There certainly is no time like the present for a serious, fun and energetic play about refugees and immigration. As our xenophobic sociopath of a presumptive nominee blathers about building walls and rounding up foreigners, let’s just take a moment to imagine that we’re not talking about refugees or immigrants or strangers whose tongue sounds like noise.
Let’s just imagine that all those people in the distant camps are actually us. And the incoherent noise is coming from our American hosts.
The strength of Vietgone, which has been running since April in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s small Thomas Theatre, is that is forces us, through the magic of drama, to cross that impassable divide between them and us. It may do so clumsily and awkwardly at times, but in the end this little hip-hop musical sparkles with a fine, original love story that keeps the play from becoming a civics lesson.
As we learn from the moment the curtain speech begins, this is the story of playwright Qui Nyugen’s parents, who fled Vietnam at the end of the war, and met and fell in love in a refugee camp in Arkansas. Well, maybe it is and maybe it isn’t. Delivered by Nguyen (except that it’s an actor playing him), the curtain speech also warns us that anything said here about Nguyen’s parents isn’t necessarily true.
Score one for art over reality.
Directed by May Adrales, Vietgone takes us back forty years to the fall of Saigon and the desperate rush by Vietnamese who had been allied with the United States to escape a country that now saw them as a defeated enemy. And so as the play begins we meet the rough and ready helicopter captain turned American biker Quang, played as a cross between John Wayne, Gregory Peck and Jack Kerouac by the devilishly handsome James Ryen, and his loyal sidekick, Nhan, played by Will Dao.
Quang’s main goal in life is to get back to Vietnam to rescue his wife and children, whom he was forced to abandon in the rush to fly a helicopter full of refugees to a U.S. aircraft carrier. Without his knowledge, on one last flight his helicopter was shoved over the side of the ship to make room for more landings, and he, too, became a refugee.
But while at the refugee camp in Arkansas, Quang runs into the captivating Tong, played by Jeena Yi, and, amid loud protestations of nonchalance from each side, the two fall in love.
This simple, straightforward story lurches forward a bit incoherently in seemingly random flashbacks, using video-projected comic book graphics to add setting and help sort out the confusing time frame as well as ground the tale in a later era, the 1980s, in which Nguyen himself came of age in America.
Quang and Nhan head off on a motorcycle on the classic American buddy road trip, which provides the opportunity for some awkwardly choreographed work with the front halves of motorcycles on stage as the two men try to plumb the American dream.
Paco Tolson, with a comic face to challenge Don Knotts, plays, among other roles, the earnest but condescending refugee camp worker named Bobby. He’s a delight.
I’ll admit, I wasn’t captivated right from the beginning. Too much of Vietgone is obvious, and at first the rest was confusing. Some of this may boil down to the fact I’m not much interested in hip-hop, but I’ve certainly heard hip-hop performed with better energy.
By the time Act II arrived, though, the show was growing on me. And then that ending. I won’t tell you what it was, but it could have gone on a lot longer.
Vietgone is engaging, moving, challenging and well worth seeing. Go see it.