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Between Vietnam and America

Artists outside dominant culture find their voices

Darleen Ortega | 4/26/2016, 4:34 p.m.
Based on the experiences of playwright Qui Nyugen's parents, who immigrated to the U.S. as refugees in the mid-1970s, the ...
Quang (James Ryen) and Nhan (Will Dao) argue over what to do as Saigon falls in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s production of ‘Vietgone.’ Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Why do I know so little about the perspective of Vietnamese refugees to the U.S.? Why have I never seen a sex comedy involving two compelling Vietnamese immigrants? Why do I expect Vietnamese characters living in the U.S. to speak in broken English?

These are among the questions that rose for me as I experienced the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's production of "Vietgone," which opened this month and plays until late October. Based on the experiences of playwright Qui Nyugen's parents, who immigrated to the U.S. as refugees in the mid-1970s, the play moves back and forth in time between Vietnam and their early years in the U.S., including their meeting in a refugee camp and the steamy affair that began their relationship. Though Nyugen's parents told him most of his life that they had fallen in love at first sight in that refugee camp in Arkansas, they admitted to him more recently that the truth is a bit more coarse than that -- though also a tale of how they saved each other in a time when both were traumatized and longing for home.

Most of the few immigrant stories that make it into American popular culture involve people who were desperate to move here to make a better life for themselves; I suspect that, at some level, the experience of immigrants who came reluctantly and pine for home defies American expectations. Nyugen's father, Quang, was a pilot with the South Vietnamese army, and his mother, Tong, worked in the U.S. embassy in Saigon. They both escaped to the U.S. to avoid certain death when the South Vietnamese capitol was invaded; Quang left behind a wife and two kids who he had no way of retrieving, and Tong left behind a beloved brother.

The play's humor and raunchiness never obscures that these two 30-year-olds didn't want to be in the U.S. They were in anguish about the state of things at home, and folks in the U.S. saw in them only their Vietnamese enemy. The two refugees have left behind lives they cared about, and have traded respectability for places at the bottom of the social ladder.

As presented here, Nyugen's parents defy stereotypes. Quang (James Ryen) is tall and muscular and virile; Tong (Jeena Yi) is self-assured and irreverent. They utter their dialogue in perfect American slang, some of it in the form of rap music, while the occasional American who attempts to converse with them speaks in broken English. The fact that I required a few moments to adjust to this brought me up short and confronted me with my own unexamined expectations of Asian and immigrant characters. Of course the playwright realizes that the characters' current-day American diction is not historically accurate in one sense--but in another sense it is accurate, because it helps us to experience the characters much more as they likely experienced each other.

In the world of this play, Quang and Tong are brave and angry and frustrated and strong -- and hot. Americans are the other; Americans sound stupid and ignorant, often because they so relentlessly confuse their perspective for the truth without any curiosity about the perspectives they are missing. And importantly, in the world of this play, U.S. intervention in South Vietnam is not something for which these refugees believe they are owed an apology; in fact, it is the commonly held American view that the Vietnam War was a misbegotten adventure that wounds these war-generation Vietnamese people.

Playwright Nyugen recently won a major critics' prize (the Harold and Mimi Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association New Play Award) for this play, and has several more plays planned that will explore his parents' experiences. His work is a vibrant example of what a struggle it can be for artists from outside the dominant culture to find their voices, with so few models to follow--and of what unexpected gifts such voices can offer audience members. OSF's production hums with humor and physicality and raw emotion, and sparks overdue curiosity about the experiences of a long-neglected segment of the American community. It's one of my favorites of this OSF season, and well-worth a sojourn to Ashland to see it.

Darleen Ortega is a judge on the Oregon Court of Appeals and the first woman of color to serve in that capacity. She also serves on the Oregon Shakespeare Festival board. Her movie review column Opinionated Judge appears regularly in The Portland Observer. You can find her movie blog at opinionatedjudge.blogspot.com.