Qui Nguyen’s recent play, Vietgone, is the meet-cute story of his parents rapping, having a ton of casual sex, and eventually falling for each other in an Arkansas refugee camp in 1975. Though Vietgone is marketed as “a story about falling in love, not a story about war,” it is very much also a story about the Vietnam War, its devastating consequences, and the dignity and fortitude of its survivors. Vietgone is a well-written story, at times hilarious, at times, heartbreaking, and is being performed all over the US and Canada.
Below is a conversation, condensed and edited for clarity, with Plan A’s Nghia, herself a Viet refugee, actress and activist, about the play. I saw Company One’s production in Boston, and Nghia viewed Capital Stage’s version in Sacramento. Together, we contextually analyze the two productions and the script through several lenses: Colorism in Casting, Refugee Representation, Hip Hop and Cultural Appropriation, US Imperialism and Military propaganda, Heteronormativity and The White Gaze.
Diana: OK, first of all, the casting was really wonky in the Boston production. The lead characters, both the mother and father, were played by mixed-white actors, and everyone else was full Asian.
Nghia: Oh no! Why?
Diana: It’s a trope now. We’ve seen this pattern all over Hollywood, and there’s so many other shows in Boston that have major racism and colorism issues. It’s like in Hollywood where casting directors still refuse to hire full Asian leading men, like they have a compulsion to cast leads more white.
Nghia: Fucking tragic! I’m sorry.
Diana: Thank you for commiserating. I thought it was especially insensitive because Qui calls out how “white people love playing Orientals” in his script, and the program notes even mention the mixed-race children in Vietnam, who have their own unique oppressions and narratives.
Nghia: Mmhmm, they are called Bụi Đời.
Diana: Qui says, they “looked dramatically caucasian” and are “taken to be different in both Vietnam and America”, so for the casting to ignore that is offensive on mulitple levels.
Nghia: My cast was visibly API, but I live in Sacramento and there’s a larger API population here. I’ve never been to Boston. Is there not an Asian population there? Or Asian American?
Diana: There is. They got full Asian actors to play all the other roles, and I’ve seen other Asian actors in other plays. I recognized some other Asian actors in the audience for this show.
Nghia: Did the leads look Asian? Or were they more white passing?
Diana: Let me put it this way, the poster for the show (below) has the mother, father, and the father’s sidekick best friend all sitting on a motorcycle. At first glance, I thought the mother and father were both white. I thought they must be two white side characters, and the sidekick was the Vietnamese leading man.
Nghia: Holy shit! I wonder what the playwright would think about that.
Diana: Yeah, I don’t know.
Nghia: One thing I hated about my version was they kept calling it an immigrant story. That left me feeling grossed out, because it was a refugee story. I’m a boat person and so is Viet Thanh Nguyen, who wrote the book The Sympathizer that won the Pulitzer. He says it’s very important we make that distinction between an immigrant story and a refugee story, especially in the political climate now. We’re not leaving because we want to leave, it is forced upon us politically or environmentally. That is a fundamentally different narrative and I hated that my cast kept calling it an immigrant story.
Diana: Oh man, I’m sorry. [Company One] did a great job of tying Vietgone into refugee narratives and the current political climate.
Nghia: Wow, that’s good. I even asked my cast during the Q&A, and the actor playing the father was offended by my asking why they called it an immigrant story when it’s a refugee story.
Diana: Does he think being called a refugee is a pejorative or something?
Nghia: Possibly but I don’t know, he didn’t specify.
Diana: Oh also, because the main characters were played by mixed-white actors, the hip hop was really awkward.
Nghia: Hahaha, I can totally see that.
Diana: They clearly had zero connection to hip hop, like they had no groove whatsoever. It was so whitewashed.
Nghia: Wow, ok well ours did. Our cast got standing ovations for their rap performances.
Diana: That’s good. What did you think of the hip hop and of the inclusion of AAVE in the language of the play?
Nghia: I found it very interesting on the writer’s part. It’s something about the Viet-American experience, right? Like he’s not just doing it with AAVE. He’s doing it with the Americans as well. The Americans speak in kind of a fobby broken English, like what English would sound like if it were a foreign language. He’s playing off how language sounds, the mechanisms and function of language in telling a story, and that includes the hip hop. I think it begs the question, what is the Viet-American identity.
