'Poor Yella Rednecks' review — a discordant musical story of immigration
Read our review of Poor Yella Rednecks, a New York-premiere play by Qui Nguyen, presented off Broadway by Manhattan Theatre Club at New York City Center.
“I see your other play,” Qui Nguyen’s mother, Tong, tells him in a 2015 interview dramatized in Poor Yella Rednecks, now running with Manhattan Theatre Club at New York City Center. “You like to write romantic and funny. But no life is all romance. Sometimes it is hard.”
A sequel of sorts to Nguyen's play Vietgone (and subtitled as such in the script), Poor Yella Rednecks finds his fictionalized parents, Tong (Maureen Sebastian, who was part of Vietgone at South Coast Repertory in California) and Quang (Ben Levin, who performed in that show at San Diego Rep) in El Dorado, Arkansas. Down on their luck but lucky in love, they believe they can get by on hard work and determination, raising their Little Man (Jon Norman Schneider and an adorable puppet designed by David Valentine) with the help of Tong’s mother, Huong (Samantha Quan). When Quang’s wife and children come calling from back in Vietnam and someone mishandles some financials, the family begins to fall apart, realizing love alone cannot solve their troubles.
This is, at least, what Poor Yella Rednecks's text conveys about the violence of assimilation and the exhaustion of poverty. Its music tells a different story, one of Tong pulling herself up by her bootstraps and the whole community getting ahead by working harder than the white Arkansas rednecks who control their job prospects. It is as if the dialogue and the songs were written for different productions, with characters frequently contradicting their earlier thoughts in repetitive, derivative raps.
Much of the shtick of Poor Yella Rednecks works otherwise: Stan Lee (Paco Tolson) and comic book characters introduce the adventures of Little Man, a '70s kid trying to fit in at a school where no one else speaks his language; a David Attenborough-type explorer narrates “the Asian waitress in her natural habitat” as Tong works day and night at a diner; and the white residents who interact with the family speak in exaggerated pop culture references and meaningless slang, their intonations the only hint to their moods. “Egg roll” is a stand-in for racist sexual harassment. “Batman cannot have two robins,” an immigration officer explains when Quang finds out his wife is still alive. “You don’t know cheeseburger?” Little Man exclaims when he finds out his grandma only speaks Vietnamese and has thus been instructed not to speak to him anymore.
These elements are aided by the clever scenic design of Tim Mackabee and the mesmerizing projection design of Jared Mezzocchi, along with elaborate martial arts and frequent '80s needle drops. This cohesive whole is, however, slashed open by the raps, which are neither written, performed, or timed well. The cast’s imitative Black American accents are also a strange directorial choice from May Adrales in a show about Asian immigrants relating to the dominant white American culture.
While Sebastian and Levin give their hearts to their characters, each song chips away at this work. A few years ago, these Hamilton-inspired ditties may have landed better, but in 2023, quoting “Immigrants: We get the job done!” only speaks to the disconnect between the show’s textual and musical realities. Not even kung fu-fighting puppets can make up for that.
Photo credit: Ben Levin and Maureen Sebastian in Poor Yella Rednecks. (Photo by Jeremy Daniel)
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