On October 8, 2015, 60 students attended a performance of Qui Ngugyen’s original play, VietGone, at South Coast Repertory Theater. The evening included a pre-peformance conversation with the playwright. He also chatted with our group when the play was over. Two students from the Illuminations Colloquium report on the evening.
The Blood Of My Ancestors
by Kevin D. Pham, Anthropology
Vietgone was a wonderful exercise in new wave theatre, something more experimental and colloquial that speaks to our generation and our cultural values. Ironically, we think traditional Shakespearian theatre is classical and as 'cultured' as one can get. But in all honesty, Shakespearian theatre was to the Elizabethan population as Vietgone is to us. The playwright's use of profanity and urban rap music despite the fact that the setting takes place in 60's to 70's America and Vietnam was another innovative way to connect the piece to the audience.
As a child of Vietnamese refugees who fled Vietnam because of the war, I connected and identified with this play on a deeper level. I instantly got all of the more cultural references and notes like the deadpan tone and mannerisms of Tong's mother (which I see in my own grandmother and mother). I grew up hearing of all of the stories of how my family and my people lived through this entirely devastating and destructive tragedy. In fact, I heard many stories like Quang, of lost family, lost love, and lost home. I also heard stories like Tong, of new hope, new prospects, and new love. One of the most emotional and intense scenes for me was Tong's nightmare where she saw her fiancé and her brother killed back in Vietnam. I actually started crying at that scene (my friend had to hold my hand) because I felt all of the pain and suffering of my own family in these characters.
And on a political note, I loved the message that this play had about the Vietnam War. The problem with most American/Western media is the fact that they always conceptualize great tragedies that happen in the world, as if to say, "Yeah this is sad but it's not happening to us so we shouldn't pay it much attention." Many American turned the Vietnam War into a political statement when in fact people were suffering and dying in Vietnam. People lost their lives, their families, their home, their everything.
So thank you Qui Nguyen for telling the story of your family because you are telling the story of my family at the same time.
by Rachael Jeanne Heinsen, English
What I found most intriguing about Vietgone was the two-fold retelling of history regarding the Vietnam War. Americans constructed a narrative for the Vietnam War—that it was a massive political failure America should not have involved herself in. The play challenges this narrative in the main character telling his son when the Americans came they had a hope they didn’t have before. The narrative America constructed for the Vietnam War focuses on the politics and ignores how people suffered; the main character reminds his son and the audience that politics was not the concern, surviving was. Rather than the traditional condemning of America for entering the war, this play presents the perspective that the war was not a political one, that Americans provided hope during the war, and that the only thing that mattered was staying alive.
In addition to the re-conceptualization of the war the father presents, the father re-imagines history and insists that the war is not the most significant era of his life’s history. At the end of the play, rather than talking about the war, the father wants to talk about changing his son’s diaper—the most important part of the story he tells is not the war, but the family that grew out of tragedy. This is a matter of perspective—from the father’s perspective what mattered most was sitting in front of him—the son he had despite all he had lost in the war. Even the stage force this perspective with the telephone lines, arguing spatially what the play argues conceptually, to focus on the present rather than the past.
An added note: another of the play’s intriguing aspects was the characters rapping their soliloquies. Rapping them took an old theatrical technique and updated it in a way that is easily accessible to the young audience Qui aims to speak to.