Qui Nguyen wrote “Vietgone” more or less on a dare. From his own mother.
Who, as it happens, the play is pretty much about.
The kicker is, the playwright’s mom has yet to see the piece. But plenty of other people around the country have been getting a chance to check out Nguyen’s much-buzzed, comics-influenced saga of two 1970s refugees from Vietnam and their postwar lives in America.
And now, “Vietgone” — which premiered at Orange County’s South Coast Rep in 2015 and has been staged coast to coast since — is about to receive its local premiere at San Diego Rep, just down the road from the Arkansas-born Nguyen’s adoptive home of L.A.
Before “Vietgone” came along, Nguyen was known in theater circles mostly for co-founding Vampire Cowboys, the troupe behind such irreverent, pop-culture-savvy plays as “She Kills Monsters.”
But one of his longtime dreams was to tell the story of his own family — what his parents’ lives were like before they departed war-ravaged Vietnam, and what happened after they met in a relocation camp in Arkansas in 1975.
“That was my motivation to want to write in the first place,” Nguyen says now. “I just took a very long time to get around to doing it. Because I thought I had to mature and understand what it was to be an adult.”
The first play of his to be produced, “Trial by Water,” was about the tragic journey of a group of Vietnamese refugees, partly inspired by his own young cousin’s true-life story.
That play’s tone, Nguyen says, was “as serious and reverential as someone would guess a story about Vietnamese boat people would be.”
But while the piece was reasonably well-received, when Nguyen’s mom saw it, she had “basically no visible reaction to it,” he recalls.
“I said, ‘Mom, what did you think?’ And she said, ‘Oh, it’s fine. It doesn’t sound like you.’
“I said, ‘Wait, what does that mean? You’ve literally never read anything I’ve written!’
“And she said, ‘I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about you as a human being. You’re so funny and lively and you make weird jokes. You’re interesting. And this play was kind of straightforward and not like my son at all.’
“And I was like, ‘(Forget) you, Mom — I’m going to show you how little you really want that to be!’ ”
What resulted was a commitment to the rambunctious style that informs “Vietgone” — what Nguyen likes to describe as “kind of popcorn-y and cool and, ‘What if a Marvel (Comics) movie did a refugee story? Here it is.’
“That’s what I’m trying to do.”
“Vietgone” follows the journeys of Quang (played at the Rep by Ben Levin) and Tong (Katherine Ko) from Vietnam to Arkansas — and then Quang’s trip back across the country on a motorcycle, in a long-shot effort to return to his home country and rescue the family he had to leave behind.
(The Rep cast also includes Lawrence Kao, Emy Coligado and Shaun Tuazon.)
Nguyen even writes himself into the piece, which is shot through with a comic-book sensibility and the playwright’s own love for hip-hop, kung fu movies and more. (Nguyen is now writing for the Marvel empire in L.A.; his parents, who still live in Arkansas, haven’t seen the play because some of what it brings up is still a bit too sensitive for them.)
Jesca Prudencio, the University of California San Diego MFA grad who’s directing the Rep production, has been a fan of Nguyen’s work with Vampire Cowboys for about a decade, and says the playwright “created comic-book theater, in a way.”
With “Vietgone,” she says, Nguyen “has allowed his work to get so personal and so deep, and so emotionally charged through his parents’ story.”
(Not that the “Vietgone” team has been neglecting the chance to have some fun putting up the play. Prudencio notes that they’ve been sharing some of their exploits on social media via the hashtag #vietgonewild.)
Both Prudencio and Nguyen add that one defining characteristic of the play is the way it dispenses with conventions often used for the sake of “authenticity,” such as accents.
To Nguyen, those are the things that can make a play “strangely alienating to the people I want to reach.”
Among the many audiences “Vietgone” has reached, he adds, are U.S. veterans of the Vietnam War, who appreciate that the show’s final monologue offers some validation that “their service wasn’t taken for granted — regardless of how right or wrong the war was.”
Nguyen also has been moved by the reactions of present-day refugees, such as those who were brought in to see the piece when it was staged at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
“It wasn’t so much, ‘Oh, this is our story being reflected,” he says of their response. “It was more, ‘Oh, I can be that. I can be kind of cool. I don’t have to be mild or meek.’
“It was nice to give them a role model.”
When: Previews begin Thursday. Opens Jan. 31. 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. (Some exceptions; check with theater.)
Where: San Diego Rep’s Lyceum Space, 79 Horton Plaza downtown
Tickets: $20-$65 (discounts available)
Phone: (619) 544-1000
Did you know?
Playwright Qui Nguyen is not done with “Vietgone” yet: He envisions the saga as a three- or even five-play series. The second part, which Nguyen says is titled “Poor Yellow Rednecks,” will be presented as part of South Coast Rep’s Pacific Playwrights Festival in April.