Before his play Vietgone became a success, Qui Nguyen was known mainly as a co-founder of the New York theater company, Vampire Cowboys. Specializing in what was dubbed “geek theater,” the troupe developed an ardent following by producing low-budget, action-packed plays with titles like “Alice in Slasherland,” “Fight Girl Battle World.” “Soul Samurai,” and “Aliens Versus Cheerleaders.”
But Nguyen always knew at some point he wanted to tell the story of his parents, who escaped from Vietnam when Saigon fell in 1975, met up at a relocation camp at Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, and eventually married and settled in El Dorado.
“The reason I became a writer in the first place is that I wanted to tell my parents’ story,” he said in a recent telephone interview from his home in Los Angeles, where he writes for television.
Nguyen had grown up hearing stories about his parents’ lives in Vietnam, as well as stories about his grandparents and cousins in that war-ravaged country. He also read books about Vietnam and saw movies like Platoon and Rambo, and musicals like Miss Saigon, where the Vietnamese characters ended up with supporting roles in their own stories. He wanted to tell the story from a different point of view.
“I knew I was going to write that story,” he said. Not wanting to be disrespectful of a subject as serious as the refugee experience, Nguyen assumed he would need to wait until he was older and interested in writing about more “boring” subject matter, like the playwrights he admired, but wasn’t sure he could emulate. “The truth is, I’m a really immature dude,” he says, noting his interest in superheroes, ninjas, samurai and hip-hop. “That’s just who I am.”
Several years ago – and married with children of his own – Nguyen decided that he didn’t want to wait until his parents were dead to tell their story.
“I finally just said, I’m going to write the story the way I write,” he said. “I’m going to tell it in my voice, with hip-hop and ninjas and irreverent comedy and stuff I want to do.”
The result is Vietgone, which does, indeed, tell the story of Tong and Quang, two Vietnamese refugees who meet up in Arkansas. Though the story is fundamentally a serious one, dealing with serious ideas, the rambunctious telling of it is shot through with humor, hip-hop and pop culture – pretty much what one would expect from a playwright whose most popular work previously was “She Kills Monsters.”
More than just telling his family’s story, it was important to Nguyen to create strong Asian-American characters.
“Vietgone is basically the anti-Miss Saigon,” Nguyen told American Theatre magazine in a 2017 interview. “It’s about the Asian-American characters being the ones with agency over the narrative. They’re not a prop for the typical straight-white-male lead to learn from or to save. It’s not their story. It’s our story. We get to be the heroes.”
Even though Vietgone was commissioned by South Coast Repertory, in Costa Mesa, California, Nguyen never imagined it being widely produced, or even produced at all.