Early this year, San Diego Repertory Theatre produced Qui Nguyen’s play Vietgone, a bold, fresh comedy about three Vietnamese immigrants fleeing war-torn Saigon and heading to America. Told through the eyes of a contemporary young American who loves pop culture, Vietgone is a sexy comedy with a mash-up of comic books, hip-hop, martial arts and Hollywood action movies. At San Diego REP, our mission is to produce intimate, exotic, and provocative theatre that promotes a more inclusive community and celebrates the multiple voice of our region. Vietgone was an inspiring reflection of The REP’s mission, and a story for the ages – for young and old; for all those who lived through the Vietnam War and the children and grandchildren who were the result of their hopes, dreams, and love. In his piece, Nguyen provides a new perspective on America’s involvement in the War in a way that is not only exuberant and action-packed, but enlightening and deeply personal. At The REP we asked a few members of our staff and the production to share their unique experiences while working on Vietgone.
JESCA PRUDENCIO (Vietgone Director)
I entered my process directing Vietgone looking through my lens as a second generation Asian American, and how I own our parents’ narratives from the homeland. This point of view helped me and my collaborators create a world that was a filtered, instagrammed version of our parent’s stories. The deeper I got in rehearsals, the more personal this piece became. My cast and I had an immediate connection to the play, and it only got more complex and personal with every rehearsal. Through these characters, I found my family, my marriage, and my experience living as an outsider in another country, and I shaped the production through that. Directing is a revealing act. The personal is always universal. That is exactly how Qui wrote this piece, and suddenly we have veterans, refugees, generations of immigrants, and SoCal teens all relating to the production, attending multiple performances. Up until closing night, I’m still standing in the lobby one hour after the final bow listening to audience member’s stories about how they immigrated to America as they hold my hand. I strive for this exchange of humanity in every work I make.
KIM HEIL (Producer and Casting Director)
As both the Producer and the Casting Director of Vietgone, I think there were more validations of my earlier assumptions than surprises. For instance, I knew this was going to appeal to a wide audience and sell well. I knew I would see a lot of terrific Asian talent and that it would be tough to make casting decisions. That’s why I am still very surprised (and sometimes taken aback) by the idea that there isn’t a pool of Asian American talent. That was a comment I heard a few times from talkbacks and panel discussions – “I didn’t realize there was enough talent out there to tell this story!” Oh yes, there is. And it’s getting bigger every day. I think that is one of the more important aspects of producing Vietgone – the more you put the Asian American experience on stage, the more people feel represented, and the more demand there is to tell other stories like it. It offers an invitation to Asian American artists, writers and actors to share their own unique stories. And it lets everyone else discover, just as people discovered through watching Vietgone, that these stories are just as American as anything else.
SHAUN TUAZON (Vietgone Actor: Playwright, Bobby, Gaia, Redneck Biker, Hippie Dude)
Getting the chance to work on Qui Nguyen’s Vietgone with this group of artists at this theatre was nothing short of a magical experience from start to finish and beyond. The amount of love and respect for the script and production from audience members has been extraordinary even after the production has ended. From the first reading, I knew what an incredible journey I, the cast, and the production team was about to embark on. The story that Qui Nguyen so beautifully crafted is unlike any other I have ever read. The script really has something for everyone, in terms of style/genre, plus an incredible amount of heart. Our cast along with our director, Jesca Prudencio, had a tremendous time exploring each character while we played within the world that was written. It was both a wonderful joy and a refreshing challenge to breathe life into every character I got to portray. There are so few opportunities in which an actor gets to run the gamut of emotional journeys in one play, let alone an opportunity like that for an actor of color. I am so thankful that this play exists and that I was given the chance to be a small piece of its history.
MATT GRABER (Director of Marketing & Communication)
From a marketing and public relations perspective Vietgone was a resounding success on every front. The show finished 126% to its single and group’s sales goal and, if it was possible to do so, I would have argued for the shows extension. The final weekend we had to turn patrons away. The production garnered universally positive reviews from the media and patrons alike. The statistic that was the most encouraging was the diversity of Vietgone’s audiences; our survey data shows that typically 3% of The REP’s audiences report as Asian/Pacific Islander, for Vietgone we saw that number increase to 15%.
SAL CICALESE (House Manager)
Vietgone’s ‘love story’ is a big story that raced around the community to bring in the most broadly diverse audience ever in my 12 years. Our Asian friends embraced the love story they lived. Our non-Asian patrons left the theater startled by the love. All our patrons left with a new perspective of the Vietnam War that is seldom expressed in history books. Rep regulars expressed a connection to a community they never had.