Reviewed by Tracey Paleo, Gia On The Move
If you are a fan of Vietgone, Vietnamese-American playwright Qui Nguyen’s comedy about his parents’ 1975 refugee romance, Nguyen’s new hip hop rap sequel, Poor Yella Rednecks premiering at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa is going to fill the void for those peeps looking for a ‘what happens next’ narrative of lovers’ hopes and dreams after the happy ending, and how they actually live out.
Picking up six years after Vietgone, in the foreign land called Arkansas, Tong (Maureen Sebastian) and Quang (Tim Chiou) find themselves, along with Tong’s Vietnamese-only speaking mother (Samantha Quan) and now little Qui/Little Man (cast as a puppet), immersed in the financially precarious everyday immigrant experience. It’s definitely not a ‘be all you can be’ melting pot dream and marriage isn’t exactly turning out to be what either of them imagined. Neither is the U.S.
While Quang seems to be taking it a lot more in stride, Tong, on the other hand, is drowning in doubt, her temper, her mother’s regular pushing to find a better match and the discovery that she and Quang’s extremely hard-earned life savings have suddenly disappeared to support another family instead of her own. The daily contentiousness of their situation is a total marriage disrupter and the attitude of their neighbors and friends, and the bullying by little Qui’s classmates over his poor English isn’t helping to alleviate the tension.
Poor Yella Rednecks is somewhat of a dis on the American promise. But even still, it is also an ode to hope and sheer determined will of not just the lovers in focus, or survival, or a relocation story of the Vietnamese people overall from their war-torn homeland. Intentionally or not, it is a completely uplifting, inclusive, highly charged, banner narrative for every immigrant from any country in the world, in any time of our country’s history. Take notes.
“The point [Qui] illustrates [in Poor Yella Rednecks] is that much more unites us than divides us” ~Kimberly Colburn, literary director, and dramaturg.
Based in part on interviews with his parents, but with the Vietnamese characters cleverly using (once again) Hollywood blockbuster vernacular, Nguyen’s storyline is entirely empathetic in the most human of dramas…one of family, struggle and trying to keep it all together under near impossible odds. In this case, poverty, a complicated marriage existing alongside a previous one, language barriers, racism, classism, temptation everywhere to do the wrong thing, and the family dynamic of mom/mother-in-law living in the household. It’s not exactly a powder keg. But it sure is exhausting for Tong being an educated woman living in a backwater town struggling to feed a family, pay rent and raise a child, but with the added cultural differences that make communicating with employers, customers, even teachers frustratingly soul-sucking.
What resonates so very much in this production is Qui’s relationship with his grandmother. The hardest choice that must be made for little Qui to thrive in America is precious and heart-wrenching …honored by the playwright’s funny and beautiful memories of his bà ngoại.
Fun. Uplifting. Beautifully put together in every aspect of the production from cast, to stage choreography to puppetry.
Returning from the original SCR Vietgone cast are Maureen Sebastian, Paco Tolson, and Samantha Quan, with Tim Chiou and Eugene Young.
The creative team includes Shane Rettig, original music and sound design; Arnulfo Maldonado, scenic design; Valérie Thérèse Bart, costume design; Lap Chi Chu, lighting design; Kenny Seymour, arrangements; Jared Mezzocchi, projection design; Sean Cawelti, puppet design and direction.
Poor Yella Rednecks has generous support from Honorary Producers Talya Nevo-Hacohen and Bill Schenker, and Marci Maietta Weinberg and William Weinberg. The play is the recipient of an Edgerton Foundation New American Play Award.
Photo (above) by Jordan Kubat: Maureen Sebastian and Tim Chiou
Copyright © 2019 Gia On The Move
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. For permission requests, write to the publisher, addressed “Attention: Permissions Coordinator”.