Playwright Qui Nguyen has been working for the past decade on a play cycle, a trilogy, that honors and retells the story of how his Vietnamese immigrant parents met, had him, and struggled to build lives for themselves in America. The second of the three plays, Poor Yella Rednecks, premiered Wednesday at ACT's Strand Theater.
The trilogy began with Vietgone, which played at the Strand in the spring of 2018 after premiering two years earlier in New York. That play covers the playwright's parents' meeting in 1975 while at a relocation camp in El Dorado, Arkansas for South Vietnamese people who managed to get out of the country just before Saigon fell. (The Playwright is a character and narrator throughout the trilogy.)
Poor Yella Rednecks picks up six years later, after the playwright's mom Tong (Jenny Nguyen Nelson) and dad Quang (Hyunmin Rhee) have settled into their lives as a young married couple in El Dorado, sharing an apartment with Tong's no-nonsense mother Huong (Christine Jamlig), and working menial jobs.
The drama centers on Quang getting a letter from a woman he married during the Vietnam War, who assumed he was dead, angrily having found out that he made it out alive and was in the U.S. American authorities find out that he's now a bigamist, and he'll have to annul one of his marriages. Feeling guilty about kids that he left behind as well, Quang sends them a thousand dollars in cash that he and Tong had been saving for themselves and their young family, which she can not forgive him for.
Simultaneously, Tong is struggling as their boy, whom she calls Little Man (voiced by actor Will Dao and portrayed artfully by a wooden marionette), struggles to assimilate and learn English in his American school. She and her mother agree to stop speaking Vietnamese to him at home — which leads to some heartbreaking conversations in which the grandmother, Huong, has to tell her grandson she can't tell him stories anymore, as she knows little to no English.
As in Vietgone, Nguyen uses language to show these linguistic struggles from the inside — depicting white people, for instance, speaking English the way his mother "heard" it, a mishmash of "cheeseburger, yee haw, football," and other nonsense. When one American character is supposed to be speaking bad Vietnamese, he speaks in broken English, with plenty of malapropisms. Meanwhile, the main characters all speak in clear — if profanity-laced — English to each other, which we're meant to understand is them speaking Vietnamese.
And as in the first play, the characters here break into song, which are mostly Lin Manuel Miranda-influenced raps, utilizing hip-hop to express, mostly, their frustration and anger through a torrent of words of "Fuck yous."
The songs, written by Shammy Dee, function oddly in this play, often pulling us out of the story more than drawing us more fully in — and the lighting design, which incorporates liberal use of strobe flashes to punctuate these raps, could use some toning down.
It may be that the humor, of which there is plenty, does its own work to pull us back a bit from the heart of the drama, and the songs are doing the same thing but different means. Still, in a couple of numbers, the character seem to reach a certain catharsis that wouldn't have been possible without a musical outlet.
The set design, by Tanya Orellana, is especially sleek — with the apartment portion floating like a dream sequence in its own framed box over the bare stage, and a versatile turntable.
Director Jaime Castaneda does similarly strong work with this cast as he did with Vietgone's five years back, and Nguyen's script allows for ample moments of humor and pathos. The strongest performance, because it manages to be both brash and subtle, comes from Jamlig as grandmother Huong. Her talks with her grandson, trying to guide him through the world and help navigate their constant "otherness" in this world, are painful and moving. Jomar Tagatac also does great and humorous work in multiple roles, including the Playwright.
Despite its faults, few plays have done as great or honest a job of describing, and creating empathy for, immigrant experiences like this family's. And for that reason, Poor Yella Rednecks is a play that should not be missed.
'Poor Yella Rednecks' plays at the Strand through May 7. Find tickets here.
Top image: Hyunmin Rhee and Jenny Nguyen Nelson in Qui Nguyen’s 'Poor Yella Rednecks.' Photo credit: Kevin Berne