Updated: Jun 20, 2020
Tong: “Let me tell you what kind of story white people want to hear -
Playwright: “Wait, why only white people?”
Tong: “Because only white people like to watch a play.”
Playwright: “All sorts of people like watching plays, Mom!”
Tong: “Yes, all sorts of white people. Look around! It looks like a Fleetwood Mac concert….sooo white!”
The world premiere of the play, "Poor Yella Rednecks," the sequel to playwright and rap maestro, Qui Nguyen’s "Vietgone," which premiered at South Coast Rep in 2015, continues with chapter two of the trilogy at South Coast Repertory through April 27th. The play is directed by May Adrales, spotlighting the struggle of a typical immigrant family to get ahead in a new foreign country.
“In a time where immigrants are criminalized and cruelly punished for fleeing violence and war, 'Poor Yella Rednecks' ushers in a much-needed reminder of shared humanity,” Director Adrales says. “I believe everyone will find they have more in common with the Nguyen family than differences. And, along the way, you’ll laugh at some off-color jokes, cry a little and open your hearts a bit more.”
If you remember, in “Vietgone,” it was a hot and hilarious true story of how playwright Qui Nguyen's mom, who worked at the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, met his dad, a South Vietnamese Air Force pilot, and ended up in a resettlement camp in Arkansas after the 1975 fall of Saigon. Although truly a tale of traumatic displacement, it was written and performed with unstoppable comic verve, and sneakily brings the reality of the refugee experience vividly to life.
In his newest edition, Tong (Maureen Sebastian) and Quang (Tim Chiou) set out to build new lives in a foreign land called Arkansas. But marriage is hard — especially when she’s having doubts and his first one isn’t over yet, making for a raucously funny, yet deeply moving take on a timely subject, all told with Nguyen’s hip-hop style.
So we flash forward to 1981, six years later, and we find our struggling, immigrant family in a trailer in El Dorado, Arkansas. Huong (Samantha Quan), Tong’s fiery mother, is on the couch as an American sitcom blares inanely from the TV. She’s babysitting her grandson, Little Man (the Playwright as a child), played by a moon-faced puppet, supposedly asleep in the other room (voiced by Eugene Young and puppeteered by Young and Paco Tolson).
With Tong working a late shift at a diner that’s about to go out of business, and Quang hanging out with his buddy (also played by Young), Grandma keeps an ear pricked for danger. First-hand experience in wartime has taught her to be hyper-vigilant, so when anyone approaches the front door, she brandishes a knife and looks just crazy enough to use it.
A marital spat emerges when Quang receives a surprise letter from his first wife, formerly thought dead, but who apparently survived the war and has somehow found out where he lives. This puts Quang and Tong’s marriage in jeopardy and is in short order annulled, as he is now polygamous. Family tensions escalate further when Quang decides to send the couple’s joint savings to his wife and kids in Vietnam to appease his overwhelming guilt.
Although Quang is still devoted to Tong, she decides she needs a break from him to sort all of this out. As Tong scrambles to keep her household afloat, her son struggles to find acceptance at school. Caught between cultures and languages, Little Man takes refuge in Spider-Man fantasies while wondering why his increasingly absent father is emotionally bribing him with an Atari set. (Sean Cawelti’s puppet design, along with assistant designer Greg Ballora and puppet builders Morgan Rebane and Mark Royston, gives Little Man realistic movements and an expressive vulnerability.)
Among the surprises are the play's tough female characters, Tong and her mother, Huong. These are no fragile Asian Lily girls, but strong-willed women, sexually aggressive, and not shy about getting what they want ... none of which is scary to a man like Quang, however, who spent years before in the military going out on dangerous missions.
Paco Tolson has the widest variety of roles, playing not only the Playwright, but the Immigration Officer, the British Narrator, Bobby, Bully Tommy, the Grocery Boy and acts as puppeteer to Little Man. Tim Chiou also plays Bully Chris, Samantha Quan also plays Thu, San and a Cop, Eugene Young also plays the Cowboy, the Grocery Boy, and puppeteers Little Man as well.
