ST. PETERSBURG — A story about refugees falling in love after terrible loss doesn’t sound like the premise of a comedy, but it also sounds familiar. Yet, Vietgone, Qui Nguyen’s play about how his parents met in America after fleeing war-torn Vietnam, is both hilarious and refreshingly original. And richly nuanced.
American Stage’s production of Vietgone is directed by Brian Balcom, who is Asian American. The entire cast is Asian, even portraying the white characters. Three of the five actors portray multiple roles effectively, a testament to their talents and the pacing of the play for quick costume and set changes.
The fluid timeline moves back and forth through flashbacks. The intimate stage is the set for Vietnam, the refugee camp and the American open road. This is effectively achieved by set and projection designer Jerid Fox. The backdrop screens emulate sunsets, glowing purple, orange and fuchsia. Postcard images flash on overhead screens to set location. And real footage of refugees fleeing Saigon gives sobering historical context.
Dialogue is full of “homies,” “yo” and “bro” despite the play being set in 1975. This is explained when the character Nguyen (the versatile Vi Tran) introduces the show. After he goes through the spiel about turning off cellphones, he explains that even though the main characters all speak Vietnamese, they’ll speak in American slang syntax because “there’s a lot of white people up in here." Americans are satirized with cliches like “yeehaw,” “git 'er done” and “cheeseburger.” When Americans are attempting to speak Vietnamese badly, it’s a word salad of nonsense.
Rapped monologues by Tong (Sami Ma) and Quang (Jeff Kim) move the plot along over hip-hop beats. The actors know how to flow, and their diction is clear, even if the writing style would lend itself better to slam poetry.
As Quang, Kim is confident and determined. He’s a helicopter fighter pilot in Vietnam, fighting with the Americans against the Viet Cong. As Saigon begins to fall, Nhan (Kenny Tran) persuades him to get out. He leaves his wife and children behind.
Tong, played with moxie by Sami Ma, has to drag her mother Huong (Jodi Kimura) away from her younger brother (Kenny Tran), who stays behind in Vietnam. When they arrive at the refugee camp in Fort Chaffee, Ark., Huong is constantly complaining about the food, and about living in America. She despises Bobby (Vi Tran) , the well-meaning American who is sweet on Tong. Wisecracking Kimura nails the traditional mother role while Ma gives it all right back to her with impeccable timing.
As fate would have it, Quang meets Tong, and after a sexual tryst they begin to fall in love in a hilarious montage that borrows scenes from Ghost, Titanic and Dirty Dancing. Their chemistry is palpable.
But Quang’s plan all along is to get to California so he can ultimately get back to Vietnam. He and Nhan hit the road on a “rusted out death bike,” as Nhan puts it. Lots of physical humor and satirical wit ensues on the road, especially from Kenny Tran, who brings an earnestness to goofy Nhan. A fight scene with an American biker (Vi Tran) and his backup of ninjas is a particular standout.
Tong puts on an “I don’t care” front when Quang leaves, but she’s clearly disappointed. She knows there’s probably nothing to go back to in Vietnam and moves forward with making a life in America. Khan is also more pragmatic, but he’s loyal, and goes along with Quang’s plan.
The pair meet many American characters played by Kimura and Vi Tran. The stereotypes get lots of laughs. But when a pot-smoking, free-loving hippie (Vi Tran) makes the faux pas of apologizing for America’s involvement in the war to Quang, the moment pivots. It prompts the rap Lost a Brother.
“It must be nice fighting with your words and your signs. But you’re not the one next to me on the front lines. So when you tell me you think it’s all bulls--t, you’re telling me my family wasn’t worth it.”
Those sobering moments are why Vietgone is so much more than a comedy, or even a romantic story. The tragedy of loss and the difficulty of adjusting to a new place are explored in authentic ways from points of view that aren’t always heard. And while the outcome of the love story is predictable, the play’s surprisingly touching ending rounds out the emotional experience.
IF YOU GO
$44. Runs through Nov. 3. 163 Third St. N, St. Petersburg. (727) 823-7529. For showtimes, visit americanstage.org.