A review of playwright Qui Nguyen’s follow-up to the very popular Vietgone.
In the early 1990s, a group of Vietnamese students, who had experienced the war and emigrated to America with their parents as teens, got together and created a theater troupe, Club o’ Noodles, inspired by their struggles in assimilating to their new lives. The Southern California-based group’s statement was: “From struggle comes strength, from poverty comes poetry, from suffering comes songs, from pain comes laughter.” Its signature show, appropriately titled “Laughter from the Children of War,” consisted of a series of satirical sketches exploring the hilarity of the refugees’ experiences in the new land; it was performed at local colleges, churches and other community halls, and was received warmly among the diaspora.
I don’t remember how long the group lasted, perhaps not long. Eventually the members had moved on, many relocating to other parts of the country after graduation. The curtains had lowered, leaving many audience members like myself with a feeling of once-again loss. Later there was some effort to resurrect Club O’ Noodles, but its glorious dawn seemed to have gone for good.
Last August my friend Trùng Dương told me she was to go to Denver to see Vietgone, a play produced by the Denver Center for the Performing Arts Theater Company. She had learned about the performance via her niece Valerie Therese Bart, a costume designer for the Denver-based Vietgone and now for the South Coast Repertory that premiered Poor Yella Rednecks. Returning from Denver, TD stopped by to see me and tell me about Poor Yella Rednecks.
Like me, TD has paid particular attention to social, cultural as well as political contributions by the younger generations of the diaspora. Vietgone, written by playwright Quí Nguyễn about his parents during their days at a refugee camp in Arkansas, tells of the agony they went through after fleeing from Vietnam in the aftermath of the fall of South Vietnam, and the love for each other that they found even while resisting it, mainly because one of the couple, Quang, was married and had had to leave behind his wife and two kids who remained stranded in Vietnam.
Of particular note, however, is that before Vietgone came to Denver, it had already premiered on the SCR stage in Orange County in 2015. But the OC-based Vietnamese community (the largest in the United States) had heard nothing about its presence. This caused me to reflect on whether or why some kind of generational gap existed between us, the older and younger generations of the Vietnamese diaspora. I was thus eager for the South Coast Repertory’s premiere of Poor Yella Rednecks on March 31, 2019.
Throughout the first 90 minutes of Poor Yella Rednecks, before the intermission, scenes after scenes came right on the heel of one another without an even tiny gap of time, continuously drawing the audience into the heart of the play with its characters’ issues and struggles. Amidst an extremely simplified set with light brush strokes depicting the characteristics of a middle-class Vietnamese family living a refugee life – lost, degrading, turbulent in a strange land – director May Adrales confirmed for us that a set design of the least amount of details is often the most convincing and successful because underneath is a work of the heart.
Some of my compatriots may disagree with the play’s title, considering it humiliating. Yet I feel that “Poor Yella Rednecks” is a work of art without borders. To present this story on a stage is an honest, brave, eloquent and, most of all, straightforward expression.
Poor Yella Rednecks is a sequel to Vietgone as it follows the two main characters, Tong and Quang, from the refugee camp at Fort Chaffee to the town of El Dorado, Arkansas during their first six years of resettlement. However, the audience does not have to watch both plays since each play covers a specific episode of their lives, each with its own separate issues.
Quang was a helicopter pilot in South Vietnam’s Air Force before 1975, married with two children. Due to his duty to fly refugees out of Vietnam, he had to leave his wife and children behind and has since lived in guilt for having abandoned his family. Tong, a U.S. Embassy personnel who was allowed two seats only on an airlift out of Vietnam, had to leave her lover behind to take her mother along despite the latter’s resistance against leaving her country. This, to me, tells about a daughter’s filial piety, one of the traditional values of the Vietnamese.
Mother and daughter both don’t realize how this forced arrangement will bring them into painful conflict when Tong marries Quang, then has a son, and must struggle to earn a living while Quang is more concerned about his wife and children back in Vietnam who also need his financial help. Tong’s mother becomes an elderly, frightened mother in a cramped apartment where every time there is a knock on the door, she takes out a huge kitchen knife in defense against an intruder. On top of that, she has to wait for her daughter to return from work each evening with a take-out box of food that the old mother (in her pride?) finds it hard to swallow.
Angry at Quang for having emptied their meager savings for a house down-payment to send to his family back in Vietnam, Tong decides to call it quits. Quang moves out. Tong has to struggle on her own in a backwater Arkansas town without much hope, and the relationship between mother and daughter worsens. Desperate, Tong can’t help but tell her mother, once, in tears: “You’ve made my life even harder.” Then Tong slings her handbag over her shoulder, pushes the door open, slams it behind her and walks out, her lonely shadow cast against a dimly lit background.