Diana: I actually grew up in the Midwest around a big Viet refugee population. They were in the same housing developments as the black and latinx communities, you know? The government doesn’t put refugees where the rich white people want to be, so all of us working class, immigrant, refugee populations were all mixed together. And the Viet kids I grew up with were all enmeshed in the POC-American experience, so I thought the choice to incorporate hip hop into the Viet-American narrative felt natural and genuine and reflected what my friends and neighbors’ experiences were.
Nghia: That was definitely my experience as well. I grew up in east LA which was mostly Latinx, but also lots of southeast Asian. A lot had to do with class, we were poor, we listened to a lot of hip hop, you wouldn’t hear it now because my English is presented differently, but I used to speak ebonics, that’s what it was called back then.
Diana: Yeah, I did too.
Nghia: But I couldn’t hear it from your English now.
Diana: Right we’ve both adjusted our English to meet the politicized expectations of America now.
Nghia: My English was adjusted in college and I graduated at 28. I’m very ambivalent about the way that language, especially AAVE is presented, and I think that’s because of my experiences as an activist. I’m sensitive to appropriation, especially linguistic appropriation. I don’t know how I feel about using the “proper” English which is expected of me, vs speaking in AAVE, which I definitely feel more comfortable speaking, but I choose not to do the latter because I don’t want to be a cultural appropriator. I think that’s also a lowkey part of the Asian American experience, which is being the other in the black/white dynamic. How do we mold, create an identity, that isn’t built on our oppressors’?
Diana: Sure, but if the expectation, especially for refugees, was to assimilate into American culture, well, black American culture is American culture, so in a way they’re meeting the expectation. Being a part of the POC cultures and communities in the US is a natural part of assimilation or even better, a process of integration, and to say that it’s not is disingenuous, hypocritical, and implying that the only valid way to be American is to be white American.
Nghia: Right, and I think that has a lot to do with how API politics are in America. We are pitted against black people, we’re wedged right in the middle, but then they come down on us for being in the middle, so where exactly do we stand in all of this?
Diana: Right, how do you be genuine to your experiences without appropriating? I actually liked the writer’s choice, I thought that was valid, but the execution in the production I saw was just so, so whitewashed. That felt like 100% appropriation. I was like, why are these white children rapping?
Diana: It would have been better if the leads were non-white mixed Asians, but nobody ever hires blasian actors to play Asians characters.
Speaking of politics, we also talked about the pro-US framing of the play. It almost felt like propaganda.
Nghia: Oh my god, yes! Especially the epilogue with the father drinking beer with his son, the playwright. The line that really sticks to me is “you know what son, sometimes you sound very smart, but sometimes you sound very stupid,” meaning that the son sounds very stupid criticizing or bringing another texture to discussing the Vietnam War and the discussion was shut down. The rest of the play was very fun, it’s a love story, but at that moment, toward the end, it felt like straight propaganda, to me.
But I’d imagine that Qui’s parents lived during that period where American propaganda was very prominent in Vietnam, especially the south. The history of the south was very much like what they’re trying to do with Venezuela right now. It was a US-backed president, Nguyễn Văn Thiệu, and he was a puppet for the US government. JFK put him in office.
Diana: I guess growing up in South Vietnam, they probably had been absorbing US propaganda since they were really young. US intervention was going on since the late 40’s/50’s. In the play they make it seem like the communists came south and just started killing people, like they were the aggressors for no reason, but they were fighting back against a corrupt US-backed puppet government, so it seems completely one-sided, the way it was presented.
And I thought it was fair to tell the parents’ story that way even if I don’t agree with it, because that is what their perspective is, but I thought the epilogue was supposed to be Qui’s chance to have that more nuanced conversation. Just before, the son does call out his dad’s problematic views on racism. The dad says “Harrison Ford should play me, white people love to play Orientals” and the son talks back and says “no, I don’t think that’s it.” The play confronts racism, but when it comes to geopolitical critique, Qui shuts down completely.
