Tuesday, November 7, 2023

Poor Yella Rednecks (Broadway)


Unable to fulfill his promise to go fly back to Saigon to rescue his kids no matter what the cost, Quang (Ben Levin) is now living a refugee’s life in Arkansas and having an affair with Tong (Maureen Sebastian). Even though they are not legally married to other people in the United States, their past comes back to haunt them as they are inexplicably followed by his wife, deeming their plans for marriage invalid in the eyes of the law. Their kid whom they fondly call Little Man (Jon Norman Schneider) grows up to be a playwright, chronicling their journey as a migrant family in the deep south. He writes a play involving all characters such as his strong-willed grandmother (Samantha Quan), an honest look at the experience growing up Asian in America as well as the challenges that continue to hound him and his family despite decades of integration.

To those who are familiar with his work, Qui Nguyen penned this play as a direct sequel to 2016’s Vietgone, which I was able to watch when it was still on Broadway. While the details of that play are blurry to me now after how many years, I do remember being amused by all the rapping, which felt quite new to me back then because I had yet to see Hamilton. Poor Yella Rednecks follows the tradition with some more rapping here and there, the two leads now forming a family of their own this time.

What’s new is the inclusion of their son in the storyline. While the actor who plays the grown-up version is actually quite grown-up, he also portrays his younger kid self by use of puppetry, which is also a new plot device. We can say that the use of that puppet is refreshing and successful, considering how it just manages to crack up the audience at every appearance. The rapport with the grandma is palpable, which makes it awesome in its own right. In the end, it serves its purpose well, and entertaining to boot.

An observation that remains and is carried over from the prequel, though, is how the audience is mostly made up of old white people. I suppose they are the unintended target audience because they are old enough to actually remember the Vietnam War in the 70’s. Since most of the song numbers involve rap, it makes you wonder whether the old folks actually appreciate it?

Come to think of it, we’d like to think that all the rapping is meant to attract a younger audience that is comfortable with it, but I saw only a few of them in the audience that night. If you analyze the storyline itself, the intended target audience seems to be second generation Vietnamese/Asian Americans themselves. I wonder whether they do show up at certain times of the week.

As for the plot, it is something that we are already familiar with. Perhaps due to the dearth of stories like this in the American mainstream, it is easy to remember the few that have come along via whatever medium. Poor Yella Rednecks is a good addition to that body of work focusing on the Amerasian immigration experience. Hopefully, more will come along down the line. As an Asian who is not an immigrant and just visiting, stories like this are always well appreciated for the mere fact that it gives me a good insight as to what Asians who have decided to migrate, and eventually their kids, go through.

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