Several times during Vietgone, the season opener at American Stage, one of the two lead characters – Quang or Tong – will suddenly break the fourth wall by turning to the audience and rapping over a mysterious and steady backstage beat.
At first, it’s disconcerting. Quickly, however, the audience realizes the actors aren’t swaying, or dancing, or making the sort of hand gestures stereotypically associated with the musical poetry of hip hop. They are merely telling their stories, directly and dramatically, in a different way. Rap turns out to be a powerful theatrical device.
And anyway, dismissing stereotypes is what Vietgone is all about.
Qui Nguyen’s play – an uproarious comedy about a terribly serious situation – is the “biography” of his Vietnamese parents, who met in an American refugee camp following the fall of Saigon in 1975.
All the dialogue is in English, although it’s made clearly early on that the characters are, in fact, speaking Vietnamese to one another. It’s very slangy, and probably not the way anybody actually talked in the mid ‘70s.
The Americans that come into their orbit, at the camp and during an extended “on the road” sequence, speak in guttural, nonsensical non-sequiturs like “Cheeseburger” and “Get ‘er done!”
At its heart, Vietgone is a love story between two ordinary people who meet under extraordinary circumstances. It’s how the story is told that breaks the rules – through role reversals, shifts in time and space … and rapping.
“The raps were, quite honestly, some of the most daunting things to work on,” laughs Jeff Kim, who plays Quang, the playwright’s father. “And it took a considerable amount of time, like a lot more than I thought it would.
“But it’s really quite amazing. And I really love the duet between Quang and Tong. Obviously, a lot of times in plays we have a monologue, where an actor can unload his thoughts; to combine it with rhythm and a little bit of musicality makes it really powerful.”
Kim, from Champaign, Illinois, is a Korean American stage actor with a lengthy resume of guest spots in TV series. Quang is self-assured, cocky, and in Tong, he more than meets his match.
“I think any actor – black, white, Asian – wants to play the leading role, kind of a macho man, Clint Eastwood-type of character,” he says. “That’s everyone’s dream.”
Tong is played by Las Vegas-born Sami Ma, of Chinese American descent; she’s a veteran musical theater actress.
From the start, she was all over the hip hop sections.
“This show is asking the audience to identify with you in some of the hardest and most vulnerable moments of these people’s lives,” Ma says. “And so getting to break that fourth wall and invite people in, especially during the raps, is so … to get the audience to come on board with you, and feel that struggle and feel that pain, is something really special about this piece.”
American Stage’s cast includes three other actors, all of whom play multiple roles (with hilariously changing accents and attitudes, accordingly). But everything revolves around the “will they or won’t they” of Quang and Tong.
“It’s a show that puts Asian characters in the foreground,” explains Ma. “You don’t have your typical sidekick roles, or your typical stereotypes. I think what’s really awesome about this show is, you’re seeing a very human, very vulnerable, very real version of Asian people. Telling their story exactly how they want it to be told.
“And there are no rules. This is such a crazy story because it jumps back and forth. I had to read it a few times to figure out what the heck was going on. But it defies expectations. And as an Asian-American actor, and human, we are raised with these expectations of how we are going to be perceived by society.
“It’s a story that everyone can relate to in some sense, of struggle and newness, and bravery and love. That’s what’s so appealing about this show. It’s universal, rather than just ‘It’s an Asian story.’”
“I’m an actor, and I’m Asian American,” Jeff Kim says. “And I’ve met fantastic casting directors that really just don’t care.”
In a perfect world, race and ethnicity would have no bearing on who gets hired for what. For Asian American actors, it’s not a perfect world, but putting Qui Nguyen’s story across required not only actors of Asian descent, but really, really good actors.
American Stage and director Brian Balcom found them.
“My goals for Vietgone were just to be part of this great play, and just do my best,” explains Kim. “And I had faith that if we all really just did the work, that after 10 or 15 minutes the audience might forget that this is an Asian cast, and that there’s an Asian theme.”
He too values the universality of the plot. “At the end of the day, a lot of us have really similar motives. A lot of us really value our kids, and our lovers, and a lot of us are just trying to survive and do the best we can. So if we accomplish that, then I feel really gratified.”
Sami Ma has seen the professional roadblocks firsthand. “It’s challenging when you walk into a cattle call, and you’re typed out based on how you look,” she says. “Regardless of what your ethnicity is, if it’s not what the team is looking for. In doing musical theater from teens to now, I was pushed very heavily towards ‘Miss Saigon is coming back to Broadway, or The King and I is coming back to Broadway, those are going to be your moments.’”
There are roles, she admits, that she would love to play – traditionally white roles – and that, now that she lives in New York and travels the country, going where the work takes her, she can see that the old stereotypes are breaking down.
“It took a long time for me to accept myself for who I was. As a kid growing up in a very white community, I didn’t want to be Asian American. Because I was the ‘other.’
“At the end of the day, I am going to be Asian American, no matter what. No one can take that away from me, and I can’t get rid of that. For a very long time it was ‘I’m an actor, I’m an actor, I’m not going to identify with race,’ but it is very much a part of who I am, and my identity now.
“And in the last couple of years of growing and maturing, I present myself as ‘I am an Asian American actor,’ and I’m very proud of that.”
Without giving it away, the final scene in Vietgone is the clincher, the one that slams home the realization that what we’ve just seen and felt – the contemporized, romanticized version of how Nguyen’s parents got together – was, back in 1975, very real and very uncertain. The scene resonates long after the audience has left the theater.
“The way I see it, the main story of Vietgone was a recollection and a little bit of a fantasy,” Kim explains. “And I think the last scene brings us a little bit closer to who the real Quang might have been.
“But also, part of the statement is Hey, that guy that owns the diner … or the dry cleaner that you pass by every day … he might have been some superhero, and you didn’t even know.”
Info and tickets here.