THE CAST: Tim Chiou, Paco Tolson, Samantha Quan, Eugene Young and Maureen Sebastian.
Raucous laughter distinguishes the world of playwright Qui Nguyen, as it does in his latest Poor Yella Rednecks, but humor does not even begin to fully encapsulate this story.
Qui Nguyen creates universes, and one of his best known is Vietgone, the prequel to Poor Yella Rednecks. Vietgone, in case you missed it, tells the story of how Tong and Quang meet in a refugee camp after fleeing the fall of Saigon (don’t worry if you didn’t see it—Poor Yella Rednecks stands completely on its own). Both plays are based in part on interviews that Nguyen did with his parents, and after an action-packed play that even featured ninja cameos, he surprised audiences at the end of Vietgone with an epilogue of the Playwright interviewing his father.
Poor Yella Rednecks opens with the character of the Playwright interviewing his mother. At first she resists his questions, but then set some ground rules. First, he can’t only write about happy romantic things. 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 in the silly way that she hears them. The Playwright agrees, and with the ground rules set the story is launched.
It is six years after Vietgone and the family struggles to find their place in America. Quang and Tong are living in El Dorado, Arkansas with their five-year-old son, whom they call Little Man (played by a puppet) and Tong's Mother, Huong. They’re barely scraping by, but making it work. Quang’s friend, Nhan, visits and encourages them to visit him in Houston, where a large number of Vietnamese have settled; they're interrupted by Tong opening a letter from Quang’s first wife, Thu, when they assumed she believed Quang had died in the war. Immigration declares that Quang and Tong aren’t really married until Quang deals with his first wife. Racked with guilt, Quang secretly wipes out his and Tong’s hard-won savings and sends it back to his two kids in Vietnam, setting their marriage on a rocky course and creating even more battles for Tong to fight. Tong is also trying to help her son assimilate in school. Kids make fun of him and teachers can’t understand him. Tong investigates and the teachers recommend not speaking Vietnamese to him at home, so he can learn English. Except his grandmother takes care of him…and only speaks Vietnamese.
While this might not sound like a setup for a laugh riot, the family operates just like any family—using laughter to get through difficult situations. Nguyen also makes ample use of the tools in his spectacle toolkit, liberally applying rap songs, kung-fu battles, puppetry and any other stage convention that he can get away with. He leans in to theatrical storytelling, grounding his based-on-truth characters and situations in a fanciful world of superheroes.
It’s hard to know if it comes from the play or the players, but the rehearsal room reflects the joy and hard work the characters engage in. It’s filled with laughter, inside jokes and a sense of shared history that is imbued into every fiber of the production. Director May Adrales, who began working with Nguyen at the very outset of Vietgone years ago, deftly tackles any theatrical challenge that the playwright has set out for her. She assembled a cast comprised of three returning members from Vietgone (Samantha Quang, Paco Tolson and Maureen Sebastian) with two newcomers—Tim Chiou and Eugene Young. Watching rehearsal, you’d never be able to tell who was new to the team, as they have all heartily embraced inhabiting Nguyen’s raucous world.
This sense of joy and community is palpable with every moment in this play—from the raps and hip-hop dance steps to the surprisingly simple gesture of seeing a grandmother take the hand of her puppet grandson. It all speaks to the larger message that Nguyen is so successful at portraying—immigration is hard and life is tough, but humanity will always find a way.
Learn more about Poor Yella Rednecks and buy tickets.