Qui Nguyen Finds a Home in Orange County

Paco Tolson, Maureen Sebastian, Samantha Quan, and Raymond Lee in South Coast Repertory’s 2015 world premiere of Vietgone
DEBORA ROBINSON/SCR
Paco Tolson, Maureen Sebastian, Samantha Quan, and Raymond Lee in South Coast Repertory’s 2015 world premiere of Vietgone.
South Coast Repertory has a knack for birthing influential new work like Vietgone and Poor Yella Rednecks.

“As a playwright, I’m a little bit ADD artistically,” says Qui Nguyen. “I get bored really quickly. I put things in there that are kind of wild, just to keep myself entertained.”

Nguyen’s breakthrough play, Vietgone, illustrates exactly what he’s talking about. At times, the boisterous comedy based on a piece of Nguyen’s family history—the early courtship of his parents during the mid-1970s, set against the tumult of the Vietnam War—seems to run on an undiluted stream of consciousness. Filled with pungent rap lyrics, strange tangents, fourth-wall smashing, clever linguistic gibberish, and other modes of postmodernist mayhem, the offbeat take on a traditional form, the romantic comedy, is as groundbreaking as Hamilton has been for musical theater.

Since its premiere at Orange County’s South Coast Repertory (SCR) in October 2015, Vietgone has received a wealth of major productions and nabbed significant kudos, including the 2015 Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Ted Schmitt Award and the 2016 Harold and Mimi Steinberg/ATCA New Play Award. Critics and audiences alike have been attracted to its jumbled wealth of cheeky, nontraditional elements.

Not surprisingly, Nguyen’s scripts require a lot of time to work out, in both the writer’s studio and the rehearsal room. “I’m a TV screenwriter more than a playwright,” Nguyen recently explained. “I’m not a huge believer in outlines. I don’t map out every single beat. And I write fast, which is not necessarily synonymous with good. But it allows me to do a lot of editing. And it allows the actors to come up with some great things.”

Nguyen was talking during a rehearsal break for his latest play, Poor Yella Rednecks. It was due to receive its world premiere in April at SCR, which commissioned the scripts for both Vietgone and Rednecks and presented each of them at the Pacific Playwrights Festival, its annual springtime weekend of new-play readings.

Playwright Qui NguyenSCR
Playwright Qui Nguyen

Rednecks is a sequel to Vietgone, set six years later in the lives of characters Tong and Quang, who now have a baby (the future playwright) and a new home in small-town Arkansas. “I always had this obsession with what happens after the ‘happily ever after,’ ” Nguyen said.

It’s fitting that Nguyen’s trilogy (there will eventually be a third play about his family) found its voice at SCR, located in Costa Mesa, California. Not every regional theater has the time, resources, or willingness to explore themes so far from commercial theater’s programmatic mainstream of classics, tried-and-true musicals, and recent Broadway hits. And few theaters have cultivated themselves quite as carefully as this 54-year-old institution to be a welcome home for innovative new work.

When it comes to significant commissions and world premieres, SCR stands at the head of an exclusive line, in the company of Actors Theatre of Louisville, Manhattan Theatre Club, and a small handful of other theaters. Among the jewels in SCR’s crown are three Pulitzer Prize winners it helped create: Margaret Edson’s Wit, Donald Margulies’s Dinner with Friends, and David Lindsay-Abaire’s Rabbit Hole. Several prominent American playwrights have had long-term commissioning relationships with the theater, including Margulies, Amy Freed, Richard Greenberg, Beth Henley, David Henry Hwang, and Craig Lucas.

“SCR took a chance on me long before it was clear how my career would turn out,” said Margulies, whose acclaimed play Sight Unseen made its debut at SCR during the theater’s 1991–92 season. “At the time, they provided me with exactly the kind of opportunity that I required. It made all the difference.”

SCR’s artistic directors over the years have developed an uncanny ability for finding talent, but the theater’s long record of successes also has to do with its willingness to stage a lot of new work. Since it opened with a production of Tartuffe in 1964, 40 percent of the plays SCR has produced have been world, American, or West Coast premieres. The theater was singled out in part for this achievement when it won a Regional Theatre Tony Award in 1988.

