The playwright Qui Nguyen has made a profession of imagining marginalized folks as heroic leads. That features his mother and father, who emigrated from Vietnam and met in an Arkansas refugee camp, a narrative Nguyen chronicled in his raunchy rom-com-style play “Vietgone.”
“Poor Yella Rednecks,” which opened Wednesday in a rollicking, comedian book-inspired manufacturing at New York Metropolis Heart, picks up 5 years later, in 1980, when their marriage hits the rocks and the playwright is a 5-year-old struggling to be taught English.
Commissioned by Manhattan Theater Membership and South Coast Repertory, the place it premiered in 2019, “Poor Yella Rednecks” capabilities because the playwright’s personal superhero origin story: Nguyen has change into not solely a wizard of language and type, but additionally an knowledgeable M.C., subverting and remixing conventions to confront abiding questions on displacement and assimilation. How can immigrants change into legible to the American-born generations of their very own households, and to audiences who’re so white, the playwright’s mom says, that they resemble a Fleetwood Mac live performance?
Nguyen’s reply is an expletive-filled fusion of hip-hop and martial arts with the soapy twists and turns of addictive serial tv. Below the wry and nimble route of Might Adrales, “Poor Yella Rednecks” is a crowd-tickling comedy that squashes preconceptions in an effort to place hearts in a vise grip.
Framed as recollections Nguyen gathered from his mom, Tong, in 2015, the present begins with the playwright (portrayed onstage as a middle-aged man by Jon Norman Schneider) interviewing Tong (a dynamite Maureen Sebastian), who speaks with a pinched face and a thick accent. However Tong quickly calls for to have her son’s “pot and a mouth” model of speaking within the play he’s writing, and for white characters to sound the way in which she hears them, as a garble of slang and empty signifiers (so he has them squawk exclamations like “Yeehaw!” or “Mitch McConnell!”). From then on, we hear Nguyen’s household speak in frank, and sometimes crass, English when they’re understood to be talking Vietnamese. (Nguyen’s mother and father had been heartbroken once they met, Tong says, “so we comforted one another with our crotches.”)
Rewind 35 years, and Tong tears away her granny garb (thrifty southwestern costumes designed by Valérie Thérèse Bart) to play a youthful model of herself. Tong and the playwright’s father, Quang (Ben Levin), who seems like a matinee idol however can’t discover work, are practically broke and are every being drawn again into earlier relationships. Tong, a waitress at a diner, partly blames her mom, Huong (a dry-as-gin Samantha Quan), for the issue that her son, often known as Little Man and represented by a wide-eyed puppet, faces becoming in in school. Huong, who solely speaks Vietnamese, worries that studying to speak like his friends will flip Little Man (endearingly designed by David Valentine and maneuvered by Schneider) right into a stranger.
As in “Vietgone,” “Poor Yella Rednecks” exhibits Nguyen’s onstage mother and father expressing their most vehement emotions, and occasional exposition, in verse, rapping over uncomplicated beats composed right here by Shane Rettig, who additionally designed the sport show-like sound. (“Cuz I’m extra than simply fairly, my mind is rattling witty,” Tong raps. “Gimme one sizzling second Imma run this metropolis.”) For the title track, Nguyen borrows a well-known declaration concerning the work ethic of immigrants from the musical “Hamilton,” although his personal much less refined lyrics, that are higher at illuminating battle than romance, might not precisely maintain up as compared.
Although rooted in upheaval and tragic loss, Nguyen’s household historical past is introduced with a fragile steadiness of over-the-top humor and unforced sincerity. Jon Hoche, who performs Quang’s finest buddy Nhan, is a boisterous bro with a gentle underbelly, whereas Paco Tolson is nearly pitifully hapless as Bobby, Tong’s bumbling white ex. Tolson additionally performs the godfather of Marvel, Stan Lee, whose presence as a sporadic narrator provides to the present’s graphic-novel aesthetic; the set by Tim Mackabee spells out “yella” in massive, rotating letters, lit in emphatic colour by Lap Chi Chu.
For all of its surprises, together with motion sequences I gained’t spoil right here, the play falters solely when it suggestions into clearly earnest territory. Nguyen doesn’t want a surrogate to element his intent; the story soars by itself.
Poor Yella Rednecks
By way of Nov. 26 at New York Metropolis Heart Stage I, Manhattan; manhattantheatreclub.com. Working time: 2 hours quarter-hour.