Although playwright Qui Nguyen declared early in his earlier play Vietgone that “all characters appearing in this work are fictitious,” in his sequel Poor Yella Rednecks now at Manhattan Theatre, co-commissioned with South Coast Repertory, the playwright played by Jon Norman Schneider begins by interviewing his 70-year-old mother Tong Nguyen about how his parents built a life in America as Vietnamese refugees. Directed by May Adrales who also directed the earlier play in the same exuberant fashion, the resulting flashbacks are raucous, raunchy and poignant. In what was originally announced as a quintet of plays, Poor Yella Rednecks is now described as the middle play of a trilogy.
Vietgone depicted Tong and Quang, later the author’s parents, escaping from Saigon during the Vietnam War and relocating to Fort Chafee, Arkansas in 1975, where they met and fell in love. The new play picks up with the now married couple living in El Dorado, Arkansas, in 1980. They live with their son Qui, called “Little Man” (played by a large life-size puppet designed by David Valentine and manipulated by Schneider) and Tong’s sarcastic and acerbic mother Huong (again played by Samantha Quan) who we met in Vietgone.
Life in the land of opportunity is not so good. Quang, previously a captain in the Vietnam Air Force, cannot find a job due to racism, and Tong keeps losing jobs when she uses violence on obstreperous customers. To make matters worse, Little Man is having trouble socializing as he has not learned English from his grandmother who only speaks to him in Vietnamese, has no friends, and is bullied at school. The final straw is when Quang’s wife Thu back in Saigon notifies the American authorities that he is a bigamist and that his American marriage is not valid. At this point, Tong throws him out knowing full well that the diner she works at is closing and she will soon be out of a job.
The play is written in the same original style as Vietgone: ten witty rap songs punctuate the action to original music by Shane Rettig who also created the sound design. The language of the play is defined by Tong: “I want all the white people to sound like the way I hear them.” The Vietnamese characters speak in correct English but the white characters speak in a hilarious kind of pidgin English with a lot of slogans and buzz words thrown in.
The majority of the cast are all familiar with their roles having played them before. Maureen Sebastian and Ben Levin as the parents created these roles at the South Coast Repertory, while Quan as the grandmother, Jon Hoche as Quang’s best friend and fellow pilot Nhan and Paco Tolson as Tong’s ex-American boyfriend Bobby played these same roles in the MTC production of Vietgone. Sebastian gives a bravura performance as Tong, the author’s mother, first as the crotchety septuagenarian and then as the stressed 35-year-old refugee trying to make a new life for herself and her family. Levin, looking like an Asian Elvis Presley, has all the moves as the slick though concerned Quang hoping to find a job to support both of his families.
Quan is hilarious as Tong’s elderly mother who always says speaks her mind and does not think much of the American lifestyle and ways. She also appears as a party girl in Houston and Tong’s wife back in Saigon. Tolson is a figure of fun as Tong’s ex-boyfriend Bobby who is very inexperienced around women, while Hoche’s good old boy Nhan is the wisest one of all and a good advisor to Quang who doesn’t usually take his guidance. Tolson also appears as cartoonist Stan Lee giving the play a comic book style and approach.
Tim Mackabee’s inventive scenery includes giant letters spelling out the word “Yella” which when turned round reveal the needed set pieces. Quant’s truck also makes its appearance several times as well as a side trip to a colorful Houston club. The costumes by Valérie Thérèse Bart put all of the characters except Huong in very contemporary American Southwestern clothes (including puppet Little Man) which forwards their attempt at assimilation. The bright lighting by Lap Chi Chu continues the upbeat feel of the play and its comedy. While no fight director is credited for the action scenes, it appears that fight captain Jon Hoche may be responsible. Jared Mezzocchi’s attractive projection designs are in keeping with the comic book style of the play.
Qui Nguyen has progressed from the Vampire cowboy/science fiction plays he began with to his autobiographical sequence that fills in a gap as one of the few Vietnamese playwrights on our New York stages. Directed by May Adrales, Poor Yella Rednecks is both an entertaining comedy as well as a serious study of the immigrant experience from the point of view of the Vietnamese who came here at the time of the fall of Saigon. The cast is more than up to the job with Maureen Sebastian giving a forceful and three-dimensional portrayal that is exceptional and one you won’t soon forget.
Poor Yella Rednecks (through November 26, 2023)
Manhattan Theatre Club
New York City Center Stage I, 131 W. 55th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.manhattantheatreclub.com
Running time: two hours and 20 minutes including one intermission