By: Isa Goldberg
November 11, 2023: In Qui Nguyen’s iconoclastic new play, Poor Yella Rednecks, cultural disparities and conflicts are mashed together in genre-bending style. Fueling the action with stage-worthy tools – puppets, comic book imagery, and superhero characters – Nguyen sets this romantic tale in a place and time in America’s heartland that takes a harsh stand on immigration: El Dorado, Arkansas, 1981.
We’re talking Vietnamese immigrants here. People who sing their love songs in rap, and maybe even feel their lives should be like those of the superheroes who inhabit our culture. Of course rap, deriving from hip hop, is a black cultural phenomenon. And superheroes are from Hollywood, and big publishing houses. But here they’re stereotypical attributes of “Yella Rednecks.” It’s a humorous way of confusing culture and race that speaks to our appreciation of diversity…for better, or worse.
We first meet our romantic heroes, Quang and Tong, in Nguyen’s prequel, Vietgone. In that earlier play, set in 1975 during the fall of Saigon, two Vietnamese refugees, separated from their previous partners, meet up for a sexy tête-à-tête in Arizona.
In Part II, that relationship deepens. Now years later, they have a child, Little Man, played by a puppet, but still the conflicts broaden. Given that the child’s name is a slur, and an especially disarming one for a boy just getting into grammar school, attention must be paid. Nailed to that image – a grammar-school Willy Loman – he might as well quit now.
His devoted grandmother, played by the chameleon Samantha Quan (who portrays multiple characters), convinces him to screw the system. Training him in the martial arts, and coaching him to hit, slam, and destroy, appears more Islamic terrorist than “redneck,”or “yella,” but that is obviously the point. The paint is wearing off. We all do the same things.
Outstanding in various roles, Paco Tolson portrays a Tupperware salesman who makes for a really strange boyfriend. As Quang’s best friend, Jon Hoche portrays a rowdy, but sincere kind of man.
Slogged with rapping and carrying on even when the chemistry is not quite there, Ben Levin’s Quang and Marueen Sebastian’s Tong can feel like a bad rhyme that you’ve heard too often. In spite of their strong performances, their romance only feels believable at the play’s finale.
That the culture wars we see here lag in invigorating entertainment, and compelling action, however, is a product of Nguyen’s long-winded story telling. It drags on, especially at the end of the play, where the moral of it all is addressed too many times.
This is especially cumbersome in Act II, which revolves around scenes of conflict that demand resolution. With the gears of playwrighting in full force, the act starts out with a predictable father/son scene at McDonald’s; moves on to a major fist fight between the starving, striving Tong and supermarket employees; and lands with a revelation from Grandma that she caused the demise of Tong’s marriage.
While the writing is a little too soapy to deliver a lot of guts, the need to moralize takes over, in a heavy handed way. Should you miss the message, there is an epilogue, much of it in rap, repeating the refrain, “Poor yella rednecks – we demand respect / Ain’t got alotta money but we’re still damn perfect / Rise up, son – listen to our reason / We’re climbing mountains while the rest of them are sleeping.” It’s an inspiring moral, and one that empowers.
Directed by May Adrales, the production covers a lot of theatrical terrain with humor and sophistication. Tim Mackabee’s scenic design is in sync with the writing – with tall sculpted letters spelling “Yella.” And Valérie Thérèse Bart’s costumes look like they took a quick trip to Walmart, as well they should.
David Valentine’s puppet in a Spiderman T-shirt looks like the next-door “yella rednecks.” And Jon Norman Schneider creates the role of narrator, playwright, and boy most graciously.
Looking forward to the sequel.
Poor Yella Rednecks ***
New York City Center Stage 1/Manhattan Theatre Club
131 W. 55th Street, NYC
Through December 4, 2023
Photography: Jeremy Daniels