Comic books, kung fu movies, ’80s TV shows and pop music all collide with hilarious and touching results in Qui Nguyen’s raucously funny and extremely moving Poor Yella Rednecks at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Off-Broadway City Center space. A sequel to his autobiographical Viet Gone (presented by MTC in 2016), Rednecks chronicles the rocky and jagged road his family trod as they immigrated from South Vietnam after the fall of Saigon to the tiny, ironically named town of El Dorado, Arkansas.
Nguyen makes himself a character (played with charm and spark by Jon Norman Schneider) and sets the bizarre, satiric tone of the show right away. Instead of a reverential family drama, we get a wham-bang narration delivered by superhero creator Stan Lee (Paco Tolson hilariously takes on this role and several others with the appropriate parodistic edge).
This leads to a scene with Nguyen interviewing his mother Tong (the marvelous Maureen Sebastian) who insists that her story will never make a profitable play because “white people will not be interested.” (Ironically this got a huge laugh from the mostly white audience at the performance attended.) She finally agrees to relate her journey if she will depicted as speaking better English and the white characters will be made to sound as she heard them. As a result, the non-Asian figures talk in a weird polyglot jargon of allusions. America is Cheeseburgerland, school is Saved by the Bell, and Ross and Rachel from the sitcom Friends are soothing words of comfort.
What follows is the tale of the contentious marriage of Tong and Quang (a sturdy and conflicted Ben Levin) seen through a pop culture lens with breaks for comedy sketch-like vignettes, hip-hop rap songs and satirical martial arts battles. Unlike most immigration stories, the feel here is not inspirational, but a combination of darkly satiric and painfully realistic. The family is beset with obstacles and they don’t always behave nobly. Quang has another wife and children still in Vietnam who thinks he’s dead. At one point, Tong is reduced to shoplifting groceries and a wildly funny kung fu sequence set to Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5” ensues—one of the may highlights of May Adrales’ inventive and rib-tickling staging. Tong’s mother (the vibrant Samantha Quan who shines in multiple roles) lives with them, constantly criticizes Quang and forms a deep bond with her grandson, the younger Nguyen, called Little Man and enacted by Schneider manipulating a child puppet (beautifully designed by David Valentine). In the most touching scene, the grandmother Huong explains to Little Man she has to stop speaking to him in Vietnamese (her only language) so he can learn English and have a better chance at making it in America. Even though her scene partner is a puppet, the emotions are true and valid.
Tim Mackabee designed the eye-popping, candy-colored set. Jared Mezzocchi’s pop-art projections and Lap Chi Chu’s funhouse lighting bring it to life and create the numerous environments of the fast-food-strip mall world the family find themselves in.
The cast, which also includes Jon Hoche as Quang’s best friend who tries to persuade him to move to Houston where there is a Vietnamese community, fills many different roles with versatility and zest. Sebastian is the stand-out as the determined, confused, but ultimately thriving Tong. She conveys the battling interests of this struggling survivor, torn between her love for Quang and her pragmatic side as she weighs her options and makes hard choices. Like its heroine, Poor Yella Rednecks is the product of diverse influences and cultures. It’s a tasty and filling fusion dish.