Not The Usual Heroes

Actors see themselves in Qui Nguyen’s ‘Vietgone’


When playwright and Arkansas native Qui Nguyen's semi-autobiographical play "Vietgone" opens March 14 at TheatreSquared, actor Rebecca Hirota says audience members may be surprised at what they see.

"It's ridiculous and amazing," says Hirota, who plays Tong, the character based on Nguyen's mother. She was also part of a previous production at the Manhattan Theatre Club. "It's really well-constructed, and there are amazing things that happen. It's not just a heavy piece about a heavy subject -- it's a comedy and a romance about a heavy subject."



WHEN — March 14 through April 8 at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday & Friday; 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday

WHERE — TheatreSquared at 505 W. Spring St. in Fayetteville

COST — $10-$44

INFO — 443-5600

And the part that might be the biggest surprise to audiences?

"It also involves ninja fights and rapping," says Hirota with a smile.

You might be able to chalk up that particular content to the fact that Nguyen is an alumnus of the Marvel Studios Writers Program and a co-founder of the New York City theater company Vampire Cowboys, a leader of the "geek theater" movement that embraces "action/adventure and dark comedy with a comic book aesthetic." The play's plot, however, is deeply personal to Nguyen, as it is loosely based on the history of his family. In a program called "Operation New Life," more than 50,000 Southeast Asian refugees were processed and housed at Fort Smith's Fort Chaffee -- including Nguyen's parents, who were refugees from the Vietnam War.

This is the third time director Kholoud Sawaf has worked on the show: She assistant directed productions at both the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and the Manhattan Theatre Club. She says she was immediately drawn to the script because of Nguyen's unique portrayal of the immigrant experience.

"It's a positive representation, with a highlight on the word 'representation' as opposed to 'presentation,'" she says. "By that, I mean [the characters] are in charge of telling the story, rather than someone else taking over and telling the story on behalf of them. You get to see them as beautiful, resilient, sexy, fun human beings. The play doesn't reduce refugees to 'an issue.' They are not the enemy to be fought, or the victim to be saved.

"In order to make that trip, you have to be so strong -- and I'm so glad that there is a play that portrays that."

Actor David Huynh, who plays Quang -- the character based on Nguyen's father -- says that reading the play for the first time was a revelation for him.

"The title alone, 'Vietgone,' blew me away," says Huynh. "I actually am Vietnamese-American, and my father has a similar story to Quang. When I read the play, it knocked me out. I never expected to see a play about people like me, people like my parents. There are some parts that are so moving that it moved me to tears, and it was the first play to have ever done that to me. It knocked me off of my feet."

Hirota notes that Nguyen's play offers a unique perspective on subject matter audiences members may have only been exposed to through an Americanized lens.

"Not only is it a story from a group of people we don't normally get to hear from, but [Nguyen] uses a sort of gibberish vernacular for the American characters but has the Vietnamese characters speak in perfect English," she says. "He wants you to identify with these people as actual people, because Asians, in this country, are sort of seen as 'other' and not from here."

"The way that's handled, the language, is an absolutely beautiful way to create empathy with immigrants and refugees, especially at this time when they're looked at as 'the other,'" says Sawaf.

Hirota also lauds Nguyen for providing material for Asian actors that avoids all of the typical stereotypes.

"Having a show for me, personally, that has incredibly complex, strong, intelligent characters who are also Asian is incredibly significant," she says. "These are the sort of tropes that are not always [available to us]. Females tend to be either demure or a dragon lady. Either way, we are some sort of sex idea or symbol. [Tong] owns her sexuality and isn't just the idea of something to someone else."

Both actors say they hope the Vietnamese community in Northwest Arkansas and the River Valley have an opportunity to experience the show and its message.

"I hope we can connect with folks who don't usually see people that look like them represented," says Huynh, but adds that he thinks the show will appeal to a wide variety of audiences. "I think this is a fantastic piece of theater for people that don't go to see theater very often. I think this will blow every expectation non-theatergoers have of theater. It's very relatable, it's very fresh, modern and sexy."

NAN What's Up on 03/11/2018

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