The play borrows from the playwright’s parents’ past.
Playwright Qui Nguyen was lied to as a child. He was told his parents met in Fort Chaffee in Arkansas, and it was love at first sight. The first part was more or less true, but Qui knew nothing about the backstory. In reality, Qui’s father, who served as a pilot for the South Vietnam Air Force, was evacuated from Vietnam after helping Vietnamese allies flee the country after the fall of Saigon. In doing so, he was forced to leave his first wife and two children behind. Qui’s mother, who fled to America as well, could only take her mother along. “It was a story that I knew, when I became a writer, that I wanted to tell,” Qui says. “For some reason I thought that I had to wait until I got to an age where I really understood life to be able to write about it. I had kids, and as I was watching them get older, I decided there was no time like the present to tell the story.”
And the research wasn’t easy.
Coaxing precise details from his parents about their lives before and after arriving in America was by no means a simple task. In fact, Qui says it was probably one of the most difficult challenges he’s ever taken on. “They didn’t want to talk about it,” he says. “It was a tragedy that happened. They lost people that they loved. I honestly had to lie to them. I tricked them and told them I wasn’t writing the story about them. I told them I would write a story about Vietnam in general. The more specific you could be, the more precise, the more genuine the story is going to be.”
Contrary to its marketing spiel, Vietgone is not a “sex comedy.”
Almost two years after the play debuted in New York, Qui can finally admit that even though Vietgone was initially labeled as a “sex comedy,” that’s not necessarily accurate. “It’s funny,” he says, “I think I said that initially mainly for marketing because, if you say, Hey you want to see a refugee romantic comedy? I think people are going to be like, Hmm, I don’t know about that.” The play does entertain with a boatload of raunchy sex jokes and satire, but it also takes an intimate look at the assimilation of refugees after the war, and the tragedy of leaving so much behind before starting anew.
In fact, because of its heavy subject matter, Qui’s parents chose not to see the play. “[My parents] are very proud that I wrote a story about them, and they are obviously very supportive of me as a writer, but it was something that they felt like they couldn’t tackle—being in a room with a whole bunch of strangers watching their story, especially the tragic moments.”
Expect a lot of 70s pop-culture references.
Qui is quick to note that, while growing up in Arkansas, he had a fondness for martial arts, hip-hop and comic books (it wasn’t a surprise to hear he now writes for Marvel Studios in Los Angeles). When working on the play, a part of him wanted to appeal to his teenage self—the one who never found strong-yet-cool-and-relatable Asian-American characters to look up to in plays and films. Which might explain Vietgone’s ninja fights. And the snappy dialogue performed in rap verses. “I think that when a play or story or movie uses music from the ’70s about Vietnam, it tends to always be the same songs,” Qui says. “So I was like, This isn’t the story of the American soldier boy. It is about refugees. I wanted the music to reflect the stuff that I grew up with, my parents and the neighborhood I grew up in.”
It took him the duration of a plane ride to write. (Well, kinda.)
Even though it took Qui about a year to polish, tweak and perfect the narrative, the meat of the story was written over a weekend. When the South Coast Repertory theatre commissioned Qui to write the play—or more precisely a play—he penned the first act before hopping on a plane. By the end of the five-hour flight, he had written the second act. “And then when we landed, I was like, Oh, crap,” he says. “I put the two acts together, it was only 70 pages. Not very long. So there’s this very specific scene at the very end that people talk about quite a bit that was hanging out in my hard drive. It was something that I wrote a long, long time ago after a fight with my dad. So I said, You know what? I’ll take that and I’ll glue it to the end and think of something else later. Now, it’s become so integral to the play, and it works with that ending.”
Vietgone will be performed at TheatreSquared in Fayetteville March 15 through April 8. Visit theatre2.org for tickets and more info.