Raymond Lee (left) and Maureen Sebastian in Vietgone.DEBORA ROBINSON/SCR
Raymond Lee (left) and Maureen Sebastian in Vietgone.
‘VULGAR LITTLE THING’

SCR has always remained true to its founding aesthetic principles, carefully building and maintaining an impressive infrastructure and an in-house talent pool that give it crucial advantages in the risky and uncertain pursuit of incipient talent and diamond-in-the-rough scripts.

Cofounders Martin Benson and David Emmes, who met at San Francisco State College (now San Francisco State University), were products of that city’s boundary-pushing midcentury theater scene, establishing crucial connections and a taste for experimentation. (At San Francisco State, they worked with Jules Irving and Herbert Blau, whose Actor’s Workshop was a breeding ground for experimental American theater.) Their most significant early hire was Jerry Patch, a gifted talent scout and playwright whisperer who helped develop 150 new scripts during his decades-long tenure. (Patch now works at Manhattan Theatre Club, a frequent new-work collaborator with SCR.)

SCR also developed programs like the Hispanic Playwrights Project and the Pacific Playwrights Festival (now 20 seasons old) to create a steady stream of high-quality new plays by a diverse array of writers as well as a way of showing them to and sharing them with other regional theaters. SCR’s generosity with new work (it places few performance restrictions on its commissions) has resulted in many subsequent outside productions and, occasionally, bona fide hits.

The past few seasons have been particularly fruitful for new work at SCR. It increased its production of world premieres and launched two community-based initiatives: Dialogue/Diálogos, a bilingual, site-specific project that dramatized stories of Latinos in the Orange County city of Santa Ana, and CrossRoads, a new play-commissioning program designed to generate work that reflects the county’s diversity.

Soon after the surprising success of Vietgone, the theater scored another coup with Lucas Hnath’s A Doll’s House, Part 2, which debuted at SCR in April 2017. Hnath’s play went on to a well-reviewed Broadway run, receiving eight Tony nominations and one award.

Outside SCR’s David Emmes/Martin Benson Theatre Center.SCR
Outside SCR’s David Emmes/Martin Benson Theatre Center.

Even with its reputation for bringing underrepresented constituencies to the stage, SCR takes care not to overcategorize its playwrights. It discontinued its Hispanic Playwrights Project in 2004 because “we felt it makes more sense now to integrate Hispanic playwrights into the larger fabric of what we do,” Emmes said at the time.

“[At SCR] I was never treated like a ‘woman playwright,’ ” Amy Freed said before the debut of her play Freedomland at the theater in 1997. “It’s always about the script and trying to get it as right as it can be, no matter who you are. I’ve never felt like a hyphenated artist here.”

Two decades later, Nguyen said that Freed’s observation about SCR still holds true.

“I like that I’m being respected here for the art that I’m making, not because of a certain category that I fill.”

For minority playwrights of Nguyen’s generation, the common palette is America’s multicultural, borderline-erasing present. “I think back to when I was doing my crazy downtown stuff in New York,” he said. “Most of my work was just pop cultural in terms of its sources. I wasn’t being noticed for my race. It was the subject matter that got everyone’s attention: blood effects and weird puppetry. [Stuff] that everyone in my generation relates to.”

Nguyen appreciates SCR’s hands-off attitude even more now that he’s a nationally known playwright. “Vietgone was just this fun, vulgar little thing, and now it has become a much bigger play than I thought it would be. I’m very aware of that. But I don’t want that awareness to affect my writing, or anybody’s expectations of what I should write. I’m just trying to create the story that I want to create. And they’re very respectful of that.”

Paul Hodgins writes about the performing arts and teaches music at the University of Southern California.

Poor Yella Rednecks poster, Mar. 30–Apr. 27.
Poor Yella Rednecks poster, Mar. 30–Apr. 27.

South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa

RECOMMENDATIONS

Three Southern California theaters that focus on underrepresented playwrights and performers

• East West Players: This Los Angeles–based theater company was created in 1965 to give Asian American performers more satisfying roles than the stereotyped supporting parts that Hollywood was then offering. EWP has premiered over 100 plays and musicals about the Asian-Pacific American experience.

• Latino Theater Company: Founded in 1985 as the Latino Theater Lab, this downtown Los Angeles group created the New Voices Playwriting Series, which has commissioned many Latino playwrights.

• Robey Theatre Company: Formed in 1994 by actors Danny Glover and Ben Guillory, the Los Angeles company is named after Paul Robeson, the famous black actor and activist. It reinterprets existing works and produces new plays about the black American experience.