Eight years ago, Qui Nguyen was at a low point. “I decided that my writing life had not amounted to much, and I felt I needed to concentrate on my family and my kids,” he said during a recent video conversation. “I was going to hang it up.” The new play he was working on, he added, was “a sort of swan song.”
That play, “Vietgone,” was indeed a turning point for Nguyen. Because — plot twist! — it was a hit.
Inspired by Nguyen’s parents, Quang and Tong, and their burgeoning relationship as Vietnamese immigrants in Arkansas in the mid-1970s, the play premiered at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, Calif., in October 2015 and ran at Manhattan Theater Club the next fall. Since then, “Vietgone” has been produced all over North America.
Around the time of the show’s early success, Nguyen moved to Los Angeles from New York, landing jobs at Marvel Studios and Disney, for which he co-wrote “Raya and the Last Dragon,” and wrote and co-directed “Strange World.” (He still works as a screenwriter and director for Disney in Los Angeles.)
He has since revisited the story of his parents, and his irrepressible grandmother Huong, in “Poor Yella Rednecks,” which is running through Dec. 3 at Manhattan Theater Club. (It premiered at South Coast in 2019.) “Everyone’s like, ‘It’s a follow-up,’ but I own the fact that it’s a sequel,” Nguyen said, laughing.
Set in 1980, the family saga picks up with Tong and Quang (played by Maureen Sebastian and Ben Levin) hitting a rough patch. “It’s their second love story, kind of something I had to go through with my own wife,” Nguyen said, adding that he has been commissioned to write a third installment, and that he hopes to eventually have five plays in the cycle.
“I was convinced to not put ‘Vietgone 2’ on this one because people would be intimidated that they didn’t see the first one,” he said. “But in all honesty it’s ‘Vietgone 1,’ ‘Vietgone 2,’ ‘Vietgone 3,’ ‘4’ and ‘5.’” (Newcomers can rest assured that “Poor Yella Rednecks” works perfectly fine as a stand-alone.)
“He’s taken probably the darkest moments of his parents’ marriage and turned them into beautifully comic scenes,” the director May Adrales said on the phone. “And I know he’s taken some from his own personal life and his own relationships,” she continued, adding that he “took some of those scenarios and would write a romantic-comedy version. That is why it’s so personal, but also it just demonstrates his own genius of craft to create that distance.”
Nguyen’s distinctive style is marked by fluency in various emotional tones and pop-cultural vernaculars. As Adrales sees it, Nguyen is “taking a genre that’s very American, the immigrant story, and I feel like he’s completely renewed it.”
In his review for The New York Times, Naveen Kumar described “Poor Yella Rednecks” as an “expletive-filled fusion of hip-hop and martial arts with the soapy twists and turns of addictive serial television.” (This summer Nguyen was featured in the PBS documentary series “Southern Storytellers” alongside the likes of Jesmyn Ward, Mary Steenburgen, Lyle Lovett and Jericho Brown.)
“I think that often when people think of Asian American artists, you expect everyone to wear a lot of red and talk about dragons and pray to Buddha statues,” Nguyen said. “When I grew up, it was also about ‘Spider-Man’ and hip-hop, and those things that grew out of the ’80s and ’90s that were part of my childhood.” (Nguyen, who is 47, gives his age as “old enough to remember a time before cellphones.”)
All of those influences were evident in the kapow-boom-blam! spectacles Nguyen wrote throughout the 2000s for the New York-based company Vampire Cowboys. (It’s the rare, if not only, theater group to have had a booth at Comic Con.)
“He writes these insane fever dreams,” said Sebastian, whose previous Nguyen roles include a badass Shakespearean heroine in “Living Dead in Denmark” (2006), a space pilot in “Fight Girl Battle World” (2008) and a postapocalyptic warrior in “Soul Samurai” (2009). “You’re reading it on the page and you’re like, ‘There’s no possibility that this is stageable.’”
She continued: “It’s such a testament to his belief in the ability of theater and in all of these people he is collecting as his artistic family and community.”
If one thing ties together Nguyen’s life and work, it’s a predilection for natural and chosen families. For starters, he remains loyal to his collaborators, working regularly with the same actors. Not only have Sebastian, Quan, Jon Hoche and Paco Tolson appeared in both “Vietgone” and “Poor Yella Rednecks,” but Adrales has also directed both stagings.
When asked for an example that she felt illustrated her relationship with Nguyen, Sebastian recalled the time when she had to pull out of the New York production of “Vietgone” for personal and professional reasons. Nguyen was supportive. “He said, ‘Don’t worry about me or this show,’” Sebastian wrote me in a follow-up text message. “‘All I want is for you to have the life that makes you happy, to have your career and your family grow, for all your dreams to come true.’ And here we are today, still making art, still full of love and respect and admiration for one another. Still each other’s ride or die.”
This loyalty and generosity of spirit are also reflected in the diversity found in his work, in which he allocates powerhouse leading roles to those too often relegated to supporting or sidekick status in the theater, be they women, people of color, queer folks or Dungeons & Dragons-loving geeks. All of them drive his play “She Kills Monsters,” which has become a perennial favorite in high schools and colleges in the years since its premiere in 2011.
That popularity did not prevent “She Kills Monsters” from getting caught up in the culture wars roiling schools, with a planned production in Tennessee canceled because of its gay content. Nguyen sounded a little baffled by the kerfuffle. “It’s a play about connection and finding connection, and yet people are trying to create ways to create division out of it,” he said. “It’s definitely a weird time.”
The need to connect continues to inspire him, including with the very people who gave him the prime material for the “Vietgone” project: his parents — who still haven’t seen or read the plays. “They don’t know if they were emotionally ready to tackle those things again,” Nguyen said. “But they’re so happy that those stories are out there, because they know that the reason I wrote them is for my kids, my nieces, and for kids that are like them.”
Now that his parents are too old to easily leave Arkansas, where they still live, Nguyen has thought of a way to return the stories where they started, via a documentary, “The Family Vietgone,” that he and his younger brother have been working on. “I can make a movie,” he said, “and bring it to them and go, ‘Look — this is what I made.’”