qui Nguyen, a former Twin Cities resident who remains a core writer at the Playwrights' Center in Minneapolis. "Vietgone" is scheduled to run April 10-30 at Mixed Blood.
“We are totally stoked that this is happening,” said Jeremy Cohen, producing artistic director of the center.
From 2011-2013, Nguyen’s wife Abbie Marcus served as general manager at the center. During that time, he primarily worked on two plays: “Dust” and “War is F---ing Awesome.” When Nguyen’s career began to take off, the couple returned to New York — where he had previously co-founded a pop-culture focused theater troupe called the Vampire Cowboys — and then they moved to Los Angeles, where he is now working on a TBA project for Marvel Studios. While breaking into Hollywood, Nguyen has picked up an Emmy for contributing to an animated PBS series and continued to write plays.
Vietgone” is the first of a trilogy; two additional installments have been co-commissioned by Manhattan Theatre Club and South Coast Repertory in California's Orange County.
Jack Reuler, Mixed Blood’s artistic director, was at South Coast Rep for both an early 2015 staged reading of “Vietgone” and the eventual fall 2015 premiere.
“This is a seminal piece of Asian American theater,” Reuler said Wednesday. In between the California and New York runs, the play landed onstage at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where it ran for six months and then transferred to Seattle. Reuler had hoped to announce he was bringing the play to Minnesota sooner, but MTC wanted to keep its commercial options open. Now that no Broadway transfer is eminent, Mixed Blood was able to plug “Vietgone” into the final slot of its 2016-2017 season.
“It was worth the gamble and the wait,” Reuler said. “It really is one of those plays that will have you laughing and challenges you and at the end, you are in tears.”
Like his fellow Asian American dramatist David Henry Hwang did in “Yellow Face” (which MU Performing Arts staged in 2010), Nguyen wrote himself into the script of “Vietgone.” The narrative has higher stakes, however. "Qui" serves as a narrator of sorts for his own parents’ immigration story: they fled Saigon and met at an Arkansas refugee camp in 1975. To convey a language barrier, as well as generate laughs, the leads deliver dialogue in contemporary English, (“Damn, there’s a lotta white people up in here”) while other characters declaim in exaggerated clichés. (“Yee-haw! Get ’er done! Cheeseburger, waffle fries, cholesterol!”)
“The play has geeks, tongue-in-cheek fight scenes and action that could have sprung from a comic book targeted to millennials wearing thick black glasses and skinny jeans,” wrote Los Angeles Times critic Charles McNulty in his mostly positive review of the premiere. The New York Times took offered similarly guarded praise this fall, noting that some scenes drag on longer than necessary and the tone is at times too flip for the content.
But indications thus far are that audiences don’t care. Nguyen’s agent, Leah Hamos, was unavailable for comment this week, but Reuler speculated that many theaters across the country will produce “Vietgone” during their 2017-2018 seasons; Mixed Blood is simply lucky to have gotten access early. Los Angeles-based director Mark Valdez will helm the Twin Cities production. (May Adrales, the original "Vietgone" director, will coincidentally be nearby at the time, directing “Girls Shake Loose” over at Penumbra Theatre.) Although Reuler said he hopes to find five Asian American actors to cast in “Vietgone” locally, he’s receiving video audition tapes from around the country.
“The response has been overwhelming,” Reuler said.
Photo credit Debora Robinson/South Coast Repertory.