(St. Petersburg, FL) October 5, 2019 – From 1892 to 1954, immigrants arrived at Ellis Island in search of the American Dream: to achieve a special kind of success that they couldn’t accomplish in their home countries. After earning their citizenship, these newly born Americans harnessed and combined their cultural foundations with a new sense of optimism, and they strove hard to transform their American Dreams into a reality. As far as the obstacles they faced, they would either become victors of their destinies, or victims of their own self-doubt. Playwright and screenwriter Qui Nguyen explores this journey with his 2016 work “Vietgone,” which is making its regional debut at American Stage. And what makes this production so amazing is audiences are witnessing a script laced with wit, poignancy, and empathy that is brought to life by a talented cast. “Vietgone” is the perfect 2019/2020 season opener for the St. Petersburg stage.
In 1975, Saigan fell. Quang (Jeff Kim), a helicopter pilot for the South Vietnamese military, is forced to abandon his wife and two children in order to transport and save the lives of families who are escaping the murderous rage of the Communist Viet Cong. Tong (Sami Ma) is a young villager who, along with her mother (Jodi Kimura), also escapes the invasion, only to leave behind her clingy fiancé (Vi Tran). When Quang and Tong meet at a refuge camp in Arkansas, sparks fly between them. But Quang longs to return to his home to be with his family. Much to Tong’s chagrin, the pilot and his best friend Nhan (Kenny Tran) take a road trip across America to California in order to catch a flight to Vietnam. But Quan’s trip becomes a soul-searching journey, and he discovers what the American Dream means to him and his beloved Tong.
Nguyen’s creative voice is extremely strong and unique with all of his characters. Even the cameos seem to shine with their own special presence. What adds to the vitality of his three-dimensional characters, tightly paced plot, and especially his smooth, witty dialogue is Nguyen’s ear for rap music during the musical sequences. Yes, “Vietgone” is a musical…of a sort. The challenge is how to make these moments endearing to those who are not fond of this musical form, like yours truly. The good news is the lyrics and the tempo of the rap sequences range from powerful to hilarious, enhancing the hip-hop mood of the overall piece. All of these elements are brought to life beautifully by Director Brian Balcom and his creative staff. At two hours and 15 minutes, Balcom’s pacing never wavers. Jerid Fox’s set and projection design is pure magic, displaying setting and time changes in a dynamically colorful manner that perfectly matches Chris Baldwin’s vibrant lighting scheme.
But what brings Nguyen’s dynamic script to life even more are the brilliant, collaborative talents of the actors. Kim’s leading man presence and persona perfectly captures Quang’s rugged charm and good natured sense of humor. Kim expertly layers Quang’s inner compassion underneath the external bravado, which illustrates his character’s overall humanity. Equally powerful is Ma’s Tong, who is a perfect romantic foil for Quang by combining elements of inner strength, vulnerability, and a biting sarcasm that could knock anyone off their feet. But it is Kim’s and Ma’s incredible onstage chemistry that makes their romantic journey a pleasure to behold. They feel comfortable with each other physically and emotionally, wonderfully sharing many dramatic and humorous moments together. This onstage chemistry extends to their co-stars, each of whom portrays multiple characters. Kenny Tran’s frenetic energy is purely addictive, especially as Nhan, who fluctuates from perpetual horniness to soft-spoke wisdom. Vi Tran’s transformation into his diverse characters is truly chameleon-like, which includes Giai the needy fiancé, a redneck biker, a zoned-out hippie, and a dense, good-ole-boy soldier. But Kimura is the scene stealer of the show, especially as Huong, Tong’s opinionated drama-queen of a mother whose razor-sharp tongue and cougar-like demeanor brings laughter to almost every moment she is on the stage.
“Vietgone” is a wonderful way to begin American Stage’s 2019/2020. And if this production becomes a success, the St. Petersburg theater should consider Nguyen’s sequel, “Poor Yella Rednecks,” during its 2020/2021 season. Just a little suggestion, folks. Just a suggestion.
Peter A. Balaskas is a fiction writer, copyeditor, and playwright.
Vietgone runs from Oct. 2 through Nov. 3, 2019
163 3rd St N.
St. Petersburg, FL 33701
Photos by Joey Clay Studio