Sometimes, the idea of a play exists long before its author is ready to write it. The play is usually biographical, some sort of family origin story, and the idea simmers and stews in the time it takes for the writer to find their voice. Like many a son or daughter, prodigal or not, an artist must venture into the world before they can come home again. Such is the case with Qui Nguyen's Vietgone.

The 40-year-old Nguyen is the son of Vietnamese refugees who met in a camp in Arkansas in 1975. That's a hell of a story on its own—immigrant love wrapped in a tattered American flag. It's the foundation on which Nguyen was raised and a story he's always wanted to tell. His first attempt, Trial by Water, debuted Off Broadway in 2006 and, well, it wasn't quite up to his standards.

"It was complete dogshit," Nguyen told American Theatre Magazine in February 2017. Trial by Water was his first play and, given that nothing engenders self-awareness quite like hindsight, Nguyen readily offers a sober post-mortem of one of its key faults: It wasn't his play. He created pastiche by imitating his favorite writers rather than focusing on his own voice. His mother's tepid response spoke volumes: "It doesn't sound like you."

In the time since Trial by Water, Nguyen has embraced his personal style and become one of America's most successful purveyors of what is affectionately called "geek theatre." In the early 2000s, Nguyen co-founded the Obie Award-winning New York-based company Vampire Cowboys. The company’s productions pioneered a frenetic comic book-inspired aesthetic. Imagine the old Adam West “Batman” series without the cheese, marinated in a pop culture glaze, and served alongside a heaping side of action-adventure narrative.

Vampire Cowboys’ mission prioritized another of Nguyen's theatrical motives: the importance of diversity and representation on stage. The heroes of Vampire Cowboys’ plays weren't the same old Brad Pitt or John Wayne types: they were women, people of color, and/or LGBT. There was no reason that onstage Asians, for example, couldn't exude strength, sex appeal and, most importantly, agency over their own narrative. In a society that too often paints minorities as weak and foreign, Nguyen wanted to create images of courage, toughness, and belonging.

Nguyen's career took off in 2013 with the success of his Dungeons and Dragons-inspired play She Kills Monsters, which has since been produced over 300 hundred times nationwide. Success begat opportunity and Nguyen was suddenly on the radar of producers across the country. He had matured as an artist since Trial by Water debuted. He had found his voice and, with it, the confidence to once again tackle the story he always wanted to tell. It was time to come home again.

Vietgone is a play that does more than simply defy convention. It draws from Nguyen's geek theatre fount with breakneck pacing, wry humor, and the occasional ninja battle. Its compelling, multi-layered characters fight to take control of their destinies while launching into Hamilton-esque hip-hop asides. Nguyen handles sensitive topics—America’s involvement in Vietnam and the plight of that nation's refugees—with level-headed wisdom and respect, all while dancing the delicate line between spectacle and substance.

The Vietnamese-born characters—his parents included—don’t speak in broken English. Their syntax is streetwise and their speech projects brash confidence. In contrast, the Americans are reduced to their own form of “ching-chong” Broken English. “Yee-haw,” exclaims one character whose dialogue is entirely made of bellows and foodstuffs: “Get’er done! Cheeseburger, waffle fries, cholesterol!” This “othering” of Americans mirrors the common stereotypical dialogue assigned to Asian characters. Vietgone’s subversion of language decenters the white experience, allowing the Asian characters to fully occupy their own narrative.

Nguyen deploys a multitude of tricks and trimmings, emptying his utility belt of nearly every imaginable theatrical flourish. His most effective is a clever and deceptively elegant framing device. The play opens with a character called The Playwright who introduces the world he has created. It’s a world full of action and adventure, humor and loss, navigated by protagonists (his parents) who are introduced as comic book heroes come to life. Nguyen wrote a version of himself into Vietgone because the story of the play is more than just boy meets girl: It’s about the choices we make in how we tell our families’ stories. It’s about the many different ways we contextualize experience, champion authenticity, and communicate our identity. It’s about finding a voice.

-Robert Montenegro