February 15, 2024

'Vietgone' - zany, sexy, and maybe even a little bit true

Theater production through Feb. 24 considers the playwright's parents' meeting in an Arkansas refugee camp

J.D. Mathes
Author: J.D. Mathes
February 15, 2024

UCR’s Department of Theatre, Film, and Digital Production is staging “Vietgone” by Qui Nguyen through Feb. 24.

Nguyen described “Vietgone” as a “probably-mostly-true” and "zany, sex comedy” about how his parents met in a refugee camp at Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, after the fall of Saigon in 1975. His future father, Quang, a pilot in the South Vietnam Air Force, and, his future mother, Tong, a U.S. Embassy employee, meet at the camp. They fall into a no-strings sex affair.

The backdrop of the set in UCR’s ARTS Studio Theatre is angular and looks like corrugated tin walls with high glazed windows that light shines against. This creates the spartan, hard atmosphere in which the characters find themselves.

Vietgone 2
From left, UCR 'Vietgone' actors Kow Nguyen, Bryan Fan,
Emily Luong, and Ethan Dizon. Photo by Aubrey Jerue.

Each is haunted by who and what they left behind. Quang’s wife and kids were stranded in Vietnam after he’d flown a group of refuges to the USS Midway in his helicopter but was prevented from returning to get them. Tong had two tickets to flee and brought her mother, leaving behind her beloved brother, his fiancée, and others. They both have lost home.

Quang despairs about his loss and vows to fix up and ride an old motorcycle to Camp Pendleton, Calif., from where he will return to Vietnam. His best friend, Nhan, rides along like Sancho Panza. In a scene echoing the film from the same era about striking out across America, “Easy Rider,” we see Quang with his long hair in the breeze, with Nhan on the back wearing a helmet.

Meanwhile, Tong seeks a foster family to help her assimilate into American culture and make a new home, a new life.

The play employs flashbacks, flashforwards, profanity that’d make a censor faint, stylistic ninja-redneck fights, and pop culture from the 1970s until 2015. Broken English stands in for broken Vietnamese and vice versa, and exaggerated dialects and accents demonstrate communication barriers and the bigotries arising from them.

Nguyen exploits stereotypes of Americans and Vietnamese in such an exaggerated way as to make us laugh at them and ourselves, but never stepping on the underlying pathos of the characters. We laugh as we are punched in the heart.

Staging "Vietgone" at UCR presented special challenges, the play’s director said.

“One of the key challenges we encountered early on in staging this play was the realization that due to budget constraints, a full video design, commonly seen in other productions, wasn't feasible,” said Oánh Nguyễn, the play’s director and a lecturer at UCR. “Initially, this posed a concern for me as I wondered how we would effectively manage without this element. However, upon reflection, I came to view this limitation as an opportunity rather than a setback.”

This allowed him to “ground each theatrical gesture of the lived experiences of the characters.”

The lack of video allows the audience to witness the nuance, intensity, and emotional reckoning in the actors’ movements, facial expressions, and interactions that might have been otherwise lost to the distraction of video and sound. In the intimate space of the ARTS Studio Theatre, the audience can notice the myriad of small ways through which actors freight meaning without words. In the actors’ faces and actions, we feel and understand the subtext under their conversations.

Throughout the play, the actors shift between competing emotions and states of being. We witness them slip from carefree into despair, from happy into angry, and from moments of comic relief into get-real speeches.

Admission is free for UCR students, with general admission seats costing $15. For more information, including for parking, and to buy tickets, visit:

Note: This production includes the use of atmospheric smoke effects, prolonged strobing and flashing lights, and loud simulated explosions, bombs, and gunfire. Vietgone contains adult subject matter, scenes of violence, and strong language.

Top, feature photo: UCR '"Vietgone" cast members, from left, Kow Nguyen, Ethan Dizon, and Edwin Tolosagonzales. Photo by Aubrey Jerue.

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From left, "Vietgone" cast members Emily Luong and Kow Nguyen. Photo by Aubrey Jerue.

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