Actor Maureen Sebastian met playwright Qui Nguyen in New York when she was 22 years old. They were both Asian Americans, both of their parents are immigrants, and both pursued arts careers despite their parents' reservations. They hit it off and Nguyen cast her in his play Living Dead in Denmark, which was a mash-up of Hamlet and a zombie apocalypse narrative. In it, Sebastian held a blade in each hand and killed zombies. That was the first time she had to fight onstage.
Now, 18 years later, Sebastian is once again in one of Nguyen’s plays, Poor Yella Rednecks, and she is still fighting. This time, she’s kung fu fighting grocery store employees. Though, the moves aren’t as easy as they used to be.
“There’s memories that are in my body, they're like, ‘You can do that.’ I tried and I'm like, ‘No….my knees don't have cartilage in the way that they had when I was in my 20s,’” Sebastian remarks. But it’s worth it to spend time with her friend. Poor Yella Rednecks is currently running Off-Broadway at Manhattan Theatre Club, where it was just extended until December 3. Nguyen now lives in Los Angeles—where he works for Disney and wrote the films Raya and the Last Dragon and Strange World.
Sebastian and Nguyen have been friends for almost two decades. She’s been in five of his plays. So when Nguyen decided to write a series of plays based on his own family history (his parents immigrated to America in 1975 after the Vietnam War), there was only one person Nguyen could think of to play his mother, Tong Nguyen.
“I knew that I had a person who could say some really rough shit in a play without losing the audience,” says Nguyen. “I don't think that's an easy thing to do at all. But when you have an actor who's as charismatic, as nuanced, and as genuine as Maureen Sebastian, you can kind of do whatever you fucking want. And so without Maureen, I literally would not have a career.”
For Sebastian, there was no pressure to portray Nguyen's mother with hyper-accuracy. Poor Yella Rednecks is a highly stylized representation of a true story, drawing inspiration from kung fu films and comic books. So though in real life, Tong Nguyen only slapped a grocery store employee for accusing her of stealing, in the play, she roundhouse kicks them.
"Qui told us the story about his mom, and I knew some of the stuff because I'm his friend," explains Sebastian. "I knew his mom was boldly audacious. I knew his mom had a really bad temper. I knew his mom did things for herself, because she had that much confidence in herself and her ability. I had these touchstones. And then we made something from there."
Poor Yella Rednecks is a sequel to Nguyen’s previous play Vietgone (which was produced Off-Broadway in 2016, though you don’t need to have seen the first play to enjoy Poor Yella Rednecks). In Vietgone, Nguyen details how his parents met in a refugee camp in Arkansas and fell in love. That play became an immediate success, being produced around the country and even internationally (there’s currently a production in Australia).
Poor Yella Rednecks is set six years later, when new love has been replaced with the trials of life as a new immigrant, where Tong (Sebastian) and Quang (Ben Levin) struggle with money troubles and how to raise their son, Qui. Yes, the playwright is a character in his own play, though he’s rendered onstage as a puppet (designed by David Valentine and operated by Jon Norman Schneider). And to fill the cast of both Vietgone and Poor Yella Rednecks, Nguyen hired his long-time friends.
Aside from one actor, all of the actors in the Poor Yella Rednecks and its director May Adrales have done Nguyen’s plays before (multiple times). As the playwright describes it, “It's a show about my family with my chosen family.”
Similar to Nguyen, Sebastian’s family are also immigrants. She was born in the Philippines and immigrated to America as a child. So Poor Yella Rednecks hits close to home. “Anyone who grew up in the ’80s in the United States as an immigrant kid—you watch the show and you're just laughing your ass off, but then also weeping hysterically. No one tells that story. And no one tells that story in the way Qui tells it.”
The way he tells it is not typical. For one, there’s all the kung fu fight scenes in the play. And instead of having the Vietnamese characters speak with accents, they speak in hyper-modern English while the white characters around them speak a mix of amusing gibberish, such as: “Howdy! Catawampus! I’m woke!” The characters also tend to start rapping when they’re feeling emotional, such as when Tong and Quang have an argument and she drops the following bars on him: “When shit gets tough—yo, your character is showing. You’ll run away faster than Jesse Owens.”
Hip-hop and immigrant narratives usually don’t mix (outside of Hamilton) but it all makes sense in Nguyen’s head. “When I was a kid, what I wanted to be when I grew up was an actor, rapper, and a kung fu master,” Nguyen explains, speaking as excitedly and as fast as his characters do in the play. “I can't act. I don't like getting punched. And I don't have the tongue dexterity to actually be a rapper. But in these plays, I get to make those dreams of my eight-year-old me come true.”
Poor Yella Rednecks isn’t just about Nguyen’s parents. It’s also Nguyen’s own origin story of how he became a writer. As is the case with many immigrant households, Vietnamese was Nguyen’s first language but when he went to school, he could not understand what the teachers were saying. So his teachers recommended that his family not speak Vietnamese to him, only English—severing his ability to communicate with them so that he could communicate with everybody else.
Nguyen’s grandmother, Huong, used to look after him and would tell him stories about Vietnam, which left him riveted. She told him that Vietnam was right outside of Arkansas, and to not be afraid because there were more people out there who looked like him.
That scene is dramatized in the play, with Huong (played by Samantha Quan), saying: “People here in Arkansas can be a bit mean to us sometimes. ‘Cause they’re jealous that there’s so little of them and so many of us. Because when you’re in a small shit-town like this one, where everyone and everything is the same, being different means you have the chance to become magical.” When Nguyen first wrote that scene, he found himself crying. Huong died when he was 21 and she was who inspired him to be a storyteller and a chronicler of their family’s history.
“I feel like that's a lot of folks, when their parent’s command of English isn't strong, a lot of us ended up being that English anchor,” explains Nguyen. “I know so many people that had to fill out forms for their parents at seven or eight. We had to learn a language faster than our white or black peers. Because we had a role in our house to do that.”
But beneath the pain, there's also perseverance. After having done Vietgone and Poor Yella Rednecks, Sebastian thinks the beauty of Nguyen's work is its ability to speak to everyone. It’s a story for immigrants but it’s also a story for people who have had rough patches in their marriage, who’ve struggled to provide for their family—in short, it’s an American family drama. With rap.
“It is a story about triumph,” says Sebastian. “Qui creates generative narratives that are giving people a blueprint to how to be hopeful, how to love, how to show up for each other, even when times are really tough. And it's not trauma porn. It's the opposite. It's joy porn. Is that a real thing?”
Remarks Nguyen, who is always ready with a zinger, “The conclusion of this is Qui writes porn.”
That’s not the conclusion. But what Nguyen is trying to do is create a dramatic representation of his family’s history. His dream is to have five Vietgone plays, following his family through the years. The Geffen Theatre in Los Angeles and Manhattan Theatre Club have given him money to write the third play. The big dream is to get one of those plays to Broadway.
Nguyen first wrote Vietgone because he was frustrated with the lack of leading roles in entertainment for Asian American actors. Now he’s creating a repository of roles that any Asian actor at any age could play. “That's always been my small kind of mission, for my own Asian American community. I’m trying to provide training grounds so you can have people like Mo show off in front of everybody.”
And Nguyen still plans on having Sebastian be his leading lady. "When she's 40 [in the play], I'll be 60,” Sebastian says, laughing.
Responds Nguyen, jovially: “You’ll still be doing kung fu flips.”
“Oh yeah,” says Sebastian, with an, “Are you kidding” look on her face.
Says Nguyen, affectionately, “I'm here for you, Mo, I'm here for you."