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Are Those Vietnamese Vietnamese? Vincent Chau

Abstract

What is significant about the Vietnamese character, Vuong, in Who Shot La Miguelito? How are Vietnamese Americans being portrayed in plays?

When I moved to America and got to know about theatre for the first time, I noticed that there were not many people who look like me on stage. Then after a few years in college, I noticed that not only in plays but also in textbooks, stories, movies, etc.…, Asian Americans aren’t mentioned often. And if there were Asian American, most of them were Chinese or Japanese Americans. The character Vuong was not the first Vietnamese character I saw onstage, but he was the first Vietnamese character I saw onstage that reflected Vietnamese most truthfully. This made me wonder why this character was so special and left a strong impression on me.

I will analyze how the character is presented onstage and interact with other characters, and find what made him Vietnamese. Then I will make a brief compare between him and other Vietnamese characters I have seen on stage. I will write how I feel when I saw him on stage and why his presence was important to me as a Vietnamese. I will interview Khoi, the actor who played Vuong, ask him how he thinks and feels of acting as a Vietnamese character onstage.

Vietnamese characters in plays - Vuong (Khoi Vo) in Who Shot La Miguelito? (photo by Ben Dillon), Nhan (Anthony Chan) and Quang (Jomar Tagatac) in Vietgone, and Kim (Eva Noblezada) in Miss Saigon
Scenes in Who Shot La Miguelito? photo by Ben Dillon - Unlike the other two plays, the Vietnamese character was not the main focus

Description

My object of study is the Vietnamese character Vuong in Who Shot La Miguelito? Vuong is an immigrant from Vietnam around the Vietnam war time period. In the play, he had his Vietnamese name without changing it into an English one. When other characters said his name,they pronounced it correctly.

The casts of Who Shot La Miguelito? (from left to right) Alice Zhang (Yip), Rose Caitllyn Escolano (Eklectic), Veda Baldota (Wheatpaste), Khoi Vo (Vuong), Raina Tanae Williams (Lili Ana)

Vuong has his own business with his wife in the neighborhood, and the business is named after his wife, Lili Ana. He appeared nice and formal, wearing a light brown suit with a hat. Onstage, he’s mostly with hiswife, Lili Ana, an African American lady, and they presented as a lovely couple. He often held his wife’s hand, exchanged gaze with her and smiled gently at her. He walked and moved calmly, without rushing or any strong sudden movement like stomping or jumping. He talked in a normal tone and average speed but still delivered his emotion clearly by changing his volume, pitch, speed and stressed at important words or phrases. There was no yelling or rapid speaking, and he did not sing. In his lines, he mainly talked about his business, his building, his neighborhood, and his wife. Aside from English, he also spoke Vietnamese, but there were only two words, "đúng rồi", which meant right or that’s right. The play is not about Vietnamese and he's not the main character but part of the diverse ethnicity of the Mission District community.

The production team of Who Shot La Miguelito? All actors are in costumes. Vuong is in his suit and hat, standing in the middle of the back row

Essay

This website will explore how Vietnamese characters represent Vietnamese in America change through three plays, Miss Saigon (Broadway 2017), Vietgone (Sacramento 2019), and Who Shot La Miguelito?(Berkeley 2019). As of 2019, Vietgone and Miss Saigon are the two most famous and successful American plays about Vietnamese, but they still have some flaws, even in the most recent one being produced Miss Saigon in 2017 at Broadway and Vietgone in 2019 at Sacramento. However, these flaws might not be visible to non-Vietnamese at all so to them the plays are good or great. This is very important to the representation of Vietnamese in America, which hold less than one percent of the population in America. There are very few Vietnamese representations, especially in the media and theatre, and if there are Vietnamese characters, they are not always portrayed accurately or played by Vietnamese actors. Vietnamese American characters need to have more visible and portrayed more truthfuly to show that there are Vietnamese and Vietnamese American living on American soil and they are part of America.

Miss Saigon is a musical play about a tragic love between a Vietnamese woman and an American soldier, by Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil, lyrics by Alain Boublil and Richard Maltby, based on Giacomo Puccini’s Madame Butterfly. So first of all, it was not written by Vietnamese but it was written under the western viewpoint. Next, the story is base on Madame Butterfly, which was criticized for romanticized love between white men and Asian women, making Asian women become objects of desired by white men. Then for the production in 2017 directed by Laurence Connor, the whole cast was barely of Vietnamese heritage. Even though the lead female Kim, played by Eva Noblezada, does have some Vietnamese appearance characteristic, she was not Vietnamese.

The red dress which is supposed to be an ao dai but it looks more like a Chinese dress

The costumes were not fully accuarate either. One of the lead female’s ao dai was very incorrect. The costume was made in thicker fabric compared to ao dai’s usual fabric. Ao dai fabric is mostly silk like, which make it smooth, light and look like it’s flowing when walking. The costume use thicker fabric made it look more like a Chinese dress, especially without sleeves. Then there was a scene where ao dai was not wear with its pants, which was unacceptable. It might be a choice to support the play’s content, but no matter under any context, wearing an ao dai without its pants is wrong and insulting. This means Vietnamese culture is still foreign to American and the production team did not pay enough effort to learn about the culture.

