The Vampire Cowboys’ “The Inexplicable Redemption of Agent G” at the Incubator Arts Project
In May 1988, playwright Qui Nguyen’s aunt and uncle and two young cousins boarded a small fishing boat with 104 other Vietnamese setting out towards the Philippines and, hopefully, a better life. The trip was supposed to be short, but the engines died, leaving the boat adrift in the South China Sea for over a month. Nguyen’s aunt and uncle both succumbed to hunger and dehydration. The older of the two cousins, Huy, following his parents’ death, fell off the boat and drowned. In desperation, some refugees resorted to murder and cannibalism, but as Nguyen is at odds to explain, such gruesome details are merely a backdrop–albeit a lurid one of depressingly compelling interest to arts producers–to his family’s drama. The younger of the two children, Hung, merely eight years old, survived the ordeal and joined Nguyen’s family in Little Rock, where he grew up as Nguyen’s brother.
That story lies at the heart of The Inexplicable Redemption of Agent G, the latest show from the Vampire Cowboys, the geek theater company co-founded by Nguyen, which runs at the Incubator Arts Project through April 16 (tickets $18). Now, this was my first Vampire Cowboys show, and if that story–by turns rubberneckingly lurid, sweetly inspiring, and, in Nguyen’s experience, ethnically tricky–sounds heavy for a company primarily known for presenting genre-movie-inspired pastiches with a comic book aesthetic, well, it is. Or maybe I was just misled by descriptions of the company’s work. Certainly their reputation rests on how they use aesthetics to explore (hopefully) complex questions, and certainly those hallmark aesthetics are there. The play careens sometimes satyrically, sometimes inexplicably, between kung-fu spy movie send-up and Oscar-wannabe drama, with a porno chorus, b-boys, dance-offs, and rap battles thrown in, all occurring within a self-consciously meta conceit in which the playwright Qui Nguyen (played by a black actor) constructs the work in real-time, responding both to his characters’ demands as well as his critics’ put-downs.
The latter actually plays a pretty big role in the show. Nguyen has tackled the story before, in Trial by Water, produced by Ma-Yi Theater Company, a production that was apparently (to judge by the script) met with as much ambivalence as praise by both critics and the Vietnamese community, who nitpicked the shit out of it, leaving with Nguyen adrift in a sea of his own, trapped between a desire to be true to himself as an individual and artist (all that stuff written off so easily as the “geek” part of his aesthetic), while navigating the doubly treacherous trek between the theater world (where he’s obligated to fulfill a tokenistic slot as “Asian American” for artistic directors) and the more politically correct members of his “community” who question whether his representation of “Vietnamese” people doing something that actually happened negatively reflects on his…what? Ethnicity? (Depends on who’s asking.) Nationality? (He’s American, mother-fuckers.) It’s a clusterfuck to find yourself in, and Nguyen the playwright (both person and character) can’t find a way out to actually tell the story he wants to tell, which is just plain his family story.
So what the hell am I supposed to do with this? Nguyen’s re-telling a story because the first time it didn’t seem to work for everyone, so he sets out to tell the story of how impossible it is to make everyone else happy as well as to do the story justice, and make the point that he can’t make everyone happy. So does it matter that I didn’t like the play? Or does it matter more that despite not liking it I’ve been grappling with why since seeing it? That writing this is a pain because the issues he’s raised are so complex I find it hard to do them justice as a writer, which is, of course, the issue at the heart of the play? Honestly, I didn’t like it but I think that I have to tell people to go see it. One way or another, it’s provocative, and has to be dealt with, and that’s certainly one form of success.
So let’s get back to the script of our review. What is the audience gonna get going in to this show? The play opens in stereotypical Vietnam War remembrance fashion, complete with the Stones’ “Paint It Black.” A super secret agent, Hung (Paco Tolson) killing a bunch of Viet Cong in cone hats, on a stage with large projection screens in the shape of letters spelling “Vietnam.” Then quite literally, the actors get tired of the ridiculousness of the story and drag the playwright Qui Nguyen (William Jackson Harper) onstage to torture him into returning to their story and doing it justice. Forced by titty-twisters to comply, the playwright begins a hackneyed tale in which Hung and his hot superspy girlfriend Molly (Bonnie Sherman) are drawn back to his native Vietnam by a mysterious letter from San (Amy Kim Washke), the daughter of a man Hung killed while fleeing Vietnam. The story of the man’s death is a dramatization of Nguyen’s family’s experience: Hung’s younger brother is killed and eaten by the man on the boat adrift in the South China Sea. So Hung kills the man and cannibalizes him. Now the man’s daughter is his only link to what happened to his own parents.
Pretty hackneyed right? Well, the characters agree and constantly interrogate the playwright about their ridiculous directions (hot chick licking the barrel of a gun after dispatching a foe, really?) and the playwright’s general inability to tell the story “right.” Oh, and why exactly is he portraying himself as a black man? And what’s with his male Asian characters always dating white chicks? And speaking of gender, why are all his Asian female characters either hookers or suffering virgins? Could we get more Asian cliche? Why yes! Let’s have them speak “Vietnamese” as an endless repetition of the phrase “ching-chong,” and throw in a rapping muppet named Gooky!
