A soaring, mostly true story told by Qui Nguyen, Poor Yella Rednecks at A.C.T.’s Strand Theatre is the celebrated sequel to Nguyen’s hit, Vietgone. The playwright enters the stage and introduces himself as the narrator of his parents’ complex and turbulent love story, following their departure from Vietnam. Actor Jomar Tagatac tackles the portrayal of the playwright with finesse and style. The man is smooth.
In an interview with the playwright’s mother that opens the show, she demands a few things in exchange for her narrative. At the top of her list is a desire to talk like Qui, who is infamous for his linguistic ability to weave philosophical truths into streams of expletives. Or as the script declares, he has an infamous potty mouth. What emerges is delightful language play. The mother’s second request is that the white Americans, played by the Asian actors in the cast, speak in disjointed rejoinders the way that they would be heard by someone who doesn’t speak English. Meanwhile, the Vietnamese immigrants have a strong grasp not just on English but its wide potential of human expression, curse words and all.
Thus opens a fantastical and beautiful story told through this perspective, the adult Qui’s translation of his parents, with Qui as a child referred to as Little Man and depicted by a wooden puppet, brought to life by Will Dao. Little Man thinks in graphic novel aesthetic and imagines the possibility of repair where the adults only see devastation. It’s here that we see how much Director, Jaime Castañeda, shows deft understanding of Nguyen’s work. Fight sequences feature heavily in his plays, understandable considering the writer’s experience with stage combat. They often represent larger-than-life emotional states and internal fantasies, and for that reason benefited from Castañeda’s attention. Many of the fights were slowed down in pace, which allowed for each movement to tell a story and be processed by the audience. In a more intimate space like The Strand, the emphasis on theatricality as much as spectacle was appreciated – we could see every facial expression.
Tong (Jenny Nguyen Nelson) and Quang (Hyunmin Rhee), the parents and center of the love story, have an authentic and charming chemistry about them, and you really do want to know what happens next. Even when events seem beyond repair, there is always another opportunity to right things and create a new life just around the corner. The projection design by Yee Eun Nam was creative and brought clarity to the text, with three screens carrying much of the weight. Nguyen’s shows often benefit from surprises you don’t see coming, and a delightful one was an isolated projection featured in an unexpected place, just for a moment.
Rhee as Quang is affable, sweet, and sympathetic as he does his best to carve a life and identity for himself in a new place. Nelson’s portrayal of Tong is determined, funny, and heart-wrenching. Though Nelson doesn’t always command the rap cadence, she commands the stage whenever she’s on it, and commits thoroughly. There are times where the music isn’t ‘perfect’ across the ensemble, but what does that even mean for a show like this? It was fully committed to, and I was entertained.
A very compelling, yet subtle storyline is that of Quang and his best friend, who had served in the South Vietnamese air force with him. He keeps telling Quang that he should dump his wife and move to Houston, where there’s a stronger Vietnamese community, and he would be considered a hero. There was something really heart wrenching in this subplot for me – I could see in Will Dao’s portrayal the heartbreak and terror that someone he considered a masculine ideal could accept less than he imagined he deserved. What would that mean for him, if he looked up to this man?
Equally compelling was the grandmother, Huong, played by powerhouse Christine Jamlig. Jamlig portrays at least two other characters and performed one of my favorite rap solos in the play. Jessie Amoroso (costumes) deserves a shout-out here because it was not until bows that I processed Jamlig was playing the other women. Nelson and Jamlig do an excellent job playing up familial tension as Tong asks Huong to sacrifice her relationship with Little Man for his benefit. It’s heart-wrenching, and real.
Qui Nguyen remains an absolute legend at the musical tributes and references. The composition by Shammy Dee refers to a lot of classic rap songs without stepping on copyright. In collaboration with sound designer Jake Rodriguez, the aural environment is a living part of the show.
In its toughest moments, Nguyen’s canon maintains a strong foundation of celebration and pride. Like The Wheel of Fortune in tarot, he’ll have you spinning from the top to the bottom of a character’s fate in the space of a clap of lightning. Poor Yella Rednecks is an exhilarating, sexy play that makes audiences lean forward in their seats – as proven by the joyous hollers and screams from the audience.
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Will Dao – Nhan/Cowboy/Little Man/Grocery Boy
Christine Jamlig – Huong/Thu/San/Cop
Jenny Nguyen Nelson – Tong
Hyunmin Rhee- Quang/Chris
Jomar Tagatac – Playwright/Immigration Officer/British Narrator/Bobby/Tommy/Grocery Boy
Ben Chau-Chiu – Understudy Quang/Chris
Amanda Le Nguyen – Understudy Tong/Huong/Thu/San/Cop
Jed Parsario – Understudy Nhan/Cowboy/Little Man/Grocery Boy/Playwright/Immigration Officer/British Narrator/Bobby/Tommy/Grocery Boy
Qui Nguyen – Playwright
Jaime Castañeda – Director
Tanya Orellana – Scenic Design
Jessie Amoroso – Costume Design
Yi Zhao – Lighting Design
Jake Rodriguez – Sound Design
Yee Eun Nam – Projection Design
James Ortiz – Puppet Design & Direction
Shammy Dee – Original Music
Joy Meads – Dramaturg
Janet Foster, Csa & Katie Craddock – Casting
Natalia Duong- Assistant Director & Cultural Consultant
Rebecca J. Ennals – Stage Manager
Wesley Apfel – Assistant Stage Manager
Photo credit: Kevin Berne. (L-R): Will Dao, Christine Jamlig, Jenny Nguyen Nelson, Hyunmin Rhee, and Jomar Tagatac in QuiNguyen’s Poor Yella Rednecks, performing at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater now through May 7, 2023.