Friday, August 24, 2018

Friends in a Strange Land: At Writers Theatre, 'Vietgone' Provides Interesting Perspectives on Post-War Displacement -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

a recent play by Qui Nguyen
directed by Lavina Jadhwani
Writers Theatre, Glencoe, IL
Thru September 23

In writing theater reviews, my aim is to share enough about the storyline to give you a good sense of the play (or musical) so as to pique your interest--even if I myself wasn't so smitten--but not reveal any key plot twists, ruin the ending or lessen the drama.

Especially as I prefer to be taken by surprise as a viewer, I will maintain this discretion in discussing Vietgone, a fine recent play by Qui Nguyen, now getting its Chicagoland premiere at Glencoe's gorgeous Writers Theatre.

So even though Nguyen--whose writing I largely found quite fresh and inventive--opts to make certain revelations at the very beginning of Vietgone that essentially give away the ending, my tack will be to be even more circumspect than the play's introduction itself or the printed program, even if both provide insights you may otherwise find interesting.

Under the direction of Lavina Jadhwani at Writers and featuring a terrific set designed by Yu Shibagaki, Vietgone predominantly takes place in 1975, before, during and after the fall of Saigon that ended the Vietnam War.

Photo credit on all: Michael Brosilow
Quang (a terrific Matthew C. Yee) is a South Vietnam helicopter pilot--the side supported in the war by the USA--with a wife and two young children, but duty and his comrade, Nhan (Rammel Chan) compel him to aid in the airlift of U.S. Embassy personnel and civilian natives likely to be targeted by the victorious Viet Cong.

As did over 100,000 South Vietnamese troops and citizens, Quang and Nhan wind up in a U.S. holding camp, this one being in Fort Chaffee, Arkansas.

While Quang actively desires to get back to his family--prompting Nhan to accompany him on a cross country motorcycle trip in an effort to do so--his time in the camp is made more pleasant by encounters with an attractive Vietnamese woman name Tong (Aurora Adachi-Winter, excellent in a role demanding wide-ranging tonality).

Leaving behind both a lover and a beloved brother, Tong has come to Fort Chaffee with her brassy mother Huong (Emjoy Gavino, who also deftly embodies some younger women characters).

Ian Michael Minh also plays multiple parts, including both Vietnamese and (presumably Caucasian) American men infatuated with Tong.

I'll leave vague further specifics about the narrative, but appreciate being enlightened about South Vietnamese evacuees needing U.S. residents to "sponsor"--which I believe meant house, employ or otherwise support--them in order to be able to exit the holding camps.

And even though they had been U.S. allies, many of those who had come over from South Vietnam were seen and treated as the enemy.

So beyond the acute storylines about Quang, Tong and their families, I found Vietgone to be worthwhile for the way it illuminates about the immigrant experience, including for those who didn't emigrate by active choice.

At at a time when immigrant children have been separated from their parents, and other refugees arrive to face considerable bigotry--if even allowed into the U.S.--many of Vietgone's insights, including some of the between-the-lines variety, are rather shrewd and resonant.

(Without turning this review into a polemic, it seems to me that white-skinned Americans who tend to disdain those of differing colors and languages aren't so likely to be discriminating about legal vs. illegal immigrants. If you look "foreign," you'll likely be treated as such by those short on tolerance.)

I wish it had been possible for the ending of Vietgone to have surprise me a bit more, though something of an epilogue contains the play's most overt discourse about the Vietnam War itself and U.S. involvement.

But though it's hard to express such things in writing, the production really has a nice energy to it throughout two acts and nearly 2-1/2 hours.

Supported by music written for this staging by Gabriel Ruiz, there are a number of rap songs performed by many of the play's key characters, with lyrics crafted by playwright Nguyen.

Some of these work better than others--a rap by Tong presumably called "I Don't Give a Shit" is rather powerful--but it's part of what makes Vietgone feel fresh and unique.

That the newly in Arkansas Vietnamese characters do not --for the most part--speak with any trace of an accent and actually employ a good deal of American slang is also a novel touch.

And although I'm purposely leaving vague the play's various romantic and interpersonal interactions, I found this aspect of Vietgone rather compelling as well. 

Quang, Tong, Huong and Nhan are all strong characters, and it's hard to imagine them portrayed considerably better than by the actors at Writers. 

Although Vietgone touches on war and strife and politics, it's even more about love and family and friendship, with a good deal of humor along the way. 

It's neither perfect nor a masterpiece, and Nguyen's decision to give away the ending at the beginning is one of but a few choices I have my doubts about. 

But with many inspired ideas, deft touches, fine performances and welcome insights, Vietgone is a strong play that left me thinking. 

Even if where it would wind up was never much in doubt.

No comments: