Vietgone is a passionate performance by small, powerful cast; it is the telling of Vietnam war after the fall of Saigon from the perspective of a multiple characters. This is insight and truth that America does not know, the parts we didn’t learn about in history class, and the experiences that would not be known if not for dedicated playwrights and performers such as those on the Guthrie stage.
Vietgone opens with two characters riding on a motorcycle to California. Lighthearted at first, the revelation that the two men are fleeing a US refugee camp to return to Vietnam changes the mood entirely. The story is unveiled in present time and through flashbacks, the events leading up to the fall of Saigon, the desperate escape, the families torn apart, the fate of those left behind.
Tong and her mother arrive at a refugee camp in Arkansas; the living quarters are bare bones, the food is unfamiliar and unpalatable (meat and fried vegetables), and the language a barrier. Tong’s mother wants to return to Vietnam where her son remains; Tong, whose experience in Vietnam was at times a fight for survival, wants to assimilate in America. The mother-daughter interaction is recognizable across all cultures: funny, maddening and touching.
Quang and his best friend arrive at the same camp; Quang and Tong meet and develop a relationship. Quang, a member of the Vietnamese military, with a wife and two children he was forced to leave behind, feels a duty to return to his family; Tong is a 30-year-old unmarried woman, who could not go to school and was promised to a man she did not love, plays it cool to protect herself, seemingly wanting no attachments.
The 80-minute play thoughtfully delivers intense subject matter with pop culture references, music (delivered rap-style), and comedy woven throughout; profanity and sex are part of the content (notice to parents). Gender roles and racism are examined, stereotypes and assumptions presented and challenged.
Vietgone is a dedicated undertaking by the playright Qui Nguyen, to his family and his culture, to bringing light to places that are overlooked and unseen; it is described by Nguyen as a tale of falling in love. I see it as a tribute, and a needed contribution to not only America, the Vietnamese, and all immigrants and casualties of war, but also the underrepresented, the unheard, unseen, and the forgotten.
Vietgone is playing at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis now through October 16. Tickets range from $20-$79.
Review by Kavita Battula; photo by Dan Norman