Building Community Engagement for "Poor Yella Rednecks"

Beth Fhaner
 | Mar 28, 2019
Thuy and Linda

Thuy Vo Dang and Linda Trinh Vo

Poor Yella Rednecks is the next chapter in playwright Qui Nguyen's story about his parents' immigration from Vietnam to the United States. The first play in the series, Vietgone, commissioned and premiered by South Coast Repertory, had much support from Orange County's Vietnamese community.Thuy Vo Dang, ​Curator for the Southeast Asian Archive, and Linda Trinh Vo, professor in the Department of Asian American Studies and director of the Vietnamese American Oral History Project at UC​I, played a large role in helping to create awareness for Vietgone. First, some backstory.

In the summer of 2013, ​Vo and Vo ​Dang met with Nguyen during his residency in Orange County and shared the work they were doing in the local Vietnamese community. ​Nguyen later visited the UC​-Irvine Southeast Asian Archive and found himself captivated by the photograph collection of Vietnamese refugees at Fort Chaffee, Ark., one of four military bases that served as a temporary refugee/migrant processing center in 1975. These photographs, along with stories that Nguyen's parents told him as he was growing up, inspired him to write Vietgone—the story of how his parents met and fell in love in a Vietnamese refugee camp in 1975. As Vietgone’s journey progressed from script to stage, readings and other special events held in the local Vietnamese community generated much enthusiasm and support for the play.

With Poor Yella Rednecks (Segerstrom Stage, March 30-April 27), ​Nguyen continues his family’s hilarious, yet deeply moving take on the immigrant story, told with hip-hop style. It's set six years after Vietgone, with Tong and Quang building new lives in Arkansas​; but nothing is easy in this foreign land. In our Q&A with both ​Vo and Vo Dang, they share their thoughts on SCR’s highly anticipated world premiere of Poor Yella Rednecks and the importance of engaging community.

Describe what happened in the classroom when director May Adrales and the cast of Poor Yella Rednecks recently visited?

Linda Trinh Vo: By introducing the students, most who are Asian American, to Asian American theatrical actors and a director, I hope to introduce them to storytelling from voices that are often absent in the theatre. It may inspire some who never saw their own reflection in the theatre to follow their own artistic passion. The cast of Poor Yella Rednecks performed a powerful scene in which a (playwright Qui's) grandmother is forced to stop speaking Vietnamese to her grandson, knowing she would lose the ability to communicate with him. The challenges of cultural adaptation for newcomers, particularly in a country that can be hostile to “foreigners,” is a topic we touched upon in my introductory class, Asian American Communities, with 280 students. It resonated with my students lived experiences, since many come from immigrant or refugee families, so they have firsthand knowledge of the difficult choices families make in building a new life.

Why are you excited for this next chapter in the story?

Thuy Vo Dang: The next chapter is really an important one! It is about the often-neglected moments in the refugee experience, when they’re trying to build their new lives from what remains after war and displacement. I think it is so exciting to have a masterful storyteller like Qui Nguyen representing this complex, heartbreaking time in his family’s story in such a compelling and humorous way. He’s telling an absolutely relatable story about how one family navigates the profound sorrows and many little triumphs along the way to becoming American.

Vo: Poor Yella Rednecks delves into the struggles that refugees experienced coming to terms with the loss of their country, but also of their loved ones, realizing they would be indefinitely disconnected from their families since they could not return to Vietnam and their families were unable to join them in the U.S. With the right touches of humor and hip-hop, Qui Nguyen is able to poignantly reinterpret his parent’s story of not just physical survival, but also of emotional endurance and resiliency.

Tell us about the impact in the Orange County Vietnamese community following Vietgone, and knowing what you do about Poor Yella Rednecks, how will that production deepen or impact the local Vietnamese-American community?

Vo Dang: For Orange County to be a key site of inspiration and production of Vietgone really shows how the Vietnamese American community here is a major force and will continue to shape how the public comes to know Orange County. I think my community here, particularly youth, was receptive and incredibly proud that such a nuanced story about Vietnamese-American lives made it so big! And it ignited dialogue and interest for them in learning about the experiences of the first generation of Vietnamese refugees—their parents and grandparents. I think Poor Yella Rednecks will do the important work of keeping these conversations going.

Vo: Although Vietgone and Poor Yella Rednecks are about a particular couple and family, it captures universal aspects of the emotional journey of those impacted by war, displacement, migration and resettlement. Although their family’s story may vary, many in our community have shared experiences of loss and survival. Having their story produced on stage validates their history and, hopefully, will lead to fruitful dialogues between the older and younger generations in our community.

What do you admire about Qui and his work?

Vo: Refugees are often depicted as passive victims or overachieving newcomers, but Qui Nguyen resists these narrowing portrayals. Instead, he reimagines refugees as strong-willed, defiant and even funny. He is brilliant at humanizing refugees, showing they are self-reliant in rebuilding their lives, and like all Americans, have desires and dreams. His play is daring and brutally honest in its portrayal of family relations and racial discrimination.

Vo Dang: Qui has the gift of using irreverent humor to give the audience temporary reprieve from the anguish we experience as we become absorbed in the characters’ lives. He also creates a world that is very real and relatable. I love his fearless use of language in Vietgone and Poor Yella Rednecks; we are asked to hear American English as a jumble of confusing and hilarious stereotypes that flips the script on how non-English speakers experience America. I laughed and cried throughout the entire play and loved every moment of it!

This story is about Vietnamese refugees/immigrants, but it’s also a universal story. Why is it important for this story to be told now?

Vo Dang: Stories from communities that have gone through trauma take some time to surface. I know from my work collecting oral histories of Vietnamese Americans that there is a pervasive silence in refugee homes around the topic of the war, the escape, the years of rebuilding. So it might take a generation or two before the folks who lived through these hard times can really share their memories. But it is so important that it is happening now because the Vietnamese American community is losing that first generation. I also think that there is a lot of negative public opinion out there about immigrants and refugees, and this play can help others far removed from the struggle really empathize and see the humanity of immigrants and refugees.

Vo: Given the animosity towards immigrants/refugees today, I hope attendees recognize that those who are displaced are often ordinary people put in extraordinary circumstances and are doing their best to survive. The play makes us consider how we would react if we were faced with a similar predicament. Given the nuanced, complex characters that Qui has created, I hope that audiences leave recognizing there is not one refugee story, but that there are many more stories to be told.

What do you hope the audience takes away from Poor Yella Rednecks?

Vo Dang: I hope that Poor Yella Rednecks will inspire more young people to dig deeper, ask harder questions and learn their community’s stories from many different angles. And the other thing I hope for is that after audiences laugh and cry through this play, their imaginations will be ignited and they will want to know more about the Vietnamese-American experience.

Learn more about Poor Yella Rednecks and buy tickets.