By: Samuel L. Leiter
November 6, 2023: Plays about immigrants facing the problems of assimilation in America are nothing new. Regardless of where the characters come from, the issues they run into are universal; what usually helps make these plays different from one another is mainly the ethnic color—usually infused with humor—associated with their varying backgrounds. Take for example Qui Nguyen’s Poor Yella Rednecks, most of whose characters are Vietnamese immigrants. The show, at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s City Center Stage I, where director May Adrales has given it a lively, elaborate production, was first done at the South Coast Repertory in 2019.
In the playwright’s similarly autobiographical Vietgone, which I missed, the playwright dramatized the meeting in 1975 of his parents in a refugee camp in Arkansas. Poor Yella Rednecks, which employs most of Vietgone’s cast, moves us to 1981 (of which we’re reminded by the insistent beat of the era’s disco favorites, like “Turn the Beat Around,” playing before the show and during the intermission). Jon Norman Schneider, first playing the author as a mature man, is writing a play about his family’s experience, about which he’s interviewing his feistily reluctant, heavily accented mother, Tong (Maureen Sebastian, in a standout performance). Her imperfect English garners a laugh or two with its mistakes (like “pot and mouth” for “pottymouth”).
Soon, though, Tong asks that her character speak like any white American, which allows her to drop the accent and speak in expletive-filled colloquial English. So do all the other Vietnamese characters presented in the play-within-the-play that we’re told is the true story of what happened in Tong’s relationship with her son’s handsome but unemployed father, Quang (Ben Levin). Tong strips off her old-lady wig, does a quick costume change, and is instantly transported to her spirited, take no prisoners young persona, a diner waitress in 1981 El Dorado, Arkansas.
The playwright is now seen as a clever five-year-old called Little Man represented by a substantial bunraku style puppet (created by David Valentine) manipulated by Schneider, who speaks his lines. Crazy about Spider-Man, he sings the Spider-Man theme song, and plays with an action figure: cue the entrance of Stan Lee! The domestic dramedy in which the kid’s involved shows the reluctance of Little Man’s conservative, Vietnamese-speaking grandmother, Huong (Samantha Quan), to let him learn English, which causes him trouble at school.
The chief focus, however, is on the rocky marital relationship of Quang and Tong, much of it a fuss over his giving their savings, money with which Tong wanted to purchase the diner, to his two kids from his previous marriage in Vietnam. Along the way, a number of broadly drawn, cartoon-like characters appear, among them Bobby, a white guy Tong dates. Played by Paco Tolson in a clownish blond wig, he behaves in an asinine manner (even referring to himself as Bobby this, and Bobby that) meant—like the depiction of the play’s other Americans—to satirize how these immigrants view their local acquaintances.
With little in the plot that’s especially unique, the play depends for its charms largely on stylistic diversions, including considerable use of striking still and video images (designed by Jared Mezzocchi) often using comic book figures; an expansive set by Tim Mackabee whose features include huge letters spelling out YELLA, which can be moved into different configurations; appropriate costuming by Valérie Thérèse Bart; and imaginative lighting by Lap Chi Chu.
There are also two elaborately staged, comical martial arts sequences. In one, Little Man, having learned kung fu from his grandmother, demolishes two bullies at school; in the other, Tong fights a pair of supermarket employees. Most notable, if not especially noteworthy, of the theatrical accoutrements, though, is the inclusion of simplistically repetitious hip-hop numbers (music by Shane Rettig) in place of soliloquies, guying up the show’s entertainment values if not its dramatic depth.
At a too-long-for-its-contents two and a quarter hours, Poor Yella Rednecks, which is both well acted and overacted (perhaps a byproduct of some actors playing multiple roles), is frequently entertaining, momentarily touching, and occasionally funny. However, its tale of the difficulty immigrants confront in achieving the American dream is weakened by the surprising lack of Vietnamese cultural markers. The central characters behave and speak in such overtly American ways that you quickly forget they’re Southeast Asian immigrants, suggesting, without meaning to, that perhaps assimilation isn’t such a problem after all.
Poor Yella Rednecks ***1/2
New York City Center Stage 1/Manhattan Theatre Club
131 W. 55th Street, NYC
Through December 3, 2023
Photography: Jeremy Daniels