Plays about Vietnam often nest in an American-centric need to self-flagellate. How refreshing that New York playwright Qui Nguyen writes from the perspective of people who lost their country and families, came to America and rebuilt lives in a strange land.
“Vietgone,” which Nguyen based on his parents’ experience after the 1975 fall of Saigon, rides a wave of profane irreverence, sprawling storytelling, spiky humor, bald stereotypes and in the end a searing personal testament that honors the people on whose soil the war was fought.
Mixed Blood Theatre opened a short run of “Vietgone” on Monday. Director Mark Valdez molds coherence from Nguyen’s time-hopping comedy and the two key actors scratch full personalities from the episodic script.
Nguyen uses rap music to lubricate his message and turns the tables with language. “You, I, like,” says an American serviceman in what we understand to be the guy’s attempt to communicate in Vietnamese.
Codifying Nguyen’s scenario is a fool’s errand, but what after all is a critic? Quang (David Huynh) is a South Vietnamese airman who leaves his wife and two children in the chaos of Saigon. He arrives in an American refugee camp determined to get back to Vietnam and reunite. Meanwhile, Tong (Meghan Kreidler) and her mother Huong (Sun Mee Chomet) are the yin and yang of refugee experience. Tong strives to make the best of America. Huong longs to go home.
Nguyen understands confidently that his story possesses an intrinsic weight and he doesn’t need to preach. He writes with laughter, satire, anger and profanity. Let me repeat, lots of profanity.
But this levity — reinforced by Andrew Mayer’s strong ear for sound design and despite a cheap set by Paul Whitaker — has a rippling undercurrent of humanity.
Huynh brings a pilot’s bravado to Quang (the playwright’s father). He raps out angrily to a stoned hippie who is lamenting U.S. involvement: “You lost a brotha, I lost a country.” As the aged dad at play’s end, he subverts our expectations with an emotional speech excoriating the Viet Cong and thanking Americans who fought next to him. He leaves us moved and conflicted.
Kreidler continues to impress me as an actor who never feels the need to strain her voice. She has a well of power that unmistakably finds her character’s stridency but she also shows great generosity and kindness at moments. She never feels the need to impress herself.
Chomet’s mother is a cartoon — a character from another age. Sherwin Resurreccion dashes happily from role to role, including the playwright himself, and Flordelino Lagundino delivers one of the play’s most important scenes as Quang’s buddy.
Nguyen’s play is ragged and homemade, but obviously honest and dear to him. As we laugh, we need to honor the fact that this is his story — not ours.
Graydon Royce is a longtime Star Tribune theater critic. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.