Transplanted lives

  • by Richard Dodds
  • Wednesday March 21, 2018
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It's hard to imagine that there are many angles left to explore about the Vietnam War, but playwright Qui Nguyen is mining fresh and fertile territory in "Vietgone" at ACT's Strand Theater. Most of the play takes place in the days, weeks, and months after the fall of Saigon, and while its characters are almost all Vietnamese, the setting is not Southeast Asia but a bleak corner of Arkansas. It was at the Fort Chaffee army facility that many South Vietnam evacuees got their first taste of America, and as one character sardonically notes, "It doesn't live up to its travel brochures."

There is a grudging acknowledgment that it's better than being slaughtered, but their chaotic departure from their homeland was neither planned nor sought after, and the culture shock of this sudden relocation is profound. Some characters want to make their way back to Vietnam, some are bitterly complacent, and there is at least one character who wants to embrace her new homeland. These struggles play out not as samplings of an exotic culture, but instead have their roots in gritty Americana.

We are advised at the top of the play by a stand-in for the playwright that we will not only hear the Vietnamese characters speaking their native language as if it were colloquial English, but also in the idioms of 2018 rather than 1975. And this mouthpiece for Nguyen wants us to know, in he-doth-protest-too-much fashion, that the story we are about to see has nothing to do with his Vietnamese parents, whose American story also began in Arkansas.

There are serious moments, about life in America and in flashbacks to Vietnam, but many of the situations are humorous, at times raucously so, and heavily seasoned with romantic situations. When Americans talk to the refugees in English, we hear it through uncomprehending Vietnamese ears as a broken collection of nonsense words. "Yee-haw! Get'er done, cheeseburger, waffle fries, cholesterol," barks one American officer to the new arrivals aboard an aircraft carrier.

While the default setting is Fort Chaffee in the weeks after the evacuation, the play jumps around in time and locale as one pair of characters tries to make their way from Arkansas to Camp Pendleton, where they naively think they can arrange passage back to a country that has just run American and allied forces out. The playwright displays many playful sides at various stops along this road trip, with an encounter with redneck bikers that evolves into some kung-fu fighting, then a pair of hippies who provide free love and a doobie.

The leader of this road trip was a helicopter pilot trained by the Americans who is ostensibly trying to return to his wife and children, but who is also fleeing the complications of a love affair that he has begun with a free-thinking fellow refugee back in Arkansas. These two characters provide the heart of a story that is heavily populated with other characters played by actors in multiple roles. But a charismatic James Seol and an easily magnetic Jenelle Chu play Quang and Tong throughout, and they pull us into their journeys that range from sardonic realism to a movie-collage fantasy to rap-based soliloquies.

Among the actors with multi-assignments, Jomar Tagatac scores strongly with his performances as an awkward American soldier trying to court Tong and as the hippie dude whom Quang meets on his westward journey, while Stephen Hu scores in his role as Quang's more sensible traveling companion. Cindy Im's main role as Tong's always-carping mother is the one character who seems stuck in cliches.

Director Jaime Castaneda's production captures the many moods of Nguyen's play, including a powerful coda between the aged Quang and his playwriting son that challenges what most of us have come to think that the Vietnam War represents. It's not enough to upend its unhappy legacy, but there are actually bright notes that we can at long last see.

"Vietgone" will run through April 22 at the Strand Theater. Tickets are $25-$90. Call (415) 749-2228 or go to

Jenelle Chu and James Seol play recent Vietnam evacuees who start a rocky romance at an Arkansas army base in ACT's "Vietgone." Photo: Kevin Berne