From Saigon to Fort Chafee


Title: Vietgone

Rating: 5 Stars

When I went to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival this year, this was one of the plays that I wanted to see. For the past several years, they’ve sponsored a new play about a different part of the American experience. Vietgone was this year’s play. Unfortunately, it was sold out, so I didn’t get to see it in Ashland.

I saw that it was playing at Seattle Rep, including most of the players from the Ashland play. I went on-line, searched all dates, and got literally the last ticket available. So, yes, I went to a matinee on a fucking Wednesday to see it.

And yes, it was totally worth it.

To boil it down to essentials, it’s a love story between two recent Vietnamese immigrants to America after the fall of Saigon. That’s a gross oversimplification. It’s a story of loss. It’s a story of resilience. It’s a story of family. It’s a story of adjusting to a new life.

The young man is Quang. He is a helicopter pilot in the South Vietnamese army. He has a wife and two children. His plan is, if the North Vietnamese invade, is to fly his helicopter, rescue his wife and children, and fly them to safety. However, the invasion happens too quickly. He has to fly his helicopter to save other women and children first. He never gets to rescue his family. He has to leave them behind.

The young woman is Tong. She is a tough, independent woman who refuses to conform to Vietnamese stereotypes of women. At her job, she manages to get two passes to escape Saigon. She tries to convince her brother to go with him, but he refuses to leave his love. Instead she takes her mother, who is a very traditional woman.

All need to come to terms with the fact that effectively their family is dead to them or they are dead to their family. That’s the price that they need to pay for escaping Vietnam and starting a new life in America.

The presentation was creative. When acting as Asian characters, they spoke perfectly flawless, unaccented English (which was them speaking Vietnamese). The American characters spoke horribly broken, occasionally nonsensical English (which was them attempting to speak Vietnamese). The Asian characters would speak broken English when it was clear that they were attempting to speak English. I’m not sure if what I just wrote made sense or not, but it had the result of integrating the audience into the difficulty of assimilating into a new culture and language.

There lines were spoken in a street vernacular. So, instead of some stilted or formal sounding English, there was lots of shits and motherfuckers. Again, the intent was to make it real that these were real people living real lives. There’s a universality in their struggle and in their love that transcends nation of origin or culture.

I must have skipped over the part where it said that it was part musical (my bad). I’m not a huge fan of musicals, but in this case it was effective. Instead of conventional singing, the songs were hip hop rap, in which the actors could freely express their rage, pain, and frustration in a format recognizable for characters within their age group. Somehow, this made the singing seem more real to me, as opposed to the more conventional musicals in which the songs seem to be more disruptive then integrative.

The unaccented English and the hip hop was probably also a statement by the playwright regarding his own background. Assuming there’s some germ of personal truth (one of the characters in the play acts as the playwright), he is a first generation Vietnamese. So, the perfect English and the hip hop is the language that he knows. The play, and he himself is a synthesis of Vietnam and America.

This comes to a head at the end when he’s interviewing his father (Quang and Tong are his parents). He casually says that the war in Vietnam was a mistake and his father erupts in anger. All that he is today (and by reference, so many others like him) is a direct result of American intervention. He is grateful for the opportunity that the American ‘mistake’ gave him.

The playwright and his father make up by hugging and singing a Waylon Jennings song together.

I found this play to be a poetic, amusing, and moving experience.




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