The Story Behind the Photo: "Vietgone"

Tania Thompson
 | Apr 09, 2021
Samantha Quan, Raymond Lee, Paco Tolson, Maureen Sebastian and Jon Hoche in Vietgone by Qui Nguyen (world premiere, 2015). Photo by Debora Robinson.

About ​​​Vietgone

An all-American love story about two very new Americans. It’s 1975, and Saigon has fallen. He lost his wife. She lost her fiancé. But now in a new land, they just might find each other. Using his uniquely infectious style The New York Times calls “culturally savvy comedy”—and skipping back and forth from the dramatic evacuation of Saigon to the here and now—playwright Qui Nguyen gets up close and personal to tell the story that led to the creation of…Qui Nguyen

Three of the four South Coast Repertory productions actor Raymond Lee appeared in have been world premieres—Vietgone by Qui Nguyen (2015), Office Hour by Julia Cho (2016) and Cambodian Rock Band by Lauren Yee (2018).

Vietgone was the first in a series by playwright Nguyen to tell the story of his family’s escape from Vietnam in the mid-1970s. The play is set in both Vietnam and a U.S. relocation center in Arkansas, where his parents met and courted. Lee portrayed the playwright’s father, Quang. In this Q&A, he talks about why he picked the photo (above) as the point of no return for audiences.

What moment does this depict?

This is at the very top of the show, before all of the rapping, fighting, helicopters and love making. Qui Nguyen (the playwright),​ portrayed by Paco Tolson, sets the stage and lays down the rules of the world in which this play exists. I love this moment because 1) we’re all on stage at the same time, rare for this play as someone was usually quick-changing in the back, and 2) the audience has no idea what they’re in for as we address them face on.

How did you work with the director to make this moment happen?

It was very important to start the show off on the right foot. In my case, I was directed to say my first lines to the audience with as much conviction and belief as possible, which was “Sup Bitches?, and then my next line was, "Any of you..."Any of you fly ladies wanna get up on my Quang wang?”!

What’s the power about this moment?

Qui (Nguyen, playwright) and May (Adrales, director) made sure to use this opportunity to disarm and ready the audience for the possibility ​that anything ​could happen. This prelude almost worked as a disclaimer to say, if you’re offended by this language and behavior now, you’re likely not ready for your history to be rewritten either. Qui and May knew that once the audience's guards were down, their hearts would be left vulnerable to let in this re-envisioning story of the Vietnamese people during the Vietnam War.

Anything else you’d like to say about the photo or the production?

Vietgone was an unforgettable experience because it marked many firsts for me. It was my first time working with Qui and May—relationships that are continuing to deepen. My first time getting to be a lead, no less a romantic lead. My first Pacific Playwrights Festival and my first time in a main stage production at SCR—another creative relationship that I’ve come to value immensely. The cast—Maureen Sebastian, Paco Tolson, Jon Hoche and Samantha Quan—literally had to hold my hand through some of these firsts and, for that, I am forever indebted and grateful​.