Viet (Almost) Gone: Qui Nguyen’s play wraps up at EWP

LOS ANGELES ━ A caravan makes its way through Mexico from Central America as East-West Players offers an extended run of Vietgone. The common thread connected seemingly two unrelated immigrant groups separated by almost 50 years of history? Those caravaning to the U.S.-Mexico border are posed with the same questions Vietnamese and other Asian immigrants were posed with during the 1960s and 1970s: does a “better” life truly await in the United States, and what is the price to be paid for that “upgrade.”

Playwright Qui Nguyen artfully captures a fresh perspective on immigrant identity in the United States through his writing of Vietgone, which was set for a final curtain call on Nov. 11 but extended through Nov. 18 at East-West Players in Little Tokyo. East-West Players certainly isn’t the first stop for Vietgone. We’ve been exposed to the production’s narratives on war, immigration, identity and family. Vietgone’s run at East-West Players, nonetheless, acts as a necessary reminder: times might have changed and several decades have passed since the conflict in Vietnam, but many of the issues we confronted then are just as present and persistent today - albeit covered in a different dressing.

The play is mostly set in a refugee camp, during the tail end of the Vietnam conflict. Vietgone’s lead characters - Quang and Tong - present two distinct perspectives of the immigrant mindset. Quang is a savvy pilot deeply entrenched in war, so much so he entirely missed out on the lives of his two children (ages 4 and 2). Tong, meanwhile, was offered an opportunity to escape war-torn Vietnam and embraced the United States as a place to start over.

The two characters - collectively and separately, through comedy, hip hop, romance and self-inflection - juxtapose deep questions of personal identity and family. Is United States truly the promised land? Is it worth sacrificing a connected past for an ambiguous future? These questions - and more - confront Quang and Tong throughout Vietgone.

Quang, on the on hand, feels trapped in the United States. He wants to return to his wife and two children in Vietnam. His land might be embroiled in battle, but, to Quang, Vietnam is still home. A poignant dialog between Quang and a friend at the refugee camp summarized the former’s perspective: Vietnam might be bogged down in a war of political ideologies, but at least he doesn’t have to worry about living in a country where people would go to battle with him just because of the color of his skin.

On the other end of the spectrum is Tong, who willingly escapes Vietnam to save her life. She has a pair of tickets to the United States, reluctantly leaving her brother behind and instead bringing her mother. Tong’s mother, interestingly enough, sides with Quang in her desire to return to the motherland. Tong, however, launches her search for a foster family, who will help her transition into life in the United States.

The paths of Quang and Tong eventually cross, bringing two polar opposite takes on immigrant life in the United States to a pass. Is the United States a disconnected land where personal excess transcends collective well-being? Quang, in viewing the United States through his cynical lens, also confronts whether the life offered in the United States is worth sacrificing the established family he already has in Vietnam.

Tong, on the other hand, represents this question: Is United States the land of second chances and a place where you can create your own life - paint your own canvas, so to speak?

Looking at the Vietgone more broadly: is it fair to simplify the plot of Vietgone, and the immigrant experience, for that matter, to a binary choice? The answer to this question weighs heavy in the final scene of Vietgone, where Quang, now in his 70s and living with his wife (Tong) and family in the United States, reminds his grown son of the duality he faces everyday. Quang might have settled for a “better” life in the United States, but the decision to live her did not come at the expense of his cultural identity (and his family, who he left behind for Tong).

The blank canvas, it turns out, really isn’t blank. We don’t come here a clean slate. We all had lives before living in the United States. Such lives shouldn’t be thrown away in the name of security and identity. Sustaining one’s identity while maintaining a life elsewhere, whether you’re from Vietnam or some other land, is Vietgone’s reminder. The United States, after all, is a country of immigrants. Finding commonality in our Americana life is certainly valuable, yet there is also strength in keeping your roots and honoring your identity, no matter how many generations you have been removed from your ancestor’s motherland.

Nguyen’s Vietgone, which was directed by Jennifer Chang, stars Paul Yen, Sylvia Kwan, Jane Lui, Scott Ly and Albert Park. Visit eastwestplayers.org (through Nov. 18) for more information about the current production.

Vietgone, coincidentally, is based upon the story of Nguyen’s parents.