Nghia: I heard about this play through NPR, so what I gather about it is, it’s a very liberal piece. Like they’ll confront racism, but as far as imperialism goes, or the geopolitical perspective, they’re not going to touch that at all. I don’t know if this happened in your version, but the actor in mine did such an amazing job. He was sobbing, it was very raw, just a very visceral experience in the theater. His cries were very guttural, when he said “the Americans did so much for us” and it was so real, and so many people were feeling it, but I couldn’t. I was so disgusted I scoffed out loud. I was the only bitch that scoffed out loud in the very small, quiet theater.
Nghia: I was like UGH! MY GOD! I could not believe it ended like that, because the Americans did so much shit to Vietnam. He’s totally erasing that Robert McNamara lied about what happened in the Gulf of Tonkin just to start the war, just to get into Vietnam. Qui’s totally forgetting about all of that because I’m sure the father in the narrative doesn’t know about that, so there’s a very misguided propagandistic story.
Diana: There was a flashback to Saigon and the father and his friend are like “if the Vietcong come, they might just burn everything” and I thought “oh you mean like how the Americans burned whole villages to the ground and napalmed crops and forest and used Agent Orange, which is still to this day causing health problems for Vietnamese people AND American GIs, and our government wouldn’t acknowledge it or pay for some veterans’ healthcare for decades?”
Nghia: Yeah, it felt to me like Qui’s parents were very misguided, because it’s projecting. The story is projecting what the Americans did to them onto the VC.
Diana: That’s a good way of putting it. The way I saw it, his parents were so young when all this trauma happened. It reminds me of Dave Chappelle’s story of the pimp who says, you “break in a bitch” by beating her unconscious, and when she wakes up, you treat her gently, and she’s so grateful you’re taking care of her that she forgets that you were the one who beat her in the first place. Then she’s yours forever.
Nghia: That’s sounds just like Stockholm Syndrome. Yeah that’s what it sounds like his parents went through to me. I felt the propaganda before, but I didn’t even put the word on it, until you said it. And I can say in hindsight, it was propaganda. Maybe Qui knew, but who knows, we’re not in the writer’s mind. But let’s say he didn’t know that what he produced is American military propaganda: that is the insidious nature of the American military industrial complex, right there. Even after his parents’ generation, his generation is still producing that.
Diana: It reminds me of the statistics of so many Southeast Asian Americans voting for Trump. I know some Viet people whose parents are still pro-Trump even though he’s deporting other Viet refugees or letting them die in detention camps. One girl tried to talk to her parents about it and her mom was just like “well Americans know best, Trump knows what he’s doing and if some of us are sacrificed, so be it.”
Nghia: It’s very true, oh yeah. It is so disgusting. My aunt is a refugee herself and voted for Trump and she is strident and flagrant with her Trump support. It’s frightening for me because she is my aunt. I’m pretty left, and I hate to give myself a political label, but I’m somewhere left, and it’s so insidious because she thinks Trump is on our side somehow.
Nghia: I’m surprised there hasn’t been a conversation about how gender is played out in the text. Like the ways heteronormativity is conveyed in the text. Like there’s this wife in Vietnam who [the father] is trying to get home to but he’s here hooking up with someone else. I wonder how much of that is artistic license and how much of it was the real story.
I’m critical of that plot device, where the driving force of the story is this man going on a wild, crazy, dangerous road trip across America to get back home to his wife. He’s not even considering he’s going back to a country that’s going to kill him, he just needs to get back to his wife, and he falls in love with this girl he hooks up with at the refugee camp. I just don’t believe that that is the actual story.
Diana: I know what you mean. I felt that more with the mother character. She seemed like this third-wave feminist ideal, you know? The strong, independent, sexually liberated woman who hooks up with whoever she wants, doesn’t care that she’s 30 and single.
Nghia: Yeah, what is that? Is this how Qui sees his mother is or how he views women?
Diana: It feels like he’s playing to a modern, NPR-type audience there. That feminist angle was definitely dialed up. Are Vietnamese women like that even today? Are most American women?
Nghia: It was 1975. there were feminists back then, but I don’t think they were like that. In Vietnam it was a very Confucian society, for a young woman to be like “fuck love, I just want to hook up and that’s that” I just don’t see it, it’s overly bombastic.
