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Theater Review: “Poor Yella Rednecks”

Photo credit:
​Jordan Kubat/SCR

When I first saw “Vietgone” three years ago, I (like many others) thought Qui Nguyen an important new voice in theater, with a knack for saying something important with wit, humor and grace.

That show was so wildly successful that newcomer Nguyen took the opportunity to expand his writing horizons into film and TV as well.

Now he’s back in theater with “Poor Yella Rednecks,” part two of a projected four-play cycle about the Asian immigrant experience in the U.S.

“Vietgone” took place in 1975 in an Oklahoma refugee camp, and tells the story of how the Playwright’s parents met. That play was written from dad Quang’s perspective.

“Rednecks” takes place in 1981, still in Arkansas, but now in rural El Dorado.  And this time we get mother Tong’s side of the story.

After she tells the Playwright (Paco Tolson) what a terrible idea it is to write this play (because “only white people go to plays”), Tong launches into the story, loaded with imperfect English and F-bombs.

In “Rednecks” we learn that Quang (Tim Chiou) was married when he left Vietnam, but that his wife Thu and their two children couldn’t get out. Learning this precipitates a family crisis for Tong (Maureen Sebastian), who is so hurt that she asks Quang to leave for a while so she can figure out what she wants to do. He goes off to Texas with best buddy Nhan (Eugene Young), while Tong calls former boyfriend – blond blank Bobby (Tolson) – for succor.

There’s tension all around – even for Quang and Tong’s son Little Man, whose school wants to hold him back because he doesn’t speak English.

“Rednecks” is as engaging as “Vietgone,” with lots of hip-hop and rap songs (and some great martial-arts moves), but a lot more vulgarity, especially from grandma Huong (Samantha Quan). Those voluminous F-bombs eventually become downright distracting.

But the cast is terrific, with three returnees from “Vietgone,” and May Adrales returns to direct the show (wonderfully).  Particularly charming is Little Man, a puppet brilliantly operated by Tolson and Eugene Young (who also plays Nhan and several other parts).

Arnulfo Maldonado’s easily reconfigurable set, Lap Chi Chu’s effective lighting and Shane Rettig’s fine sound design (including original music) all make solid contributions, as do Valérie Thérèse Bart’s costumes.

“Poor Yella Rednecks” isn’t perfect, but makes a fine addition to the literature of the immigrant experience, largely thanks to Tong, who sums up the experience of the successful immigrant: “We’re climbing mountains while the rest of them are sleeping.”

The details

“Poor Yella Rednecks” plays through April 27, 2019 at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.

Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30 pm; Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 2:30 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2:30 and 7:30 pm.

Tickets: (714) 708-5555 or scr.org