A War, A New Life & Old Memories - ACT-SF's “Vietgone”
The fire engine red Strand Theater is a striking sight on San Francisco's Market Street. A block away from the Orpheum theater, it opened in 2015. When viewed from the Civic Center UN Plaza just across the street, it presents a sharp contrast to the enormous muti-storey glass building behind it, and the old brick building just next to it.
Turn your gaze ninety degrees to the right and you see City Hall in the distance, at the end of the brick walkway lined by trees and street lamps. It was a clear day in the city after the rains, if a little windy and cold.
Thoughts of a preshow lunch at the Asian Art Museum Café were thwarted as it was closed for renovation, but a meal at the nearby Ananda Fuara restaurant was comforting. Coffee at The Strand Theater was a welcome preshow treat, especially as it was allowed to be taken into the theater. While I have been to ACT’s Geary Theater on several occasions over the years, it was my first time at the Strand, red inside the theater just as the exterior, and I liked the look and feel of it.
Vietgone is a play about immigrants, refugees from Vietnam who came to America in 1975 after the fall of Saigon, to Fort Chaffee, Arkansas. While the historical context places it squarely in a specific time and place, the story is universal. A home and family left behind, a new country with strange food, an unfamiliar tongue, and puzzling customs. Directed by Jaime Castaneda in ACT SF's production, with music composed by Shammy Dee, Qui Nguyen’s play is a story about his parents, refugees from Vietnam, told by their American son.
In the refugee camp, Quang (James Seol), a helicopter pilot, meets Tong (Jenelle Chu), a lovely young woman toughened by circumstance. Tong’s mother (Cindy Im) is a highly entertaining character, as critical and disapproving of her daughter as she is drawn to handsome young men. She immediately reminded me of Grandmother Fa in Walt Disney's film "Mulan", who meets the dashing young Captain Shan and exclaims "Sign me up for the next war!"
An inversion of accents is novel and masterful: the immigrants speak fluent English and the Americans speak a kind of pidgin, haltingly spewing out random words.
We accompany Quang and his friend Khue (Stephen Hu) on a road trip on a motorcycle to California, from where Quang intends to go back to Vietnam, to the family he has left behind. With narratives in rap, a couple of fight scenes, intimations of steamy sex and the waft of marijuana, this hip production was certainly nothing like some of the stodgy ACT shows that kept appearing some 15 years ago. This is no longer your grandma's theater company!
The set is spare, swinging around to allow rapid transitions from the point of departure in Vietnam to the refugee camp, a restaurant and the outdoors. The cast is terrific: 5 actors play more than 15 characters. Jenelle Chu is luminous as Tong, and James Seol is riveting as Quang.
At the end, the aging Quang sits with his playwright son (Jomar Tagatac) and reminisces about years past. Quang did not return to Vietnam at the end of his road trip—he stayed, married Tong and built a life in America. As they converse, Quang recounts amusing episodes from when his son was a baby. This frustrates the younger man, who is more interested in his father’s views on the Vietnam war, regarded by most in America as the biggest and most costly militaristic mistake in the history of the country. Quang’s words offer a rare and different perspective, challenging our assumptions about the war. He was grateful, he says, for the American soldiers who fought alongside the South Vietnamese against the Vietcong.
I continued to reflect on this long after the play ended. How does one measure the success or failure of a war? Books have been written about wartime assessments—think tanks such as the Brookings and Hoover Institutions write of setting priorities, establishing clear metrics.
For me, as for many of us, the best war is the one never fought. And yet. Can the world remain silent when a country oppresses its people? And what is our collective responsibility to the refugees arriving at our gates, who have lost everything they had? Our answers to these define the people we are, our humanity. And they are not easily answered.