Love, war and ninjas
Capital Stage’s spirited rendition of Vietgone subverts Asian-American stereotypes
When Jeffrey Lo first saw Vietgone, he was thrilled by the play’s irreverence, complete disregard for theater norms and unique Asian-American story.
“It was really the most visceral and magical experience I’ve ever had,” says the Bay Area-based director. “It was truly special because of the fact that this show is just so clearly and unapologetically written for the Asian-American community from the Asian-American community.”
Now, Capital Stage will bring Vietgone to Sacramento audiences for the first time, with Lo as director. Previews for the Steinberg Award- and Ted Schmitt Award-winning play begin Wednesday, March 13, featuring an all Asian cast for the first time in the theater company’s history.
In Vietgone, playwright Qui Nguyen tells the story of his parents falling in love as new refugees in the United States during the Vietnam War. The play moves from Vietnam to Arkansas to California as the characters wrestle with the trauma of displacement, culture shock and racism—oh, and there’s a ninja fight.
“It’s so funny and fun that you don’t even realize you’re watching the birth of an American citizen,” says Michael Stevenson, Capital Stage’s producing artistic director.
Vietgone lands in the second half of Capital Stage’s 2018-19 season, #SearchingForAmerica, which explores the evolution of American culture during a particularly tense and politically fragmented time in our history. Stevenson says he wanted to speak to as many different viewpoints as possible throughout the season, and with almost 20 percent of Sacramento’s population identifying as Asian, it was vital to include at least one Asian-American story.
While Vietgone isn’t a political play—and doesn’t tackle immigration issues head-on—it does “humanize the people who are involved so they’re just not groups and metrics and kind of cold data,” Stevenson says.
“You see that they’re people, they’re human beings like you and I. That’s something that gets overlooked a lot these days,” he adds.
The Vietnam War might be an ever-present backdrop, but it doesn’t completely define these characters.
The action-packed comedy also notably subverts Asian stereotypes—something still frustratingly common in Hollywood depictions. The father, for example, is downright sexy, not an emasculated Asian man. And the mother is strong-willed and anti-maternal instead of quiet and subservient.
The uptick in Asian-American stories onscreen—Crazy Rich Asians made a huge splash last summer and Netflix’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before met critical acclaim—is now being seen onstage. The previous generation of Asian-American playwrights, according to Lo, focused on “the double consciousness of the double hyphenate,” the struggle of being both American and Asian. But Vietgone is part of a new wave of Asian-American plays, fueled by younger voices looking to their parents for inspiration.
“The current generation seems to be wrestling with how many of their parents came to not want to talk about the hardships they went through, or the potential trauma in their life as an immigrant or as someone ‘othered’ a great deal living in America,” Lo says. “As these parents grow older, both the playwrights and the parents I believe are realizing they’re running out of time to tell this story.”
In a sense, playwrights like Nguyen are creating their own genre: biographical comedies that balance absurdism with touching truths about life as Asian Americans.
“You can have a blanket statement about the Asian-American experience,” Lo says, “but these playwrights are chronicling the individuality of their personal stories in a really beautiful way.”