Diana: Now that you mention it, I see it with the father too. He was basically Butch Cassidy, just embodying this very cowboy-ish American ideal of masculinity. It’s that rebel-hero paradigm, this very white American leading man archetype like “I don’t care about anything else, I’m just going to rescue my family” just super macho, a very white American movie hero type of macho.
Nghia: Right, and part of me is wondering… WHAT? Is that what Qui wants his parents to be, or are his parents actually like that?
Diana: I felt like how his dad was in the epilogue, which was supposed to be a real-life recorded conversation between Qui and his dad, didn’t at all match the character in the play. He was still worried about his wife’s ex-fiancée 40 years later? He seemed like an anxious person, not the confident hero we saw in the rest of the play.
Nghia: The juxtaposition between the epilogue father and the father in the play was so jarring. Epilogue dad was kind of petty, to worry about that. It just felt very disjointed and I think it had a lot to do with the API literary narrative. The break, the cut, especially with refugee stories. There’s a cut that happens when you’re shifting from one culture to another. Not even a shift in this case, you’re being lifted out of your own homeland and thrown into another one. Maybe the parents being so Americanized, we cannot even equate the father to a Vietnamese hero.
The White Gaze
Diana: Well there’s no archetype for the Viet hero or the Viet heroine, and no archetype for Viet love or Asian love in the American consciousness. I think it’s cool that Qui was trying to valorize his parents’ relationship as Asian love, but he couldn’t do it without mapping it onto a white narrative, essentially.
Nghia: And that’s what was missing of the play. It was a Vietnamese play but it lacked Vietnamese characteristics. Like how do you have a Vietnamese play without anyone saying “đụ má mày”? It was a very general, very basic, narrative. I felt like I was watching an American play, even though everyone was Asian, and I remember telling my husband “oh that was a good American play” when we left, being very coy about that. I still sense today, that was a very American play.
Diana: I feel like Qui purposely made the story as white as possible, to make it as relatable and not-foreign to white Americans as possible, to say “hey, we are JUST like you” and focus on the human story. But of course “human” means white in America, and being “universal” means you’re erasing everything that’s Vietnamese from the play, everything Vietnamese about his parents.
Actually, the play still puts all the most negative aspects of Asianness onto Asian people, just not his parents, not THESE Asians. Like the mom says “ All Vietnamese guys are shitty,” the best friend says “I don’t want to be seen as Chinese in America,” and the Vietcong become the “yellow peril.” There’s still an us vs them framing, but it’s shifted from white vs Asian to good Asian vs bad Asian, and in this case the “good Asians” are the ones with most proximity to whiteness/Americanness, and we see this with casting as well.
Nghia: Oh my god, thank you! I was wondering why I felt so nasty about it. That explains it. Qui is just making excuses for his family, but everyone else, no they’re bad.
Diana: It’s very much that kind of “I want to be the only Asian in the room” mentality, that Asian-artists-for-white-audiences can have. But that’s useless to me, because if I’m not the artist, I’m still excluded. I don’t care if Qui loves HIS Asianness, I need him to love MINE. I need him to love Asian people as people and to love Asian love in its own context, and honestly, Qui doesn’t know how to do that.
Nghia: It was a story still deeply entrenched in the white gaze. The whole thing was told through the white gaze, and the moment we get some visceral raw feeling at the end where the father breaks down, it becomes propaganda.
Diana: Yeah, even the biker fight scene, which was fun to watch, but they played Kung Fu Fighting and there were were ninjas! Like, “Kung Fu and ninjas is the only way white people know how to relate to Asians fighting.” There’s no conception of how a Vietnamese person would kick ass.
Nghia: The only thing I liked was that the actors did an amazing job jumping from one deep emotion to another, one character to another. Other than that, it was very propagandistic. I mean, Qui is gonna hate me, but, well I’m sorry… but I’m not sorry.
Nghia: I think it was good for what it was, which is an American story for white folks.
Diana: Yeah, I enjoyed it. I mean, I liked the story, but there was this nagging unease, this sort of liminal distaste, and I couldn’t articulate why when I saw it, but I think we did a good job of parsing that out just now.
Nghia: Yeah, I didn’t even think about these textures and layers before talking, and now I have context. IT WAS WHITE AS FUCK!