I’ve always been a sucker for audacity and Qui Nguyen’s “Vietgone” is nothing if not audacious.
This raucous, time-jumping saga about the legacy of the Vietnam War is an in-your-face mashup. Part love story, part sex comedy, part hip-hop musical, “Vietgone” is also a compelling history play. The through-line is how Nguyen’s own parents met at a refugee camp in Arkansas. How successfully the playwright pulls this off is a mater of a subjective opinion, but for my money he comes close to melding the disparate elements into a thoughtful, sobering whole.
The Unicorn Theatre production, directed by Cynthia Levin, showcases a talented cast — Kansas City’s Asian-American professional actors rarely get a chance to sink their teeth into material this rich and they they don’t hold back. A recent Sunday matinee revealed a production with uncertain rhythms and, at times, a regrettable lack of momentum, but when it clicked it reflected a fierce commitment by the performers, who embraced Nguyen’s unique sensibility. And a moving final scene allowed most of the rough spots to be forgotten.
In a timeline that begins in 1975 and extends to the recent past, Vi Tran plays Quang, a South Vietnamese helicopter pilot who ferries people escaping South Vietnam as it falls to an American aircraft carrier. After his chopper is shoved overboard to make room for more escape vehicles, he has no way to return and is assigned to a refugee camp in Fort Chaffee, Arkansas. There he meets Tong (Ai Vy Bui), an independent-minded young woman who has escaped Vietnam with her hot-tempered mother (Andi Meyer).
Initially their “courtship” consists mainly of hostile barbs but true love — or at least biology — takes its course. Complicating Quang’s feelings for Tong is his Quixotic dream of getting back to Vietnam. Indeed, the concept of “home” runs throughout the play. Ultimately these characters must accept that “home” is a state of mind that exists wherever they happen to be.
Quang and his buddy Nhan (Eric Palmquist) strike out for California on a rusty motorcycle (think “Easy Rider” without the hallucinogens). They inevitably encounter hostile rednecks but these clashes are played for laughs. Excited by standing at the rim of the Pacific, the same ocean that laps the shores of his homeland, Quang inevitably must weigh the likely consequences if he could defy the odds and get back to Vietnam.
Nguyen employs several clever conceits. His Vietnamese characters speak in contemporary hip-hop flavored English. The American characters, conversely, speak a comic pidgin English that reflects their extremely poor understanding of the Vietnamese language.
This, of course, is a reversal of decades of Hollywood and Broadway portrayals of colonial westerners encountering childlike Asians, from “The King and I” to “The Teahouse of the August Moon” to “Miss Saigon.”
Vi Tran delivers a strong performance (and reveals himself to be a potent rapper) as Quang. His presence inevitably brings to mind his own excellent play, “The Butcher’s Son,” a poignant autobiographical piece about his own family’s journey from Vietnam to Kansas. Ai Vy Bui exudes charisma and honest emotion, even if her comic timing isn’t quite what it needs to be. Andi Meyer, as is her custom, delivers a precise performance that ranges from broad comedy to heartfelt compassion. Eric Palmquist delivers one of the show’s most effective performances as Nhan; his comic timing is impeccable but he handles dramatic scenes with equal skill. And Sean Yeung plays a range of comic roles, from American naval officers to hippies to biker outlaws, with impressive skill.
Yeung, as the playwright, shares the final scene with Tran as Quang, who in his senior years has agreed to be interviewed about his life and times. The startling result is a moving monologue in which Quang rejects the view that the Vietnam War was a disaster and voices his resentment that the conflict is continually trotted out by politicians, journalists and historians as a cautionary tale. In his view it was the Good Fight. The Commies really were the bad guys and Quang, his South Vietnamese cohorts and American allies really were the good guys.
Tran delivers the speech with such conviction and deep feeling that you don’t question it for a moment. At least I didn’t.
“Vietgone” runs through May 13 at the Unicorn Theatre, 3828 Main St. Call 816-531-7529 or go to www.unicorntheatre.org.