The Vietnam War is a strange portion of American History. Many people are pretty shaky on what the war was about and even what exactly happened. That doesn’t change the fact that it’s viewed as one of the biggest military failures in American history.
A.C.T’s newest show at the Strand Theater on Market Street, Vietgone, offers a different take on the war. The play follows two South Vietnamese refugees trying to start a new life in America after the fall of Saigon as they deal with racism, survivor’s guilt and trying to find themselves.
Vietgone is funny and thought provoking. It highlights a different perspective of the Vietnam conflict that forces us as Americans to look at the events through a different lens. That stated, the show sometimes seems uncomfortable with its own message and often goes for the joke instead of delving into the emotional truths of a scene or character. As a result, the show ultimately feels empty despite its genuinely funny and thoughtful moments. Overall, Vietgone is pretty good, but its unwillingness to delve into its most poignant moments stops the show from being a great one.
Inspired by the playwright Qui Nguyen’s real parents, Vietgone follows the love story between Quang (James Seol) and Tong (Janelle Chu). These two Vietnamese refugees come together in fits and starts and try to make sense of their new lives in 1970s America.
In some respects, the show is a traditional immigrant story where two people learn how to stay true to themselves while assimilating into a new culture. However, Nguyen’s treatment of language sets the show apart. The Vietnamese characters speak in modern vernacular while English is represented by American-sounding gobbledygook. This immediately places the audience into the shoes of the Vietnamese characters dealing with English as a second language, instead of viewing them from the outside. This choice powerfully allies the audience with the characters and makes them more relatable than the way they are portrayed in many other depictions of the Vietnam War.
Unfortunately, the show’s use of language in other areas detracts from the production. One of the largest disconnects was the show’s quasi-musical structure. At various points throughout the show, the characters express themselves through rap. It’s not frequent enough for the show to really be considered a musical, but the rap numbers can’t be ignored either.
Logically, I get it. The show is trying to subvert the audience’s preconceived opinions on the Vietnam War. Likewise, rap is an inherently subversive art medium that was born out of frustration and anger at a myopic mainstream viewpoint. On an emotional level, however, most of the songs just don’t connect. The best raps in the show are performed when the characters are at their angriest during the second act. Ironically, these were the least poetic raps. Repeated lines such as “You lost a brother, I lost my country” and “I don’t give a shit” resonated better with the overall tone of the show than the more expository language used during act one.
The biggest problem with the show, however, is what it doesn’t do. Vietgone does not delve into the deepest emotions of the hero, Quang. At the show’s most acutely emotionally moments, the script chooses to end the scene or make a joke instead of letting the audience see into the character’s heart. Especially considering that rap is used throughout the show to expose the characters’ emotions, the lack of emotional transparency at the end of the show is perplexing. I have my theories on why the playwright consciously or unconsciously made these decisions, but whatever the reason, it robs the story of much of its emotional punch and complexity.
Ultimately, the show is very good; it’s just not as good as it could be. Vietgone is funny, entertaining and thoughtful, but it’s not going to stay with you. The show lacks emotional resonance and makes the show feel empty despite its powerful message.
Vietgone is playing until April 22, 2018 at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater, 1127 Market Street, San Francisco. The show runs about 2 hours and 20 minutes with one intermission. Tickets range $25-$90.
Photos courtesy of Kevin Berne