An ao dai (a high school uniform version) is being wore without its pants

Vietgone in another hand, has done a better job of representing Vietnamese in America and their stories. Vietgone was written by Qui Nguyen, a Vietnamese American who immigrated to America with his family after the war. His play is about two Vietnamese who had to leave their country and family behind and moved to the US due to war. The play shows their struggles and hardship, how they meet each other and settle down their lives in a new country. Vietgone’s production in 2019 directed by Jeffrey Lo at Sacramento Capital Stage was excellent, but it still needs some improvement to be done.

Similar to Miss Saigon in 2017, this production’s cast was barely Vietnamese. Next was how the characters’ names were pronounced. Even though they were Vietnamese names, they were pronounced in English way, those names were not Vietnamese anymore. As a Vietnamese watching the play, I could not tell the name until I looked at the program. In Asian and Vietnamese culture, names are very important, therefore, if Vietnamese names are being used, they should be pronounced correctly, unless they are impossible for English speakers to pronounce it.

The cast of Vietgone at Capital Stage, Sacramento

Then at one scene when Huong was offering the incense, instead of using an incense bowl or some pottery, a bucket was used and it was put on the ground. That was a very incorrect way of offering incenses. It’s a ritual that holds respect to the deceased family members or deities, there are certain rules that we have to follow, like the bowl, how to offer, or where the bowl is put. Given the fact that there is a large Vietnamese community and a Little Saigon in Sacramento, it is not hard to do some research about Vietnamese language and culture there. This shows that again, Vietnamese culture is not yet being familiar in America, even to Asian Americans, and the production did not care enough to do more research.

The bucket is used a the incense bowl and put on the ground

The play Who Shot La Miguelito? written and directed by Sean San Jose is about the gentrification and displacement in the Mission District in San Francisco so it’s not a play that focuses mainly on Vietnamese. The Vietnamese character was only a part of the diversity community there. However, the character’s Vietnamese identity was nicely portrayed and I believed because it was the director’s intention. He wanted the characters in his script to reflect the actors themselves. The original "Vuong" was a middle east man but the character was slightly changed to fit with Khoi, the Vietnamese actor who played Vuong. Director Sean really cared about bringing out actors' authentic selves, and Khoi's Vietnamese identity plays a big part in him. So the character was given a Vietnamese name and a few Vietnamese words in his dialogue.

The character Vương in Who Shot La Miguelito, played by Khoi Vo. Photo by Ben Dillon

Vuong did not introduce himself as Vietnamese or anything about his ethnicity was mentioned in the play. What signified his as a Vietnamese was only his name, a few Vietnamese words he spoke and his apparent, a Vietnamese body. However, those were enough because the actor himself was Vietnamese and the director cares about his Vietnamese identity. In the play, the character Vuong’s name was pronounced correctly, not only from the actor himself but also from all other characters. Khoi said he spent lots of time and effort in helping his fellow actors to pronounce the name and they also put effort and tried hard to pronounce the name because Vuong was not an easy name for English speakers to say correctly.

Then having Vuong spoke a few Vietnamese words was also a big step in representing Vietnamese. Vietnamese Americans are still new immigrants and lots of them still speak Vietnamese or at least have some knowledge of the language. The Vietnamese language is a big part of Vietnamese identity and community so having the language out on stage, outside of the community just makes it become more visible and normalized. This helps Vietnamese Americans not to feel weird when speaking Vietnamese or have the pressure of only know English to fit in America society. To show that the Vietnamese language is part of America too, there are people who learn, speak, and use Vietnamese in America.

Overall, having Vietnamese characters and actors on stage is very important because they need more representation and visibility to let Vietnamese living in America be able to link their Vietnamese identity with their American identity, knowing that their Vietnamese identity is also a part of America, that they can be both Vietnamese and American. At the same time, having Vietnamese become more visible and represented correctly is important to raise awareness of the existence and culture of Vietnamese in American, let other Vietnamese feel included in the America society, and especially to let the younger and newer generations be able to see others like them and learn about their own culture.

Works Cited

League, The Broadway. “IBDB.com.” IBDB, https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-production/miss-saigon-509511.

“Miss Saigon.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 3 Nov. 2019, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miss_Saigon#Broadway_revival_(2017–2018).

Vietgone. By Qui, Nguyen, directed by Jeffrey, Lo, 23 March. 2019, Capital Stage, Sacramento. Performance.

Vo, Khoi. Personal interview. 8 November 2019.

Who Shot La Miguelito?. By Sean San, José, directed by Sean San, José, 19 Oct. 2019, Zellerbach Playhouse, Berkeley. Performance.