I went to Denver in late August for Vietgone, a play by Qui Nguyen, at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, invited by my niece Valérie Thérèse Bart, the show’s costume designer and only Vietnamese in the production team. I went with Valérie’s mother, my sister Marie. What I gained from the experience was more than I had expected I would.
To ensure that her mother and aunt could follow the play’s storyline, Valerie made us watch the show twice: one preview (dress rehearsal) and again on opening night. She was concerned the story’s fast pace might confuse us, and also wanted us to get answers to any questions we might have beforehand.
Vietgone had its world premiere in late 2015 at the South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, Calif., and has since been produced by various groups around the country, receiving much praise. The Denver-based Vietgone production touched me deeply, despite the unfamiliar-to-my-ears rap music (with several words escaping my slowly aging hearing), and the equally unfamiliar profanity (to an elderly Vietnamese of moderate background) peppered throughout the play’s dialogue.
The show, directed by Seema Sueko, opens with the character-playwright (performed by Jordan De Leon, who also undertakes five other roles in the production) making a tongue-in-cheek introduction of the play, its characters, and their broken English. He emphasizes that the show is not “specifically” about his parents, nor about the Vietnam War, but about two lost individuals falling in love during the most difficult time of their lives.
This wacky introduction nevertheless takes the audience straight into the heart of the story: the tragic fall of South Vietnam that scattered its people across the globe. From this circumstance emerges the two main characters, both in their early 30s: Quang, a pilot of the SVN Airforce, whose wife and two small children were left behind; and Tong, a former US Embassy employee who had no choice but to flee with only her mother, leaving behind her kid brother and a lover. Quang and Tong meet in a military-turned-refugee camp in Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, wretched and drifting into each other’s arms for comfort, sexually and then emotionally.
Quang (played by the young and talented Glenn Morizio) is on his way to California with his buddy Nhan (played by Brian Lee Huynh). Quang hopes to catch a flight back to VN to reunite with his family; Nhan tags along hoping to discourage his friend. From there, the show flashes back to a Saigon in turmoil, where the strong-willed, sharp-tongued Tong (played by a charming Lisa Helmi Johanson) is determined to flee the country with her nagging, prejudiced, over-protective mother, Huong (played by Melody Butiu). Heartbroken after leaving her lover and kid brother behind, Tong becomes nevertheless determined to make America her home.
It’s an opposite situation for Quang. Despite his relationship with Tong, which gets more serious and complicated during their stay together in the refugee camp, Quang still longs to return home to Vietnam.
Back to Quang and Nhan’s road trip on an old, discarded motorbike fixed up by Quan. Along the way the two refugee men encounter a redneck biker flying a Confederate flag, who forces them off the road but gets rammed off instead; and a couple of hippies who share a weed joint with them while apologizing for American “interference” in Vietnam, even despite the male hippie’s loss of a brother to the conflict. The latter incident forces Quang, via the talented Morizio, to deliver a painful yet powerful counter, in a rap, which helped me to really understand why the playwright chose this type of music—non-existent for Vietnamese in the mid-1970s—to express his character’s frustrations and anger.
QUANG: [rapping] You lost a brotha / I lost my family / You lost a brotha / I lost my whole country / You lost a brotha / I lost my wife and kids / You lost your brother / Motherfucker, I lost everything I had / So tie your ribbons around your old oak trees / But save your sorries and ignorant apologies / Don’t put words in the mouth of those who died / Cause it was through their sacrifice that I have my life / Yo, I’m here alive in honor of their memory / ‘Cause if it weren’t for them there would be no me / You might be smart – great – you read some news / But you don’t know shit about the shit we all went thru […]
From here, the play flashes back to the camp where Quang’s relationship with Tong intensifies as her mother tries to intervene. When learning that Quang is planning to go to California to find a way back to his family, Tong pushes their relationship aside and begins to flirt with Bobby, a white soldier whom her mother detests. Again, here, the show flashes forward, to Quang and Nhan on the coast of California, where the smell of the ocean has brought a sense of Vietnam back to Quang, who undresses as if about to jump into the water to swim back to Vietnam, declaring, “It smells like home. It’s the Pacific. Same body of water that Vietnam’s in. Same ocean that touches our home…”
As Quang excitedly talks about going home, Nhan painstakingly yet brutally tells him:
NHAN: Man, what do you think is gonna happen exactly? You think you’re gonna step off that ship and for what? Just go home? Be with your family? You were captain of a ten helicopter squadron, a military officer in the Republic of Vietnam’s Air Force that trained here in America. Do you know what happens? […] He DIES. At best that is. At best they put a goddam bullet in your brain as soon as they see you because the other option – the other option is they put you in one of their camps. And we’re not talking some cushy two-year re-education cake walk, we’re talking the rest of your goddamn life. […] What good are you going to do for your wife, for your kids, for anyone if you’re dead or locked up? […] If you love them, if you really fucking love them – the best thing you can do is let them go.
At this point in the play the character Quang turns to stare straight at the audience and then lets out a painful shriek—this sent a chill down my spine. Tears rimmed my eyes as the lights went down and the actors began to move the set around getting ready for the next scene.
