Arts / Performing Arts

This Hip Hop Comedy Has Heart and Depth — Vietgone Defies Easy Explanation

1970s Story With Millennial Chops and Ever-Morphing Actors is an Alley Winner

BY // 10.12.19
photography Lynn Lane

Burritos, weed and not getting shot at. Such makes up the inventory of very good things about the United States compiled by two Vietnamese refugees in 1975.

Former South Vietnam Air Force helicopter pilots Quang (Edward Chin-Lyn) and his best friend Nhan (Viet Vo) compose that roster on a motorcycle road trip across America on their way to California and a probable suicidal attempt to get back to Vietnam. But one last word needs to go on that list, a fellow refugee named, Tong (Kim Wong), and she’s going to make all the difference in the many roads traveled in the Alley Theatre’s production of playwright Qui Nguyen’s superb hip hop comedy Vietgone.

As directed by Desdemona Chiang, Vietgone is not just another war story, nor is it just a refugee story or romance, though it contains strong elements of all three. Adding one other theatrical genre that Vietgone both is and is not, the play begins as memory play with the introduction from someone who calls himself the Playwright (Jon Norman Schneider). Yet we soon find these memories don’t belong to this narrator but to his parents.

We need scenic designer Junghyun Georgia Lee’s beautifully dusty long and straight desert two lane highway that cuts through the Alley’s Neuhaus space, as well as projection designer Victoria Beauray Sagady’s images of sunsets, army barracks and Saigon streets to guide us. And we might need to fasten our imaginary seatbelts because Nguyen creates the nonlinear loopiness of two memories intertwined as we begin our sometimes sad, sometimes hilarious, exploration of Quang and Tong’s not just a love story, story.

The two meet in a refugee camp in Arkansas but that metaphorical, as well as set-designed road, constantly takes the action back and forth through time and memory to show us how the already married pilot, Quang, and 30-year-old cynical embassy worker, Tong, found each other. They don’t so much meet cute as meet sarcastically sexy amid refugee bunkbed living.

Some of the quirks of their relationship feel overly familiar, as when both say they’re keeping it casual but we know they’re putting up tough facades to avoid getting hurt. But Chin-Lyn and Wong have enough chemistry to fuel a gang of motorcycles, so they make the tropes bordering on cliches work.

To keep us even more unmoored in time and place, perhaps mimicking the feeling of being refugee, three other cast members take on all the other roles in Quang and Tong’s story. In a bit of a casting in-joke I didn’t even recognize until a day later, Schneider not only portrays the Playwright/son but also Tong’s various fawning ex-boyfriends.

Alley Theatre – Vietgone: Edward Chin-Lyn as Quang and Viet Vo (Photo by Lynn Lane)
Edward Chin-Lyn as Quang and Viet Vo as Nhan set out on a road trip across America. (Photo by Lynn Lane)

Vo plays the comic sidekick with great emotional depths, as well as various Asian and American guys. Finally, in a masterclass of comic versatility, Desirée Mee Jung tackles the role of Tong’s mother as well as a military translator, a free-love hippy and any other parts that needs filling in this constantly moving memory-scape.

Chaing’s direction keeps the production at a hip hop pace, but gives the actors time to breathe into their many roles.

The layering and remixing of theatrical genres is something Nguyen excels at, so much so I almost want to give him the moniker of MC or DJ as much as playwright, and not just because the characters occasionally break into rap. Those rap interludes are less like numbers in a musical and more like Shakespearean soliloquies, a pause in the action for metered rhyme to ponder their inner turmoil and reveal their thoughts to the audience.

Along with the mashup of comic styles going on in the production, Vietgone plays with language in fascinating ways.  In scenes where the characters are supposed to be speaking Vietnamese, the play depicts them talking in rather generic American-accented English, while when a U.S-born character tries to speak Vietnamese it comes out in a kind of nonsense English, sometimes even laced with bad southern accents.

This language play might also let Nguyen take some comic revenge on those old films and media portrayals of stereotyped East Asians characters using heavily accented, nonstandard English in order to get cheap laughs.

In another example of Vietgone layering theatrical conventions with hip hop innovations, though the story is set in the 1970s, the characters speak the language and slang, complete with a vast amount of swearing, of 21st century Millennial and Gen Z speak.

Yet beyond all the upending of storytelling traditions, Vietgone raises basic questions about identity, family and finding home. Near the end of the performance, Chin-Lyn gives a riveting, quiet lecture to his American-born Playwright son about seeing the Vietnam War from his perspective, one that welcomed U.S intervention into his homeland.

Once the rap and silly-to-sublime comedy has ceased and love has found its way, this is what remains in Vietgone, a simple moment of connection and understanding between a father and son. This understanding feels both specific to the Vietnamese immigrant experience yet also purely human in all our iterations. Whether you’re a rap, comedy or romance lover – or hater – that moment becomes a destination worth all the roads traveled to get there.

Vietgone runs through November 3 at the Alley Theatre.

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