JUNE 2022 | Volume 216
I’ve long been a big fan of United Players, a semi-professional company (they can use only one or two Equity actors per show) that produces a five-show season in what is essentially a barn out on the western edge of Vancouver near Spanish Banks beach. UP has consistently offered quality productions and adventurous programming, their seasons more closely resembling those of the old Vancouver Playhouse than, say, the Arts Club or The Cultch.
Their current season-ending show is a case in point. Vietnamese-American playwright Qui Nguyen’s Vietgone, a play about refugees from the Vietnam War in the United States in 1975, is an audacious immigrant story, told via strong language, fractured chronology, and anachronistic rap, not unlike Hamilton. It’s funny and serious, and requires seven of its eight actors to be of Asian heritage. It’s challenging.
This United Players production more than rises to the challenge. Co-directors Keltie Forsyth and Louisa Phung deliver a knockout of a show with original music, an onstage DJ, and consistently strong acting across the board. The leads, Chris Lam and Alison Chang, are especially excellent, even rapping with authority.
Vietgone is the story of the playwright’s parents, we learn at the beginning and end from Nguyen himself (Ryan Anthony Kwok), who met in the Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, refugee camp where most of the play is set. It flashes back and forth from there to Saigon, from where these South Vietnamese fled as the Americans abandoned the war and the Communists converged on the city, and to a cross-country motorcycle trip taken by Quang (Chris Lam) and his best buddy Nhan (Jeremy Truong), as Quang attempts to return to Vietnam to somehow retrieve the wife and children he left behind.
Quang’s story is one main thread. A chopper pilot in the South Vietnamese air force, he’s tough and bitter and hates being in the U.S. The other thread belongs to Tong (Alison Chang), who had to flee Saigon because she worked at the U.S. embassy. She was only able to bring her mother with her, leaving her beloved brother behind. Tong is equally tough and independent (“I’m the baddest bitch in this camp,” she raps), and she is happy to be there, out of the war, in a place where she can exercise her sexual independence. Her mother, Huong (Aurora Chan), doesn’t want to be there and just wants Tong to marry and have babies. She drives Tong crazy.
Spoiler alert: Quang and Tong will eventually get together, after many ups and downs, and their son the playwright will be born. I absolutely loved both their performances. They prove to be an adorable couple. Truong and Chan offer terrific support, as does Kwok, and David Johnston as an American GI who woos Tong in his hilariously fractured Vietnamese. Other than Lam and Chang, all the actors (including Abigail Padilla) are double- or triple-cast, nicely distinguishing their characters with the help of Lady Rae Clark’s costumes.
Jane Li’s open set includes a scrim behind which musical director/sound designer/DJ Jon Qpid plays Shane Rettig’s music, the soundtrack for Quang’s and Tong’s rapping. Jacob Wan’s lighting helps convey the scene changes, and Nico Dicecco’s projections give us scenes from the Vietnam War and locations in the road trip.
One of the great strengths of the play is its unusual (for North Americans) perspective: the war and its aftermath seen through the eyes of Vietnamese expats. We learn a lot about them, including, from Nanh, how being an immigrant reminds him how much he hated Chinese immigrants in Vietnam. The most fascinating revelation comes at the end from Quang, now an old man, in a tour de force performance from Chris Lam: one Vietnamese man’s retrospective view of the war in contrast to that of his American-born son.
Despite its being one of the best plays and productions of the season, Vietgone had only a tiny audience the night I saw it, for whatever reasons. It would be a shame for this jewel of a show to go under the radar. Do yourself a favour: see it.
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