He’s proudly irreverent, but Qui Nguyen believes Vietgone ‘should remind us all that America can be better than what it is right now.’
Vietgone playwright Qui Nguyen has been called a weirdo, a nerd, a comic-book geek, a mamma’s boy and a vastly immature writer. And you should hear what he says about other people!
“As a kid, I just wanted to write superhero stories,” said Nguyen. “But I always assumed that as I grew up, my writing would, too.”
Instead, as Nguyen started an irreverent theatre company called Vampire Cowboys, and later landed a job as a screenwriter for Marvel Studios, it became pretty obvious that was just not going to happen. “I am never going to be that person,” he said with a laugh. “I am the artist that I am.”
And who is that artist?
“I am an introvert who likes to randomly throw kung-fu fights and ninjas and hip-hop into my plays — just because I think it’s fun,” he said.
Nguyen also is a Vietnamese-American who was born, in of all places, a military outpost in Fort Chafee, Arkansas. Everything about his story — and his stories — challenge our present-day notion of the American identity. Even more so today than when Vietgone was premiered two years ago.
Nguyen’s parents met in 1975 at that Arkansas military base, which was being used as a temporary refugee processing center during the fall of Saigon. Their love story becomes the loose basis of Vietgone, now being staged by the DCPA Theatre Company with performances beginning Aug. 21.
“The catalyst for me wanting to be a writer in the first place was to tell my parents’ story,” Nguyen said. “I wanted people to know who they are and what they went through.” But he wanted to wait until that evasive serious writer emerged before he told it. This story deserved it. After all, his parents struggled mightily to come to America. An uncle’s family was killed trying to leave Vietnam, leaving a baby stranded in the Philippines.
But Nguyen changed his mind. (He does that a lot. Blame the short attention span.) “I figured I could wait until my parents were dead and gone, or I could just write it now and celebrate them while they are alive,” he said. “So I said, ‘[bleep] it — I am going to do it now. I’ll just have to write the play the only way I know how to: In my style and in my voice.’”
Which means, yes, ninja fights, rap, non-sequential storytelling, a motorcycle, hyper-surrealism and many unconventional narrative forms before settling into a surprisingly substantive finale.
Despite his unconventional approach to the play, which the Los Angeles Times described as “a riotous theatrical cartoon,” and its inevitable political subtext, Nguyen says Vietgone is, at its heart, a completely new kind of American love story. “And we all love love stories, right?” he said. “Mine is just told in a way that is probably different from anything else the Denver Center has ever done before.”
Writing that love story was not as easy as you might presume, given Nguyen’s proximity to its protagonists. “People who come from tumultuous situations generally don’t want to talk about it,” said Nguyen, who employed a highly unorthodox journalistic construct to get his parents talking: He got them drunk and made fun of them.
“And oh boy, did that work!” he said with a belly laugh. “The one thing I know is that Asian parents really hate having dumb kids, so I just pretended to be real [bleeping] stupid just to watch my parents correct me. “I would say, ‘Vietnam? That was the war with China, right?’ And my dad would yell, ‘Oh, why are you so stupid?!?’ But once he got going, he couldn’t stop talking. And I must say — the alcohol helped.”
But two can play that game. Nguyen’s savvy mother turned the tables when she realized that talking to her son about her sex life completely grossed him out. “And she was so tickled by that,” he said, “that it strangely motivated her to then gross me out continuously.”
The things a writer will do to get the story.
But by writing his stories in the way that feels right to him, Nguyen has essentially created his own genre of American playwriting.
“I wish I could say that was a goal,” he said with a chuckle. “But the truth is, I just don’t know any other way to tell my stories. I have a little bit of artistic attention-deficit disorder, which means I get bored very quickly, and I will switch gears right when I am in the middle of something.”
Nguyen also is an uncommonly prolific writer. He wrote the core of Vietgone on one cross-country plane ride. He wrote his other big hit, She Kills Monsters (about a woman who gets sucked into a game of Dungeons and Dragons to learn more about her dead sister) — in a single day. Deadlines, apparently, are Nguyen’s best friend.
Vietgone was first introduced as a reading at the start of the most recent presidential campaign. It is a play Nguyen expected precisely no one would ever want to produce. Instead, it is becoming one of the most produced plays in America. And Nguyen admits the play unquestionably feels different since the election, and the subsequent refugee crisis that feels even more hostile to Nguyen’s family than the one in 1975.
“My play is about being displaced from home and family,” he said. “It’s about the struggle to start a new life in a new place. And when I wrote it, yes, we were absolutely living in a very different America. So while I may think of Vietgone as nothing more than a fun play about my parents, it’s obviously more than that now.
“I hope that Vietgone tells people that all of us are part of the American fabric. And that fabric isn’t one shade, one color or one story. What a lot of us are forgetting with all of this ‘MAGA’ [talk] is that we are a country that created itself. And everyone brings a little bit of their story into this giant quilt. I think Vietgone should remind us all that America can be better than what it is right now.”
John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.
Vietgone: Ticket information
Vietgone is an ode to the real-life courtship of Playwright Qui Nguyen’s parents. Forced to leave their country during the height of the Vietnam War, two refugees find themselves at the same relocation camp in Arkansas – the land of Harleys and hot dogs. Before they find their way into each other’s arms, they’ll have to blaze a trail in their weird new world and leave behind the baggage they didn’t pack.
- Written by Qui Nguyen
- Original music by Shane Rettig
- Directed by Seema Sueko
- Aug. 24-Sept. 30 (Opens Aug. 31)
- Ricketson Theatre
- 303-893-4100 or BUY ONLINE
- Take a deeper dive into Vietgone