Queensland Theatre’s production of Qui Nguyen’s Vietgone considers the long shadow of war on those who suffer through it. By Yen-Rong Wong.
Historically, much of the discourse about the Vietnam War has been dictated by the West, discarding or discounting Vietnamese voices. Qui Nguyen’s Vietgone is part of a larger movement of works that seeks to turn this tide. Though the action is set in America, directors Ngọc Phan and Daniel Evans have brought this work to life in Australia, a country that sent soldiers to fight in Vietnam before taking in more than 80,000 Vietnamese refugees in the years after 1975.
Vietgone is more than just an exploration of the complexities of a war complicated by the machinations of Western imperialist forces: it is a celebration of love, of what it means to be Vietnamese, of what it means to love a country that might never love you back.
The play is introduced by the Playwright (Hieu Luong), who asserts that any similarities to his parents are purely coincidental, before the action moves to Fort Chaffee, Arkansas. This was one of many repurposed military bases that housed Vietnamese refugees after the fall of Saigon in 1975. Here we meet Tong (Kristie Nguy) and her mother, Huong (Ngọc Phan), as well as Quang (Will Tran), a pilot in the Vietnamese air force, and Nhan (Aljin Abella), his best friend.
Designer Christina Smith invokes Fort Chaffee with a large metal skeleton topped with a billboard, accompanied by a bunk bed. The white mattress and grey sheets highlight the stark realities of living in a refugee camp – though this grimness doesn’t deter Tong, who is ready to embrace all America has to offer. Her hopes and dreams are all too relatable – many of the issues she wrestles with are still present in the lives of immigrants and their families today.
Nguy and Phan have great comic timing, punctuated with the perfect amount of exasperation and cynicism. Huong can be harsh but she is never malicious, and it is clear a deep love underpins their relationship. She often threatens her daughter with her shoe, and although this is played for comic effect, it isn’t exaggerated to the point of caricature – rather, it evokes childhood memories for those of us who experienced such treatment in real life.
It is also here that Tong meets Quang. The two strike up a no-strings-attached relationship despite their different views on returning to Vietnam. Nguy and Tran are electric onstage, their chemistry visible from the outset. Their romance takes place under the billboard, through the metal bars and up and down the stairs of the attached frame.
Quang and Tong are haunted by the ghosts of the people they have left behind – wives, children, siblings. While Tong is insistent on chasing her version of the American dream, learning English and applying to be “adopted” by a foster family, Quang is desperate to return to Vietnam.
Having bought a rusty motorcycle, Nhan and Quang travel along Route 66, experiencing America at its finest and weirdest. This ride to California is beautifully lit by Bernie Tan-Hayes and both evokes and satirises the tropes associated with this classic American road trip. The people they meet along the way – a motley crew of characters played mainly by Patrick Jhanur and Ngọc Phan – are easily identifiable by their clothing – the reveal of a Confederate flag emblazoned on a denim jacket worn by the “Redneck Biker” and the free-flowing robes of the hippies in Texas are especially notable.
A revolve allows the audience to follow the jumps in time and place that occur in the play: a physical reminder of the ever-present impact of the past on the present and the future. The billboard also permits additional historical context, acting as a screen for Nevin Howell’s videos, stitching together black-and-white images of helicopters evacuating Vietnamese people. These images have contemporary punch after the American withdrawal from Afghanistan and the evacuation of Western embassies only two years ago.
A longing for home runs through Shane Rettig’s original music, whether it be through song or rap. Rapping and hip-hop may seem anachronistic, but it’s worth keeping in mind the Playwright’s initial framing: this isn’t a work of “true fact”. This contemporary twist can be seen as the Playwright’s attempt to understand and reconceptualise the traumas experienced by Vietnamese people as a result of the war. Memory, as we all know, can be fickle, even without the influence of conflict and displacement, and indeed the play asks us to question what we consider to be “true” when it comes to a narrative the West has dominated for so long.
This critique continues in the play’s overt satirisation of its American characters. While Tong, Huong, Quang and Nhan are given space to be fully rounded characters, Vietgone stretches American stereotypes to the edge of absurdity: a refreshing reversal of Orientalist stereotypes that were perpetuated en masse in popular culture. Jhanur is excellent in his seven different roles but is especially endearing as Bobby, an American working at Fort Chaffee who speaks with an exaggerated drawl, using select “Americanisms” such as “Cheeseburger, waffle fries, cholesterol!” that make no sense. His attempts at speaking Vietnamese are also muddled, a reflection of how English speakers mock those trying to learn their language.
This tumultuous, nonlinear story concludes in 2015 as the Playwright attempts to interview his father for a project he is working on. It is here the play truly comes together – against a black backdrop, with only a table and a flimsy microphone, and after a few jokes and deflections, an older Quang pours his heart out to his son.
He rails against the self-centredness of Americans who apologise for their country’s intervention in the war, a repeat of a similar outburst earlier in the play that seems to fall on deaf ears. In doing so, Quang insists his son and, in turn, the audience recognise his humanity and the humanity of the Vietnamese people. To him and countless others, the war wasn’t an abstraction – it was real, as were its impacts on his family and friends. The existence of the play itself is another example of the enduring legacy of war and the unique damage it inflicts on those involved and for generations to come.
At its core, Vietgone is a love story – not just of the love between Tong and Quang, but of the love Vietnamese people have for the home they know, not the version told through white voices and seen through white eyes. It should not escape our attention that this play is being staged as the wars in Ukraine and Gaza rage on: Vietgone is perhaps the work we need now, more than ever.
Vietgone is playing at QPAC, Brisbane, until November 18.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 18, 2023 as "Love and war".
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