The story is simple enough: A young immigrant Vietnamese couple, Quang (Hyunmin Rhee) and Tong (Jenny Nguyen Nelson) are struggling to raise their son “Little Man,” cobble together a hardscrabble living, learn and understand English and assimilate in a small town in Arkansas, where they’ve been sent from a nearby relocation camp.
And their struggle seems almost insurmountable. Among other problems, Tong’s sour, live-in mother, Huong (Christine Jamlig), is preventing her beloved grandson from adjusting in school, where he’s bullied.
The couple’s marriage frays under myriad strains. Before Act 2, they’ve split up, and each one’s struggle to make a viable life continues over the next few years, but separately.
“Poor Yella Rednecks,” now at American Conservatory g, premiered in 2019 and is the second in playwright Qui Nguyen’s trilogy that will, presumably, conclude the family saga. The first was “Vietgone,” in which Quang and Tong first meet and fall in love; ACT produced it in 2018.
Two things lift this poignant tale far out of the ordinary. It’s based on the playwright’s actual life story—these are his parents, his grandmother, he himself as a child—and it’s an imaginative and wonderfully comical retelling of that story.
Things start off with a sly metatheatrical twist, as the playwright (played by the always terrific actor Jomar Tagatac) interviews his feisty, now-70-year-old mother in preparation for writing this very play.
Soon enough, we’re back in the late 20th century, where the family of four is living in a cramped trailer. In Tanya Orellana’s fine scenic design, the trailer’s interior is set within a frame and suspended above the stage, creating an illusion of a long-ago, almost dream-like memory and allowing plenty of room below for a rotating platform and additional space for the physical activity that will follow.
And that activity comes fast and furious and immediate: kung fu-like battles inspired by superhero films of the era; eloquent, ferocious rap (composed by Shammy Dee) that allows the characters to express themselves in ways above and beyond ordinary dialogue; scenes in clubs, romantic scenes under starry skies.
At first, so much is happening so fast, and it’s all so funny, that it’s almost a shock when things settle down and the characters become real. And with a cast this strong and supple, most in multiple roles, they feel very real indeed.
The nimble changes of tone, and the general, joyful hilarity that pervades this at-times painful story—plus Jaime Castañeda’s sure-handed direction—all work so beautifully.
And how clever of Nguyen to let us hear English entirely through the ears of his Vietnamese-speaking immigrants, as a vast, incomprehensible onslaught of pop-cultural references of the era that make absolutely no sense: “Eggplant!” “Booty call!” “Sam and Diane and Norm!” “Mitch McConnell!” In one great scene, in which Tong has a date with a white man that she met years ago in the relocation camp (Tagatac, solemn in a blond pompadour), his efforts to communicate in fractured Vietnamese are endlessly amusing.
And it’s a great idea for Little Man to be a puppet (designed by James Ortiz, voiced and manipulated by William Dao, who also plays several other roles to great effect). But unfortunately, in this production, the conceit doesn’t quite work. The puppet never really comes to life in the magical way that puppets so often can onstage. It seems a bit wooden even when it’s flying heroically through the air to attack the schoolyard bullies.
But that’s a small complaint for a play that otherwise so beautifully hits all the right notes in exploring one immigrant family’s fight to achieve the American dream.
American Conservatory Theater’s “Poor Yella Rednecks” continues through May 6 at The Strand, 1127 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $25-$60. Call (415) 749-2228 or visit act-sf.org.