While waiting for the next scene, I remembered those days in May 1975 when I myself stood in front of a huge billboard planted at the entrance of Area 4 – my camp number at Camp Pendleton, Calif. – on which the State Department had advertised that those wanting to return to Vietnam could register and be processed, via a third country, since the United States had no relationship with the new regime. I finally decided to stop thinking about going back, ever. Some 1,500-plus souls actually did return, and later we learned they were rounded up for prison camps upon setting foot back in Vietnam. Like Tong, I had determined to make America my home, to claim my place under the sun here, being aware the kind of fate a free-willed writer like myself would face in an authoritarian regime.
In the play, realizing he can no longer go home, Quang returns to Arkansas to look for Tong, and the lovers’ story in the refugee camp continues (which I won’t reveal all the details of in this review). The next most affecting part of the play, for myself, occurred in its flash forward to four decades later, in 2015, when a 70-year-old Quang and his playwright-son converse. Sitting in front of a laptop, the playwright is preparing to interview his father. Hilarious exchanges of their mundane lives in years past slowly wind into a very serious subject, the subject of a forgotten warrior’s bitter aftermath, as the elderly Quang expresses in some key dialogue:
QUANG: My life is more than the eight years I fight.
PLAYWRIGHT: I know. But it’s a big deal –
PLAYWRIGHT: Because it was a war. A really fucked up war.
QUANG: Because we lost.
PLAYWRIGHT: No, because Americans needlessly died in it.
QUANG: How you know this?
PLAYWRIGHT: Jesus, Dad, because it’s a forgone conclusion by everyone that Vietnam was one of the biggest military mistakes in all of history. America should have never gotten involved. We had no right to be there.
PLAYWRIGHT: Yes. We. America. We had no right —
QUANG: SHUT UP!
QUANG: You shut up right now. You sound like stupid dummy!
QUANG: Son, I love you. You very smart, but sometimes when you talk, you sound stupid like shit.
QUANG: Yes, son, you raised in America and you are American. You work in business with many white people, many black people, many “Asian” people, but – listen to me – you are not white, you are not black, you are not even “Asian.” You are Vietnamese. Like me. Like your mother. And to Vietnamese, the war was not political, it was real. It not something we choose or not choose to be in. … We fight because it was the only thing we could do. But we not choose to be in war. War came to us.
And when America came to us, they gave us hope. They fought beside us as we fought beside them. Yes, there were very many mistakes. A lot bad things happened. But that not change this one fact, many of them died so I could live – so I can be right here right now. When your house is on fire and you lose everything, you do not want to hear from your neighbor that moving into the house was mistake in first place. You especially don’t want to hear that the men and women who helped fight that fire were mistakes as well.
When I first come to America, that’s all I hear. Very nice, very “smart” young people apologizing for “America’s interference.” I tell you before “America’s interference,” we were getting slaughtered. And now, forty years later, all I hear is politicians using Vietnam as a symbol for a mistake. “If the President not careful, this will be another Vietnam.” This is not how any Vietnamese wants Vietnam to be remembered.
A long moment of silence followed on stage, long enough for the lines to sink into the audience’s consciousness. And long enough for hot tears to again form in my eyes.
Playwright Qui Nguyen has spoken for his parents, which is the generation I am of. This generation of mine was too busy—putting the pieces of our lives back together, trying to bring up our children—to be able to engage in war-related political debates in the aftermath of the war. And it is an aftermath the communist regime of Vietnam has worked hard to erase, pretending we were just simple immigrants, not political refugees fleeing their totalitarian rule. The communists even tried to erase the existence altogether of our free and democratic Republic of Vietnam (1954-75) from its history books, as well from the face of the earth, literally.
Sadly, many members of my generation are no longer here to witness this moment of art recognizing the truth – our truth – that has been denied to us since the end of the war.
Trùng Dương, born Nguyễn Thị Thái, 1944 in Sơn Tây, North Vietnam. Emigrated to and grew up in South Vietnam from 1954. Former publisher-editor of the Daily Sóng Thần (Sài Gòn, 1971-75), she’s authored several short and long fictions, essays, illustrations, and a three-act play, My Sons Are Home (1978). A political refugee in the United States since 1975, she graduated from the State University of California, Sacramento with a BA in government-journalism and an MA in international affairs. A 1990-91 Fulbright Fellow in Hongkong, she studied China’s Special Ecionomic Zones. She reported for the Mountain Democrat, Placerville, Calif., 1991-93; then worked as copy editor then chief librarian at The Record, Stockton, Calif. until retiring in 2006. She now lives in Northern California.
Trùng Dương, tên khai sinh là Nguyễn Thị Thái, sinh năm 1944 tại Sơn Tây, di cư vào và lớn lên tại miền Nam từ 1954. Nguyên chủ nhiệm-chủ bút nhật báo Sóng Thần (Saigòn, 1971-75), bà là tác giả của nhiều truyện ngắn, truyện dài, biên khảo, phóng sự, minh hoạ, và một vở kịch ba màn, Các Con Tôi Đã Về (1978). Tị nạn cộng sản tại Hoa Kỳ từ 1975. Sau khi tốt nghiệp cử nhân và cao học ngành báo chí, công quyền và các vấn đề quốc tế, Đại học Tiểu Bang California, Sacramento, bà làm phóng viên cho tờ The Mountain Democrat, Placerville, Calif., từ 1991-93; sau đó về cộng tác với nhật báo The Record, Stockton, Calif., làm copy editor rồi trưởng thư viện tin tức (chief news librarian) từ 1993 tới khi về hưu năm 2006. Bà hiện cư ngụ tại Northern California.