In this over-wrought moment in American life so full of bushwa about immigrants, it is great to have a playwright like Qui Nguyen (author of the hit play Viet Gone) to entertain audiences with an epic, serio-comic play like Poor Yella Rednecks, all juiced up with great characters and theatrical whizbang. It takes a protean cast of five playing no less than nineteen characters to tell the story of Viet Namese immigrants struggling to eke out a life in an Arkansas town, cunningly named El Dorado. The playwright reaches into the theatrical grab bag and dusts off some well-remembered ideas, such as, for instance, having a character called The Playwright (Paco Tolson) kicks off the action with the Brechtian ploy of talking straight to the audience like the Stage Manager from Our Town or Chorus from Henry V. Indicative of the language of the struggling class, the script is raw and rife with obscenities that would not be out of place in an episode of Deadwood, with “fuck” and “fucking” the operative words. It slaps you in the face for a little bit, but the audience gets used to it…mostly. Half way through the first act, one older woman a couple of rows down from me picked up her coat and purse and left the auditorium. She didn’t come back.
The action starts in 2015 with Tong (Maureen Sebastian), the elderly mother of the Playwright who records her memories for his play, then jumps back in time to 1981 and a much younger Tong. At its core, the play is a dark romance of the struggle of Tong and her lover, Quang (Tim Chiou) a handsome former pilot in the Viet Namese Air Force. There are problems beside poverty. Quang left a wife to two kids in Viet Nam. The couple has a child they call “Little Man,” who is cared for by Tong’s mother Huong (Samantha Quan), a foul-mouthed harridan.
Little Man, a kindergartner, struggles in school and is bullied because he can’t speak English. In a brilliant ploy, the playwright presents Little Man as a child size puppet operated by Eugene Young and Paco Tolson so skillfully that they disappear, reminding this viewer of Japanese bunraku and Avenue Q.
Under the energetic direction of May Andrales, the action is kicked up with performances of passionate hip-hop rhymes and precision dancing throughout the show (Lawrence Kao hip-hop consultant), that adds immeasurably to the over-all excitement. Adding to the whiz in the bang of action, projections by Jared Mezzocchi flood the stage with colorful images. The scenic design by Arnulfo Maldonado keeps the action fluid with a turntable set center that is aided by a nimble backstage crew who set and reset the pieces. The back end of an old Ford pickup and a water tower reinforce time and place. Lighting by Lap Chi Chu works hand-in-glove with the projection scheme. Costumes by Valérie Thérèse Bart are ideal in reinforcing character, place, and action. Special commendation goes to the backstage crew of quick-change artists who make sure that entrances are on time.
Original music by Shane Rettig is arranged by Kenny Seymour. Puppet design and direction is by Sean Cawelti. Kimberly Colburn is the dramaturg; Joanne DeNaut, CSA does the casting; Joshua Marchesi manages production; and Kathryn Davies manages the stage.
Poor Yella Rednecks is a terrific production of a terrific script, the performance of which was rewarded by an instantaneous standing ovation from a Sunday matinee crowd. Too bad the lady with the coat and purse didn’t stick around.
Poor Yella Rednecks runs through April 27 on the Segerstrom Stage of South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa.