Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

Poor Yella Rednecks
American Conservatory Theatre
Review by Patrick Thomas

Also see Patrick's recent reviews of Home and English

Jomar Tagatac and Jenny Nelson Nguyen
Photo by Kevin Berne
At first glance, Poor Yella Rednecks, which opened this week at American Conservatory Theatre's Strand Theater, would seem like a recipe for an evening of gloom and depression. It's the story of Quang (Hyunmin Rhee), a former helicopter pilot in the South Vietnamese Air Force, whom we met in Vietgone, which played at the Strand in 2018 (both productions directed by Jaime Castañeda). In that first installment of Qui Nguyen's planned trilogy of his family's story as Vietnamese refugees, Quang is separated from his wife and children in the last days of the war. He is evacuated (against his will) to a refugee camp in Arkansas where he meets Tong (Jenny Nguyen Nelson), who escaped Saigon with her mother but was unable to rescue her younger brother.

Fast forward a few years and we find Quang and Tong married and living in a trailer in El Dorado, Arkansas, with Tong's mother (Christine Jamlig) and their son Little Man (a puppet manipulated and voiced by Will Dao). Tong works at a local diner, while Quang hangs out with his old Air Force buddy Nhan (also Will Dao) and Grandma Huong watches over Little Man (who will grow up to be the playwright, Qui Nguyen) and guards the trailer with a butcher knife she whips out at even the slightest hint of danger.

Despite the seemingly depressive nature of this story, Poor Yella Rednecks is in fact hysterically funny as well as brilliantly theatrical.

The show opens with the Playwright (Qui Nguyen, played by the wonderful Jomar Tagatac) sitting down with his mother (also Christine Jamlig) to ask her to tell him about her life in order to write a play. "No one wants to hear story about old woman who speak bad English with fat son." When he reassures her that "all sort of people" enjoy the theatre, mom snaps back with "Yeah, all sort of white people." Gesturing to the audience assembled at the Strand she adds, "Look around–it look like a Fleetwood Mac concert."

Ultimately mom relents and we go back in time to that tacky trailer where things start to get even stickier when a letter arrives from Quang's wife in Vietnam. Since she is still alive, Quang is officially a bigamist, and his marriage to Tong must be annulled. Things get even stickier, with Quang reluctantly cheating on Tong and Little Man being bullied at school (when the other kids–and teachers–aren't ignoring him because he speaks so little English).

As with Vietgone, when the Vietnamese characters are ostensibly speaking Vietnamese, they speak in colloquial English with a bit of a hip-hop bent. But when the American characters are speaking English, it's a delightfully odd patois of broken grammar and American cliches that at first seem nonsensical, but only a little scratching at the surface of the nonsense will reveal the meaning. This reaches its peak when Bobby (also Jomar Tagatac), Tong's American ex-boyfriend says that seeing Tong again is "like being in place where dead people go who believe in Jesus."

Poor Yella Rednecks is an absolutely spectacular mash-up of family drama, kung fu movie, anime, and rap. Yes, rap, for a half-dozen or so times during the play the characters will burst into hip-hop rhymes that reveal their innermost selves. Altogether it's a colorful, dynamic, thrilling, heartbreaking story of people struggling to make their way in the world. Even with the odds against them, they soldier on with hope and optimism. In one of the final scenes, Quang comforts his son–who retreats into fantasies of having superpowers as a coping mechanism–by reassuring him that he will ultimately overcome his trials: "That's where your magic will come from–by using their words." We in the audience know this has come true, for we have just been treated to two hours of magic from the words wielded by the incredibly talented Qui Nguyen.

Poor Yella Rednecks runs through May 7, 2023 at American Conservatory Theatre, Strand Theater, 1127 Market Street, San Francisco CA. Shows are Tuesdays-Fridays at 7:30 p.m., Saturdays at 2:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. Tickets range from $25-$60. For tickets and information, please visit