American Stage’s ‘VIETGONE’ offers a hip-hip love story during the fall of Saigon

All Photo Credits: JoeyClayStudio

BY J.A. JONES, Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG – “VIETGONE,” written by Qui Nguyen and directed by Brian Balcom, original music by Shane Rettig, is a testament to the inevitable rise of hip-hop as a modern-day narrative form-fitting for not only CD players, but also, in the tradition of verse, a contemporary mode of storytelling for musical theater.

Set in 1975, the story depicts how the playwright’s parents met and fell in love in a settlement  at Fort Chaffee in Ark., which functioned as a home to over 50,000 Vietnamese, Laotian, Cambodian and Hmong refugees after the fall of Saigon and the end, for all intents and purposes, of the war in Vietnam.

The play presents a relatively light and comedic presentation of the meeting and eventual marriage of Quang, played by Jeff Kim, and Tong, played by Sami Ma. But along the way, it sprinkles in history of what must have been a highly traumatic event for those who were forced to seek refuge in the U.S.

Through photos displayed on video screens, we see images of some of the tens of thousands of South Vietnamese civilians who, along with American civilians and military personnel, were flown by helicopter from South Vietnam during the largest helicopter evacuation in history.

Like most love comedies, the production is full of witty dialogue, with songs set to hip-hop music with titles like “Blow ‘Em Up,” “Gonna Start Again” and “Lost a Brother.” While the challenging raps sometimes seem more than Kim, in the lead male role, can handle, his conviction gets him through the material not much worse for the wear.

The in-your-face, honest sexuality of Sami Ma as the hardened but likable Tong, and the humor of Quang’s mother Huong – played hilariously by of Jodi Kimura – create standout roles for the female talent.

With a plethora of characters fleshed out by Kenny Tran and Vi Tran, the play moves quickly, adding physicality and excitement to the presentation. Qui Nguyen’s take on how Americans sound to the new refugees is also quite funny.

Director Brian Balcom shared in the program how vital the affirmation of seeing the kinds of storylines and characters Qui Nguyen has drawn is.

“‘VIETGONE’ is the kind of play that a lot of Asian-Americans have been waiting for,” Balcom writes. “After seeing our identity and culture stereotyped, clichéd and yellow-faced for decades – centuries, really – we’re finally getting plays with strong Asian-American characters who are heroes and lovers with strength, depth and empathy.”

“VIETGONE” is at American Stage, 163 Third St. N, St. Petersburg, until Sunday, Nov. 3. Call (727) 823-PLAY (7529) or visit AmericanStage.org.

To reach J.A. Jones, email jjones@theweeklychallenger.com

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