Parallax: “Vietgone” is a Total and Refreshing Shift of Perspective
“In an episode of The Simpsons where the family visits the zoo and finds the animals to be just laying around, Homer describes his boredom to Lisa thusly: “I’ve seen plays that were more exciting than this. Honest to God…plays!”
Growing up in Ashland, that was how I too felt about the theater.
Starting in the first grade we’d be sent on a forced march to OSF to see age-appropriate shows like Hamlet or Death of a Salesman, and then spend an entire day of class being lectured about the human condition, and how these ancient, soporific performances that made Leave it to Beaver look futuristic and multicultural were about our lives. It was so boring that in the sixth grade I literally (no joke) knelt in front of a speeding car to get out of going.
It took until I was in my mid-20s to recover from the hatred of the theater seeded by those experiences.
If I’d had the option a show like Vietgone,which just opened at OSF before then, maybe that wouldn’t have been the case.
The show by self-proclaimed geek playwright Qui Nguyen is relentlessly modern, with video projections, ninja fight sequences, hip hop musical numbers, and colloquialisms by the shizzle-load, all used to tell an immigrant story like none you’ve ever seen, one based off of Nguyen’s parents, who met in an American refugee camp after fleeing the fall of Saigon. It is hip, edgy, brimming with humor and rage, and has the potential to entirely change the way you feel about one of the most divisive events in American history.
This show is completely thrilling, and total opposite of a day spent culturally antiquing. Though in a twist of irony, the audience, not the show, was a collection of dusty old relics. The average age was about 200. Which explains some of the upsetting, often racist comments, they offered at intermission.
“I can’t believe the playwright had to resort to rap,” said one incredibly chatty douchebag who happened to be seated right behind me. “It’s like he’s 23 or something.” Oh. The horror. The horror. Guess Blink 182 was right. Nobody likes you when you’re 23. Except that the playwright is 40. And without argument the most important thing happening in theater right now is the Broadway smash Hamilton, which is basically a rap opera. And in this reporter’s experience that sort of opposition to rap tends to run along racial lines.
That grousing was an incredible shame. Not only because the rap elements of Vietgone were totally appropriate digressions that added a powerfully emotional element to the performance, but because the primary gripe I overheard ran along similar lines, and was one of the show’s most important elements: The asian characters speak flawless, slang-laden english, while the American characters dialog is mangled, jingo-istic gibberish.
“Hamburger, freedom, monster truck,” as they’d say.
It is explained at the top of the show that the device is because that’s what the world sounds like to immigrants. They speak amongst themselves and struggle to understand the native tongue. It’s a powerful reframing device that flips the script for white audiences, putting them in the shoes of the other, a perspective American culture is really struggling with right now. But an audience trained on being pandered to instead of challenged didn’t appear to jive with it. At least three folks I overheard called it a weak gimmick, not grasping that was what the show was really about: Being forced out of your home, your comfort zone, into an uncooperative, often-hostile world, and having to make the best of it. The characters in the show didn’t choose to be refugees any more than they chose the war that claimed their homes, or the uphill battle they would face in America.
But that audience reaction is predictable. In many ways the world of theater has painted itself into a corner, producing old, classic shows it knows will be successful with older, wealthier, whiter audiences, and thereby giving the next generation even less of a reason to care, so that when a show like Vietgone does come along, it’s almost too little too late.
I hope it’s not. Because a show like Vietgone shows that theater can tell a powerful, fun story, and make it as relevant and impactful to those old enough to have experienced the Vietnam war firsthand as it can be for those of that only read about it in history books. And in perhaps its greatest trick, it can do both at the same time.