In depicting the resettlement hardships of Vietnamese refugees in America during the late 20th century, playwright Quí Nguyễn creates a full portrait of the Vietnamese refugee during their first few years in America. He offers us a way to see that one can look back at a past filled with vulnerability, naivety, and failures, and laugh at it all even while crying, and still be pleased with all that has passed.
In Poor Yella Rednecks, the audience has the opportunity to enjoy a story of love between a man and a woman that leads to a marriage with typical challenges; the scene in which Tong and Quang after a hard-working day meet on the back of a beat-up truck, enjoying a hamburger and coke, laughing and dancing under a starlit sky; the fighting scenes à la kungfu style mixed with western cowboys that set the audience erupting in laughter; and cheerful, lively chorus rapping among simple folks awaiting their American dream yet to come.
Furthermore, I particularly noticed that in Poor Yella Rednecks there is a scene depicting a couple near breakup due to economic difficulties, which reveals the strength of the woman in resisting the temptation of finding another man to lean on, and her determination to stand on her own feet. I was also touched by the scene of the grandmother who, upset by her daughter’s truthful statement, wanted to leave but decided to stay due to her love for her little grandson.
And finally, Quí Nguyễn’s mixing profanity with the play’s dialogue is, to me, a brave choice. It proves he believes firmly there is no distinction between a high-class Hollywood actor and an immigrant trying to assimilate, because instinctively anyone can curse to relieve his anger and frustration. Listening to Grandma Huong and Mama Tong shooting profanity like machine gunfire brought back to me the scene in which actress Hồng Vân performed her art of lost-chicken cursing (**). This, to me, is something so familiar, so realistic, and not offensive, as some might think.
Another pleasant surprise was the fact that the entire cast was non-Vietnamese, speaking a language that was clearly not Vietnamese, yet the performances revealed were perfectly Vietnamese. At times, I forgot they were speaking English and I understood them directly via their physical appearances, facial expressions, and reactions on stage.
The 507-seat theater was sold out. I noticed a number of young Vietnamese in the audience. TD and I were perhaps the only two older Viets, and I felt a bit lost. But I couldn’t be more pleased with the happy ending of the play, which reflects our people’s hardworking and resilient nature.
On our way back, I told TD I wish our community had the resources for theater activities like what we just watched. I know it’s just wishful thinking. Our generation is thinning out noticeably after forty-plus years. But the diaspora’s next generations are coming forward, helping tell the world our refugee and immigrant history. I am proud to have witnessed this generational transition via Poor Yella Rednecks. Thank you, Quí Nguyễn and the SCR production team and cast.
[Review Translated by Trùng Dương]
(*) Bùi Bích Hà’s “Kịch” in Vietnamese is posted at
(**) Chửi mất gà / Lost-chicken curse is a form of cursing said to perform usually by a peasant woman whose chicken was lost or stolen and such session could last for hours, even a whole day. However, since the words must rhyme and cannot be vulgar, it’s believed such cursing was perhaps a creation of a literary figure. A text of chửi mất gà was believed to first appear in a short story titled “Bước đường cùng” (Dead end) by writer Nguyễn Công Hoan (1903-1977). Vietnam-based actress Hồng Vân is known for her artful performance of such cursing. https://youtu.be/B6RlXAfykhQ
Bùi Bích Hà was born in 1938 in Hue, Vietnam. A graduate from Đại học Sư phạm Huế (College of Pedagogy of Hue), she taught French at various high schools in Danang and Saigon. Emigrated to the United States in 1985, she currently writes for the Westminster, Calif.-based Người Việt Daily. Also a radio broadcaster, she is known as Vietnamese “Dear Abby.” She is a resident of Santa Ana, Calif.
Trùng Dương, born Nguyễn Thị Thái, 1944 in Sơn Tây, North Vietnam. Emigrated to and grew up in South Vietnam from 1954. Former publisher-editor of the Daily Sóng Thần (Sài Gòn, 1971-75), she’s authored several short and long fictions, essays, illustrations, and a three-act play, My Sons Are Home (1978). A political refugee in the United States since 1975, she graduated from the State University of California, Sacramento with a BA in government-journalism and an MA in international affairs. A 1990-91 Fulbright Fellow in Hongkong, she studied China’s Special Ecionomic Zones. She reported for the Mountain Democrat, Placerville, Calif., 1991-93; then worked as copy editor then chief librarian at The Record, Stockton, Calif. until retiring in 2006. She now lives in Northern California.