Co-commissioned by South Coast Repertory and Manhattan Theatre Club, Poor Yella Rednecks, written by Qui Nguyen and directed by May Adrales, is a wildly inventive, hilarious, and insightful follow-up to their critically acclaimed hit Vietgone, the first two installments in an ongoing personal series based on the playwright’s interviews with his parents about the challenges they faced in both their love story and their immigrant experience from war-torn Vietnam to chasing the American Dream. In Arkansas. Now playing a limited Off-Broadway engagement at New York City Center, the rapid-fire high-energy play with music combines pop-culture references, rap, puppetry, martial arts, and the influence of action movies and superhero comic books (the super-talented Nguyen is also a writer for Marvel and Disney) with a serious and ever-timely message about the difficulty of assimilation and the courage and stamina it takes for a refugee family to survive and to thrive in a strange new land.
Transporting us to El Dorado, Arkansas in the mid-1970s to early ‘80s, the go-back story opens with the playwright conducting a 2015 interview with his risibly reticent and feisty 70-year-old mother, who thinks it’s “a terrible idea.” But she begins to open up, after laying down some ground rules: that the resulting play not only be, in his signature style, happy, romantic, and funny, but also true and hard; that the white people sound the way she hears them, so they can “hear all the stupid stuff they say;” and that she “talk good,” with a potty mouth, upon which she drops her accent and broken English in favor of a constant barrage of f-bombs. During the conversation, Stan Lee and actors in whiteface suddenly appear, and WHAM!, the stage is set for the quirky madcap humor, non-stop laughs, and character-revealing portrayals as recounted in her “one hundred percent historically accurate” memories and his zany reimaging and razor-sharp social commentary.
The fast-paced narrative sequences take us from the first meeting of his parents Quang and Tong in America, getting high and making out in the back of a pick-up truck, after having left behind her boyfriend and his wife and kids to escape Vietnam, to their economic and employment challenges in the US, heated arguments and break-up, and relationships with lovers, friends (one of his is moving to Texas and wants him to go, too), and family – their son Little Man (the childhood version of Nguyen, taking the form of a life-sized puppet), who learns to protect himself from the bullies at school courtesy of his fiery grandmother Huong, in large part because of his issues with learning English, since she only speaks to him in her native Vietnamese (and, we later find out, that’s not the only problem she caused) – to the couple’s eventual reunion, marriage, and resolve to make it all work.
A sidesplitting cast of six, appearing in multiple roles and/or at different ages, delivers the parodic personalities, speech patterns, and physical comedy with full-blown zest and spot-on timing, in addition to the martial arts, dancing (choreography by William Carlos Angulo), and rapping (including a meaningful nod to Hamilton with the line, “Immigrants: we get the job done!”- a reminder that America’s white founding fathers were also immigrants, so everyone should be able to relate to this story). Jon Norman Schneider stars as the playwright and his younger self Little Man, fully embodying his wacky sense of humor, empathizing with his sincere concerns about the immigrant experience, and bringing the adorable puppet (designed by David Valentine) to life with irresistible childlike charm.
Maureen Sebastian is a powerhouse as his mother Tong (both older and younger), determined to be self-sufficient, and openly stating it in her confrontations with the others, unapologetic use of obscenities, and skillfully performed raps and fights (as seen in an extended uproarious scene in a supermarket). As her husband Quang (the playwright’s father), Ben Levin – he, too, is expert at rap – conveys the conflicted emotions, bad decisions, and behavior that cause the split between them, and the love, regrets, and remorse he feels and expresses that bring them back together. And Samantha Quan is a riot as the outspoken Huong, who instructs her grandson on how to protect himself, whacking him multiple times in the process. Rounding out the highly entertaining cast are Jon Hoche and Paco Tolson, assuming an array of over-the-top caricatural roles that capture Nguyen’s raucous humor and witty observations.
The terrific company is supported by a vibrant artistic design, with period-style signs, movable furniture, a vintage truck, the interiors of the family home, diner, bar, and restaurant, and towering letters that spell out YELLA (set by Tim Mackabee), colorful lights and focused spotlights (lighting by Lap Chi Chu), active projections in a pop-art graphic-novel style (by Jared Mezzocchi), clear sound (by Shane Rettig), and costumes (by Valérie Thérèse Bart) that define the characters and the farcical stereotypes.
Qui Nguyen’s comical look at the journey of his immigrant parents in Poor Yella Rednecks, employing humor to make serious points about love and life as a refugee, is as profoundly human and astute as it is laugh-out-loud funny. I can’t wait to see the future installments of his ongoing five-part autobiographical series.
Running Time: Approximately two hours and 10 minutes, including intermission.
Poor Yella Rednecks plays through Sunday, December 3, 2023, at Manhattan Theatre Club, performing at the New York City Center, Stage 1, 131 West 55th Street, NYC. For tickets (priced at $79-99, including fees), call (212) 581-1212, or go online.