Sunday, November 10, 2019

Qui Nguyen on Fantasy, Fighting and Family

image credit: Arizona State University

This month the Theatre department will perform "She Kills Monsters," a play inspired by comic books, superhero movies and Dungeons & Dragons. Appropriately enough for one drawn to heroic narratives, playwright Qui Nguyen has a powerful origin story of his own. Nguyen's parents were Vietnamese immigrants who settled in El Dorado, Arkansas. Nguyen was always aware of how his family stood out in the mostly white community, but his parents taught him that while he was an outlier in his hometown, he actually looked like the majority of the rest of the world. They fed him a steady diet of kung fu movies so he would be accustomed to seeing Asians as protagonists and people of strength. [2] In 1988, when Nguyen was twelve, he saw this heroism firsthand in his own family.

That year, 110 refugees from Communist North Vietnam crowded into a tiny motorboat they hoped would take them to freedom, including Nguyen's uncle and two cousins who hoped to join Nguyen's family in the United States. They carried enough supplies for a week, but when the boat's motor failed, their journey dragged on for over a month as they drifted through the South China Sea. At one point the refugees made contact with a US Navy vessel, which refused to take them onboard or provide sufficient supplies. The passengers fell ill and resorted to murder and cannibalism in their desperation. When Filipino fishermen rescued them only 52 people were left alive, including the younger of Nguyen's two cousins, who was sent not to America, but rather to a refugee camp in the Philippines. It was up to Nguyen's mother to lobby journalists and American officials to get him released. She was told it would take no less than two years to navigate the bureaucratic impasse, but owing to her tenacity, she got it done in two months and had Nguyen's cousin home in Arkansas by Thanksgiving. Nguyen recalls how his cousin - two years younger than him - was changed by the ordeal. "I think my soul is dead," he confided one day. [4]

The story stayed with Nguyen, and he got an opportunity to tell it in drama school. "I had never written a play before, so I had no voice as a writer; all I could do was imitate scribes that I liked," said Nguyen. [1] The resulting play, "Trial by Water," draws on the work of pioneering Asian-American playwright David Henry Hwang and saw its premiere by the Ma-Yi Theatre Company in March 2006. Reviewers praised the set design, the use of puppets to represent the refugees, and especially the fight scenes, staged by Nguyen himself. However, critics found the characters too one-dimensional, the dialogue too predictable, and the play's overall tone to be melodramatic rather than tragic. [4] Nguyen recalls that when his family finally saw the play, he was eager to hear his mother's reaction:

She responded bluntly, "It doesn't sound like you." I was shocked. "What do you mean it doesn't sound like me? You've never read anything I've ever written." I thought she was referring to my voice as a writer. What she meant was, literally, it didn't sound like her son. She told me, "You're mischievous and you're funny and you like to goof around, and this play doesn't show any of that." My response to her was a very mature, "Screw you, mom. If you really want me to be all those things, I'll write those things, and I'll show you how much you won't like it." [1]

And so Nguyen's theatre company, Vampire Cowboys, was born. Vampire Cowboys quickly earned a reputation for creating "pop-culture infused action-adventure stories with heroes who were female, people of color, and/or LGBTQ." [1] Nguyen drew on his loves for martial arts movies and comic books, as well as his experience as a fight choreographer, which allowed him to write and direct elaborate combat scenes in each of his plays. "I have a unique perspective as a playwright because I am also the fight director," he explains. "I get to actually go inside the space and play around and move the actors around. I always like spaces that I can do new tricks in, like bounce off walls." [5] Nguyen's work with Vampire Cowboys has allowed him to find his voice as a playwright and realize his vision for a pop-culture informed theatricality. "My ultimate dream for Vampire Cowboys," writes Nguyen, "is to create characters as memorable and iconic as a Superman or Wonder Woman but representing the world I live in with the diversity it has and the faces I'm used to. I would like to have an Asian-American Superman, African-American Batman or a Latino Captain America and have people embrace them not as token characters, but characters they love..." [5]

Nguyen's partnerships with Vampire Cowboys led to a string of genre-bending plays and numerous award nominations in the 2000s and 2010s. When he was finally ready to return to telling family stories, the result was "Vietgone," which blended tales from the fall of Saigon with classical Greek tragedy. Nguyen credits his success at pushing through boundaries and growing as an artist to the support he receives from trusted artistic collaborators:

I think of myself as a really shy introvert. When it comes to actually being vulnerable, it's hard for me ... And so when I'm writing something ... where we're going to dive into my fears and skeletons in my family's closet, I want to know that my team is filled with people that will go to the wall with me. If you look at my production history, you'll notice that I work with a select group of people over and over again, because I know that when I get into that rehearsal room, I'm gonna bare my soul. So when I meet people that I care about and trust implicitly, I hang onto them. This is my "family." The advantage is that when you're in a room with people you know have your back, you're fearless - you can push the envelope way farther because you're willing to experiment in ways you can't when you don't know each other very well and still trying to be polite. [1]

In "She Kills Monsters," Nguyen's heroic vision centers on Dungeons & Dragons, which affords a young woman the ability to gain unexpected insight into her dead sister. The role playing game is not merely there to evoke nostalgia for a popular pastime shared by playwright and audience members alike. Rather, the dungeon master serves as an effective vehicle for Nguyen's meditations on fate and tragedy. "Looming over the action is another fate-shaper, one whose edicts are permanent. Bumping into the wrong orc in the wrong cave can mean a premature death, and so can dying in a car crash at the age of fifteen," wrote one critic. "When someone gets his heart torn out in 'She Kills Monsters,' it comes complete with grisly sound effect. No less impressive, however, are the play's depictions of the more conventional wounds of adolescence, the ones that come from loving and not being loved in return. The whole enterprise is kind of dopey and kind of invigorating and kind of remarkable. It will slash and shapeshift its way into your heart." [3]

Buy tickets for "She Kills Monsters" on the University of Redlands website. 

Works Cited

[1] Adrales, May. "All in the Family." American Theatre 34, no. 2, 2017: 46. Ebsco.

[2] Criscuolo, Michael. "Qui Nguyen." American Theatre 27, no. 8, 2010: 42. Ebsco.

[3] Grode, Eric. "The Pains of Evisceration and Unrequited Love." New York Times, November 19, 2011, C3. ProQuest.

[4] Stevens, Andrea. "A Savage Journey Prompts Questions of Our Humanity." New York Times, March 28, 2006: E5. ProQuest.

[5] Wellman, Mac. "Running Your Own Show." Dramatist 11, no. 4, 2009: 7. Ebsco.

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