It’s a Sunday afternoon in South Coast Repertory’s Colab (Collaboration Laboratory), the room where all plays here start their rehearsals. The cast of Poor Yella Rednecks is working through a scene when playwright Qui Nguyen jumps up from his chair and helps choreograph a kung-fu fight sequence. Think ninja movie, but in slow motion. The actors and playwright talk through the why, how and where of each motion—from a fall, to a poke in the stomach, to a wide-arc kick, to a jump, to a tumble and more. The action and precision are part of Nguyen’s attention to detail in these iconic parts of his plays—inspired by the rap music and hip-hop dance that he grew up with, living in the American south with his immigrant parents.
Later in this rehearsal day, Maureen Sebastian and Tim Chiou—who portray the playwright’s parents, Tong and Quang—work through a scene between their characters that ends with a rap by Tong. A music track plays through the room’s speaker system to give her the pacing for the words. For this new play in rehearsal and development, each day brings newness, excitement and fun. A lot of laughter permeates the room.
So, what else should you know about Qui Nguyen and Poor Yella Rednecks?
Though occasionally called Vietgone 2, Poor Yella Rednecks is a play that stands on its own. It opens with the character of the Playwright interviewing his mother. At first she resists his questions, but then sets some ground rules. First, he can’t only write about happy romantic things (This is a reference to his 2015 breakout hit Vietgone, which covered the story of his parents meeting in a refugee camp in Arkansas after the fall of Saigon). Second, she wants to sound like he does. He protests that he’s got a potty mouth, but she insists—launching the convention that the Vietnamese characters sound like R-rated action heroes. Her third rule is that the American characters speak the silly way she hears them. The Playwright agrees, and they launch into the interview. Right away, the Playwright finds out it wasn’t the story of “love at first sight” he had been led to believe, because his father (Quang) was already married when he met his mother (Tong). The play then jumps into the past, showing through a rap-duet the pot-smoking proposal Quang pops on Tong and her delightedly stoned acceptance.
Jump forward six years, and Quang and Tong are living in El Dorado, Arkansas, with their five year old son, illustrated by a puppet named Little Man, and Tong’s mother, Huong. Little Man struggles in school, in no small part to Huong’s influence. Quang and Tong struggle with many issues including making a living, taking care of family, infidelity (she with her former boyfriend, Bobby, and he with a hook-up in Houston) and his still-living-in-Vietnam wife. But love may not be enough for Tong and Quang.
SPOILER ALERT! Here's a full synopsis of the play. BUT if you don't want to know how it ends, don't read it!
The Inside Scoop
Nguyen is known for shows full of kung-fu fights, "random ‘90s hip-hop dance breaks, immature puppets, and even more immature jokes." Those are all in Poor Yella Rednecks. But this play is also his most personal yet.
“It’s about my family,” he says. “It’s about two people who are very much in love here in America, but also haunted by the ghosts of who they were in Vietnam. And as the title suggests, it’s about living in poverty in the deep South as Asian immigrants. That’s the heartbeat of the play, which I’m aware sounds heavy.” Read more from Nguyen and director May Adrales.
The Cast Talks About the Play
Cast members Tim Chiou, Samantha Quan, Maureen Sebastian, Paco Tolson and Eugene Young talk about Poor Yella Rednecks "means" and what it means to them.
Qui Nguyen on Rap Music, His Sense of Humor, Martial Arts and Adult Language
Nguyen is a jumble of pop culture. As described by The New York Times, he “consumed comic books (Spiderman was his hero), studied martial arts (Bruce Lee was an idol) and participated in freestyle rap battles. He joined the drama club in high school because ‘there are cute girls in theatre' in rural Arkansas." We find his sense of humor to be insightful and devastatingly funny. Here’s more on what shapes him as a writer.
“I first fell in love with rap when I was freestyling on the corner with my friends. It’s part of who I am. My brain doesn’t think in terms of melody. It’s an extension of being a writer, picking up words and seeing how I can play with the rhythms.”
“I used to use humor, to like, distract people from the fact that I’m Asian. I wouldn’t let them get to me ‘cause I’d get to them first. … It’s self-protection. The same thing that got me into martial arts. It’s verbal martial arts.”
“When my parents told me stories about Vietnam, they told me the real stories, what actually happened. But what I imagined was kung-fu movies. Because the only things I ever saw [growing up] that had a lot of Asian people in it, were kung-fu movies.”
- “When I hear stories about my mother’s fortitude, about the sh*t that she’s gone through, it always gives me perspective. I’m like, 'Oh, I had a sh*tty day today because I couldn’t finish my draft.’ And my parents are like, ‘Well, our sh*tty day at your age was we lost our entire country and everyone we knew.’”
Costume Design is Personal
Designer Valérie Thérèse Bart’s family emigrated from Vietnam to France to the U.S.—a refugee journey similar to that taken by playwright Qui Nguyen’s family. Read about how research for the play’s costume designs got personal for her.
Why We’re Excited for this Play
Associate Ticketing Services Director Amber Sanders talks about Poor Yella Rednecks in this video.
Learn more about Poor Yella Rednecks and purchase tickets.