“The ultimate goal is to have these five plays exist so that a strong Asian male and a strong Asian female could play Quang and Tong throughout their entire career,’’ Nguyen says. “There’s that natural thing where you sort of hit a certain age, and all the roles start to disappear. For Asian Americans especially, when you get to a certain age, it’s like, ‘Oh, we have roles for you, but you have to play a wizened, old grandmother or someone from China.’ This is an opportunity to create roles where they still feel like they’re real Asian Americans, and they get to invest in these characters who have a history.”
"Poor Yella Rednecks" reunites Nguyen with Director May Adrales, who directed her first installment in the trilogy, "Vietgone." “She’s my perfect artistic partner in bringing this story to life as she’s also the child of Asian immigrants who grew up in the deep South and, like me, isn’t afraid to laugh loudly,” says Nguyen.
Director Adrales calls Nguyen a “mad genius” who “smashes together genres of fantasy, romantic comedy and drama in his notorious signature style, along with the theatrical spectacle of movement, music, puppets and projections.”
“It’s about my family,” he says. “It’s about two people who are very much in love here in America, but also haunted by the ghosts of who they were in Vietnam. And as the title suggests, it’s also about living in poverty in the deep South as Asian immigrants. That’s the heartbeat of the play, which I’m aware sounds heavy."
Nguyen, who is known for shows full of kung fu fights, random ‘90s hip-hop dance breaks, immature puppets, and even more immature jokes, credits his mother, Tong, with the humor that infuses his work.
What makes Nguyen’s work different is its unflinching portrayal of working-class immigrants. Within minutes after the curtain rises on “Poor Yella Rednecks,” the characters drop expletives, at times at a fast and furious pace. “It’s going to make some people bristle. You know, ‘I can’t believe he uses so many cuss words.’ Yeah, well, that’s just how I write; that’s how my brain thinks,” Nguyen says, smiling, but unapologetic.
“After my mom saw the very first play I ever wrote (a “serious” show in 2006 called Trial By Water, about Vietnamese boat people), she remarked: 'This not sound like you. You funny. This play not funny. Be funny. That you.’ So therefore, this is all her fault. Blame her. And that’s why she’s the lead character in "Poor Yella Rednecks." (How ya like that, mom?)
The show uniquely incorporates original rap songs and snippets of familiar hits from the ’70s and ’80s that set the tone between scene changes, including “September,” - Earth, Wind & Fire, “Funkytown,” - Lipps, Inc., “I Can’t Go for That,” – Daryl Hall & John Oates, “Call Me,” – Blondie, and “We Are Family,” - Sister Sledge.
The Music Director is Shammy Dee, with Original Music by Shane Rettig. Dialect Coach is Judith Moreland. Scenic Designer is Arnulfo Maldonado, assisted by Corey Umlauf. Costumes are by Valerie Therese Bart, Wardrobe Supervisor/Dresser is Jill Christolini, and Wigs and Makeup Technician is Gillian Woodson. Lighting Designer is Lap Chi Chu, Sound Design is by Shane Rettig and Projections are by Jared Mezzocchi. David Ivers is Artistic Director, Paula Tomei is Managing Director and David Emmes and Martin Benson are Founding Artistic Directors. Honorary Producers are Talya Nevo-Hacohen, Bill Schenker, Marci Maietta Weinberg and William Weinberg.
The world premiere of “Poor Yella Renecks,” in association with Manhattan Theatre Club, continues through April 27th at South Coast Repertory, Costa Mesa, on the Segerstrom Stage. One of the funniest, down to earth, hardcore comedies out there...Don't miss this show! Performances are Tuesday-Thursday at 7:30 p.m. and Friday-Saturday at 8 p.m., with matinees Saturday and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. Tickets (starting at $23) are available at 714-708-5555 or scr.org
Running time: 2 hrs. 15 min.