Finding Refuge in Love in ‘Vietgone’

I have long held that the most powerful art is that which is deeply personal. Vietgone by Qui Nguyen, in its current production at Writer’s Theatre, is one such piece. The latest in a long line of lovely work from local director Lavina Jadwani, Vietgone is a romp of a love story, but its real power lies not solely in the budding relationship between the two leads–but in the writer’s journey of understanding his own parents.

Playwright Qui Nguyen (who is himself a character in the play), subverts the expectations of your average theatre goer from top to bottom in this sharp script–from establishing the language of the play to firmly insisting at multiple points that though this is a story framed by war, it is not a war story. It’s a story, he tells us, about two people–who may or may not be his parents–who fell in love.

Those two people are Quang, played with swagger by Matthew C. Yee–a helicopter pilot who was separated from his wife and children and shipped off to America after rescuing a helicopter full of people from Saigon as it fell; and Tong, performed with the explosive power any Chicago theatre fan has come to expect from Aurora Adachi-Winter–a U.S. Embassy worker who could only take her mother with her as she fled Vietnam, leaving her brother and her boyfriend behind. They meet at Fort Chaffee–a refugee camp in Texas, and hook up almost immediately. However it’s not until Quang faces the reality that he can’t go back to his family in Vietnam that their relationship has the opportunity to become serious.

Adachi-Winter and Yee are by powerfully supported by a three-person ensemble who, in a Herculean feat of energy and talent play every other role in the story–framed by a gorgeous and creative costume design (Melissa Ng). The set design (Yu Shibagaki) lays the perfect canvas for one of the smartest projection designs I’ve been privileged to witness (Rasean Davonte Johnson). And choreographer Tommy Rapley should be very proud of somehow making a heartwarming rom-com style montage work on stage.

The heart of the show is laid out in the final scene in which we play witness to the interview the playwright had with his father for the script. It takes a while for the playwright to get his father to talk to him honestly but when he does the conversation is almost so poignant that it could itself be a short play. The conversation doesn’t shy away from complicity, or from the lack of understanding that Americans had and still have concerning the war in Vietnam, “When your house is on fire,” Quang says, “you don’t want to hear that you shouldn’t have moved into the house in the first place.”

The Vietnam War is a complex time in history– often misunderstood, stories of it frequently shrouded in the PTSD of those who lived in that time. But the need to clarify the varying perspectives on the war and the politics surrounding it is more present than ever. As of this week, The LA Times revealed that refugees from The Vietnam War are being deported despite a 1995 agreement between The United States and Vietnam–another sign of the current presidential administration’s war on refugees and migrants. But the war isn’t the point of Vietgone–the people are. Just as people, not politics, should be our focus as we consider how best to serve the refugees of today.

Vietgone is not a perfect show–the music in this production leaves some bite to be desired, and I walked away wishing the writer had dedicated as much of his time and affection towards understanding his mother as he had with his father. But ultimately Vietgone is Chicago theatre at it’s best; unafraid of complexity, tackling serious issues, with a bit of cheek.

Aurora Adachi-Winter (Tong)
Rammel Chan (Asian Guy/American Guy/Nhan/Khue)
Emjoy Gavino (Asian Girl/American Girl/Thu/Huong/Translator/Flower Girl)
Ian Michael Minh (Playwright/Giai/Bobby/Captain Chambers/Redneck Biker/Hippie Dude)
Matthew C. Yee (Quang)
Harrison Hapin (u/s (understudy) Asian Guy/American Guy/Nhan/Khue)
Marissa Lichwick (u/s Asian Girl/American Girl/Thu/Huong/Translator/Flower Girl)
Dan Lin (u/s Quang, Playwright/Giai/Bobby/Captain Chambers/Redneck Biker/Hippie Dude)
Emily Marso (u/s Tong)

Qui Nguyen (Playwright)
Lavina Jadhwani (Director)
Gabriel Ruiz (Original Music & Music Director)
Tommy Rapley (Choreographer)
Yu Shibagaki (Scenic Designer)
Melissa Ng (Costume Designer)
Sarah Hughey (Lighting Designer)
Kevin O’Donnell (Sound Designer)
Rasean Davonte Johnson (Projections Designer)
Carol Ann Tan (Dramaturg)
Vahishta Vafadari (Dialect Coach)
Dwight Sora (Assistant Director)
Janelle Boudreau (Assistant Stage Manager)
David Castellanos* (Production Stage Manager)

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