When last we saw playwright Qui Nguyen’s parents, in “Vietgone,” Nguyen’s acclaimed 2016 play with an unconventional pop culture approach, Quang and Tong had separately escaped the fall of Saigon, then met at a refugee camp in El Dorado, Arkansas in 1975, where they had a one-night stand, after which Tong called Quang an asshole and wanted nothing more to do with him. But the story ended with the two embracing one another, even though Quang had a wife and family back in Vietnam, and Tong had a white fiancé in Arkansas. In the play’s epilogue set forty years later, the playwright (actually an actor portraying him) interviewed his now elderly and irascible father Quang, where he’s told new revelations about his parent’s relationship and a new perspective on the Vietnam War.
Nguyen’s new play “Poor Yella Rednecks,” which takes up where “Vietgone” left off, begins with a prologue of the playwright (this time portrayed by Jon Norman Schneider) interviewing his elderly and just as irascible mother Tong, portrayed by Maureen Sebastian, who after their conversation takes off her glasses and frumpy sweater, fixes her hair, and becomes the beautiful 30-year-old Tong of 1975. She and Quang (Ben Levin) are smoking a joint in the back of a pick-up truck, when he casually proposes marriage to her. She still thinks he’s an asshole, but she agrees. In the next scene, five years later, he can’t get a job, she works at a diner that’s going out of business, and they are living in a trailer park with Tong’s mother Huang (Samantha Quan), who’s trying to get Tong to leave Quang and marry somebody better.
“Poor Yella Rednecks” is not so much a sequel to “Vietgone” as the next episode in the same show. It features the same characters (portrayed by three of the same versatile actors in its six-member, all-Asian cast, all splendid.) It has the same cheeky pop approach — hip hop music, kung fu action, comic book style — put together by much the same creative team as “Vietgone” — the same director (May Adrales), composer and sound designer (Shane Rettig), scenic designer (Tim Mackabee), and projection designer (Jared Mezzocchi.) The approach worked wonderfully for me then, and it delights me even more now, because of an addition to the story, and to the family …Little Man, Quong and Tong’s five-year-old son, who will grow up to be Qui Nguyen.
Delightful, because Little Man is a puppet, an adorable one, created by David Valentine and voiced and manipulated by Schneider, the same actor who portrays the playwright (which seems apt.) Several scenes with the puppet crystallized why this show works so well for me.
In one of these scenes, Quang sits his son Little Man down to tell him some bad news. Quang is not doing well. He has separated from Tong, because of a series of events set off by a letter from his first wife in Vietnam, whom he never divorced, and featuring an immigration officer. The conversation that father and son have is awkward and heartfelt – and so well-acted that you have to remind yourself: Ben Levin is talking to a puppet!
Little Man is also not doing well. He is being picked on at school and ignored by his teachers, because he doesn’t speak English. So his feisty grandmother Huang teaches him martial arts, and he uses it to beat up two much larger bullies (portrayed by two of the Asian-American members of the cast, in whiteface.)
Tong is nonplussed that Little Man got into a fight, and confronts him, repeatedly demanding he say: “I will not Hulk Hogan the Honky Tonk Piggly Wigglies at Saved by the Bell.”
“Mommy! Stop! I don’t understand!”
“You’re the one who decided to get into a fight. Now repeat. In English: “I will not Hulk Hogan -…”
This is an impish twist on an inspired shtick that the playwright first used in “Vietgone.” We come to understand that the Vietnamese-American characters are all speaking the Vietnamese language, but we hear it as perfect English. By contrast, we understand that the white characters are speaking in English, but we hear what they’re saying as an incomprehensible babble, filled with pop culture references. This is a funny switcheroo, but it’s also a pointed critique of the usual way immigrants and foreigners have been depicted in mainstream American entertainment – speaking broken English, heavily accented. It’s a way the playwright is saying: It’s time to see these stories from a new perspective.
That’s what he accomplishes as well with the other snazzy touches, including the rapping.
There are many raps in “Poor Yella Rednecks,” so many that the show could be considered a musical. (There’s other music too, but not much of it: a country-inflected tune here, a brief ballad there.) These raps do not approach the sophistication of, say, “Hamilton” – which is all the more obvious when he actually quotes from “Hamilton” (Won’t stop till we’ve won, son/ swinging for that home run/ Like the song says/ ‘Immigrants: we get the job done!’)
I can understand the view that these raps detract, or at least distract, from the otherwise well-crafted, emotionally authentic depiction of the characters’ serious struggles; some make the same accusation of the other non-traditional touches – the martial arts battles, the set and projections that look sprung from a comic book. I get this argument, but I disagree.
All these touches add up to a pop fan’s do-it-yourself aesthetic, something that Nguyen began developing twenty years ago with his downtown “geek theater” company, Vampire Cowboys, and lately has parlayed into a successful mainstream career (including as screenwriter and film director for Marvel and Disney.) But it works for this play both emotionally and theatrically. It’s an oblique way to communicate the gap between the never-fully-acclimated immigrants and their American children, who have thoroughly embraced the culture around them. Having these new immigrants rap and curse in English also startles us into a fresh way to view their lives and struggles — a contemporary take far removed from the clichés and anesthetic nostalgia that have built up around The Immigrant Experience.
Poor Yella Rednecks
MTC at City Center through November 26, 2023
Running time: Two hours and 20 minutes, including an intermission
Tickets: $89 – $109
Written by Qui Nguyen
Directed by May Adrales
Scenic design by Tim Mackabee, costume design by Valérie Thérèse Bart, lighting design by Lap Chi Chu, original music and sound design by Shane Rettig, projection design by Jared Mezzocchi, puppet design by David Valentine, arrangements by Kenny Seymour, choreograph by William Carlos Angulo, music direction Cynthia Meng, Alyssa K. Howard production stage manager
Cast: Jon Hoche (Nhan & Others), Ben Levin (Quang & Others), Samantha Quan (Huong, Thu & Others), Jon Norman Schneider (Playwright, Little Man & Others), Maureen Sebastian (Tong), and Paco Tolson (Bobby & Others).