Sacramento’s Capital Stage is presenting the first local production of Vietgone, a recent prize-winning play about South Vietnamese characters fleeing fast-advancing Vietcong during the Fall of Saigon in the 1970s. They unexpectedly find themselves transplanted into a strange part of America that they’ve never previously heard of: a hastily organized refugee camp in rural Arkansas.
There have been shows set in Vietnam during this era before, such as the musical Miss Saigon. But that show is more about the experience of American GIs in ’Nam — the romances initiated that fall apart as the war concludes — not the experience of Vietnamese refugees figuring out how to start over in the United States.
In Vietgone, the central characters are all Vietnamese, traumatized by their departure from their homeland and worried about the fate of relatives left behind, who they may never see again. They’re also very much perplexed by the unfamiliar customs, foods and cultural expectations encountered in their American refugee camp and beyond.
Consequently — and several dark, dramatic scenes depicting the Fall of Saigon notwithstanding — Vietgone basically functions as an exuberant and fantastical, yet also historically informed, “culture comedy” about these characters’ awkward — and frequently absurd — experience as they acclimate to American life.
The “camp experience” aspect of Vietgone bears some resemblance to several plays about the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. But there’s one big difference: Those camps were surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards, and the Vietnamese refugees in this play are free to leave and go into town, or buy an old motorcycle and go roaming.
Vietgone depicts this experience through many other lenses, as well. There is quite a bit of food comedy; the Vietnamese refugees are initially turned off by the greasy burgers, French fries and overcooked canned vegetables they are served at the refugee camp. But then, two of them venture out on a long motorcycle trip through the Southwest, where they encounter an utterly unfamiliar Mexican specialty: a burrito.
There is a priceless scene in which actor Anthony Chan (as Nahn) sizes up a burrito, not sure how to eat it, and eventually decides to take a taste, which he initially finds very strange. But he realizes the flavor is really very good. (I’ve experienced the same kind of thing while hosting exchange students from Asia, many of whom became so fond of Mexican food that they took along a bag of tortillas when they returned home.)
Vietgone is also a raucous — almost raunchy at times — sex farce. There is virtually no privacy in the refugee camp — think barracks with bunk beds — so when an impulsive tryst occurs between two sex-deprived and presently unattached Vietnamese 30-somethings, their hasty, furtive, urgent coupling under awkward circumstances makes for a very funny scene.
The play also has a strong mother-daughter, father-son aspect, as the younger Vietnamese characters adapt to America faster than their parents. There are shades of The Joy Luck Club, among others, but in this case presented from a Vietnamese point of view during the immediate aftermath of the Vietnam War.
And Vietgone is steeped in cleverly deployed bits of 1960s and ’70s pop culture. The two guys on the long motorcycle ride through the Southwest resembles the iconic film Easy Rider, and generally emulates the road trip/buddy-movie genre. Other scenes incorporate classic love songs recorded by black soul singers during that era. There are also contemporary elements, including several characters who start rapping over music, a la Hamilton.
Late in the play, Vietgone reflects on the nagging question: “Was it worth fighting that war?” This is asked as the American-born children of the Vietnamese refugees reach adulthood, and start querying their aging parents. And some of the older generation’s responses may surprise you.
The play is very much a hybrid, a very successful and hardy hybrid, in this case. Think of it as one of those seafood stews you’ll find in many parts of the world — bouillabaisse in France, cioppino in Italy, siete mares in Mexico and yosenabe in Japan — that work in an almost dizzying variety of ingredients.
Visiting director Jeffrey Lo (from the Bay Area) does a marvelous job keeping all these different plates spinning in the air simultaneously, while the cast (five professional actors with roots in the Bay Area, most appearing in Sacramento for the first time; there not being a whole lot of professional Asian actors in this area) turn in excellent performances. A special mention to Jomar Tagatac as Quang, a South Vietnamese helicopter pilot during the war, and Rinabeth Apostol as Tong, who worked in the American Embassy in Saigon. They embark on a sexual relationship that blossoms into a long-lasting romance.
If you want to see this unique and very worthwhile show, it’s best to buy tickets in advance. Several upcoming performances are already sold out, and others will sell out shortly. Three additional performances have already been added.
Vietgone continues at Capital Stage in Sacramento through April 14.