ABOVE: Christine Jamlig and Will Dao in Qui Nguyen’s Poor Yella Rednecks running through May 7 at ACT’s Strand Theater. BELOW: Jenny Nguyen Nelson and Jamlig play daughter and mother in this continuation of the story that began with Vietgone. Photos by Kevin Berne
The sequel, they say, is never the equal of the original. In the case of Poor Yella Rednecks: Vietgone 2, the second time around is a little more satisfying, although it suffers from what made the first one hard to love. (I reviewed Vietgone for Theatermania, and you can read that review here and know that pretty much everything in there applies the sequel.)
Local audiences saw Qui Nguyen’s Vietgone a little more than five years ago when American Conservatory Theater produced it at The Strand. The story followed refugees from the Vietnam War as they made their way to a refugee camp in Arkansas, had adventures, met new people, fell in love and embarked on a new life in America.
Like that story, the sequel begins with an actor playing Nguyen coming out to tell us what we’re going to see. Instead of interviewing his father, like he did in the last play, he interviews his mother about her experience of starting over as a non-English speaker in the deep American South. The action takes us back to 1975 but then quickly scoots forward six years, with Nguyen, a young boy played by a puppet, and his parents (Jenny Nguyen Nelson as Tong and Hyunmin Rhee as Quang) and his grandmother (Christine Jamlig) living in a trailer and scraping by.
The terrific set design by Tanya Orellana covers the stage in flashy lights but reserves the center elevated part of the stage for a set within the set – a framed picture-like slice of life in the mobile home – cramped and crowded, but a safe place to live.
When the play focuses on the what the family is facing both economically and culturally, the cast shines and Nguyen’s writing comes to life. But like the first play, this immigrant story is told with whiz-bang fantasy, silliness, rap numbers and jagged storytelling that feels like it should be much bolder, louder and more confident.
Director Jaime Castañeda, who helmed ACT’s Vietgone, is back with a production that feels like a carbon copy of the last one in the way it bobbles the various tonal shifts and lurches into uncomfortable hip-hop interludes (one of which directly shouts out Hamilton – not a good idea) that are meant to be empowering but, because of the actors’ varying degrees of comfort in the medium, are not.
One of the best things about the first play ends up being one of the best things about the second play, and that is Jomar Tagatac, who plays the playwright and a number of other roles (including the British narrator, a goes-nowhere bit of silliness). He, like the rest of the cast, has some great moments of humor and connection amid the chaos.
Where Poor Yella Rednecks fares better than its predecessor is in the warmth with which it tells the story of a family, and specifically the rocky love story of a mother and a father who clash and make mistakes but end up stronger together. They’re also allowed to be sexual beings – an element that is too often ignored in parental love stories related by children. This love story is also specifically an immigrant love story, so you have to add in the horrors of racism and xenophobia to make its survival that much more deeply felt.
And by the end of this two-plus-hour show, you do feel the impact of this family’s experience. You may even have come to love the puppet boy (designed and directed by James Ortiz, performed by Will Dao), especially in a surprisingly moving scene where he is sitting by himself, playing with his Spider-Man and Star Wars toys.
Poor Yella Rednecks is a strange show by design, but what’s best about it – the complicated core of a family in motion – isn’t strange at all.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Qui Nguyen’s Poor Yella Rednecks continues through May 7 at American Conservatory Theater’s The Strand, 1127 Market St., San Francisco. Running time is about 2 hours (including one 15-minute intermission). Tickets are $25-$60 (subject to change). Call 415-749-2228 or visit act-sf.org.