Meanwhile, the playwright is recounting his own “actual” self-doubts. His wife is tearing his script apart because it’s not his voice, but adding himself into the play as a character is way too literal. Oh, and fuck him for making her a character. And then there’s the theater world, where he’s always going to be the “other Asian-American playwright” behind David Henry Hwang, and oh, didn’t Hwang already use the “playwright constructing his own play” device?
So what we get is a fragmentary narrative in which different aesthetic skins are overlaid onto the basic story, in attempts to either make it play for what it is or to make it play for a certain audience, as playwright continues to fail to do the story justice. It is, after all, his family story. And ultimately, what the play tries to do is to cover its bases, to problematize the act of storytelling such that the when we’re finally given the unaffected story itself, we have no choice but to deal with the story, to experience it as it is, for what it is.
So why don’t I like the play? There’s a lot of things I want to say, but just as Nguyen himself counters his own critics, I’m forced to be ambivalent about pretty much everything. For instance, take the humor. With its meta-pastiche and winking irony, the play sits comfortably in the same vein as Family Guy. It sets up its transgressive humor–by turns sexist or racialist–within a framework of knowingness. But is the humor provocative and forcing us to consider it as an object through its distancing techniques, or is it really just letting us have our cake and eat it too?
And does it make a difference if the subject is ethnicity versus gender? Is the ironic embrace of stereotypes more okay for Nguyen to tackle if the subject is his Asian-American identity (a construct foisted on him as a function of being American, rather than Asian…because, you know, there’s no difference between Chinese, Japanese, Korean, whatever…) than gender? The play does sort of want to have it both ways. Its representation women is deeply geek, in the Joss Whedon vein, where, apparently, we’re still supposed to believe that turning a stereotype on its head is liberating. Nguyen even pokes fun at Vampire Cowboys’ conceit of weak male characters and strong female ones. But isn’t there a relationship between Whedon’s Buffy and the grotesque misogyny of emo music? Buffy turns the putative victim into an ass-kicker more physically powerful than her male cohort, but the psychological price is immense and serves as the dramatic basis of the story, leaving me to wonder why more people don’t question Whedon’s intense sexism. Buffy is a victim, because she’s victimized. She just happens to fight back rather than take it, but the result is the same, which isn’t so different than the emo vision of feminity, in which “sensitive” guys are victimized by the victimization of the women they pine for.
So that’s one thing, but obviously it’s a complex thicket of meta-devices, conscious irony, and distancing techniques that seem to hope to make a point without ever saying anything, because if nothing can be taken at face value, then we haven’t said anything, and therefore couldn’t have said something disagreeable. Problematization becomes an end in and of itself, and indeed, that’s actually what the play does. For instance, look at the opening paragraph of this review. Is that story actually true?
The play would have us believe so, because the play is about telling that story correctly. But this is, I think, why I don’t like the play: for all Nguyen’s willingness to grapple with the issues of authenticity that he’s confronted with as “Asian-American” or “Vietnamese” (depending on who’s demanding his authenticity), he never actually seems to address why authenticity is important at all. Quite the opposite, after flipping a middle finger at everyone else’s demands that he be “authentic” to their specification, he still seems to want to audience to see something “authentic” in the story, even though it’s in a play, a fictional, artificial reality he’s already made clear is highly plastic.
So why should we believe it? Really. I’m dead serious. It always strikes me as odd when I see something like this, where a writer grapples with so many issues of authenticity of representation yet still, after excoriating the very idea that authenticity is anything other than someone else’s expectation, wants the audience to accept his own expectation of authenticity. If you’ve made authenticity as aesthetic ideal by tackling it in many ways, there’s absolutely no reason to believe in anything. In fact, I read several interviews with Nguyen before writing this trying to discern whether the “actual” story at the end of the play is the true one, and couldn’t. Were there really two brothers on the boat? For Trial by Water, it appeared that the one who died was concocted as a plot device. And what about the parents? Did they actually die on the boat, as Agent G says, or did they stay behind as in Trial by Water?
The audience actually has no way to know, but I’m not convinced that Nguyen actually appreciates this. Recently, there’s been a conversation about the use of narrative in theater, and I took the position of doubting the value of narrative when others (usually playwrights) were defending it. But here’s a case in point: it’s amazing to me that an artist who works in such an irony-laden, lustfully aesthetic form is, in the end, as beholden to witness-bearing authentic truthfulness as the memoir-loving Oprah Winfrey.
For all the aesthetic and narrative differences, both remain entranced by the power of a story to reveal truth. But taking in Agent G, I come to completely the opposite conclusion that, I think, the play intended: stories are malleable to the ends of those interpreting them. Nguyen wants us to understand the story as he understands it. That’s fine, but I’m not sure that’s the “truth” of the story, either. Nguyen, like Oprah, believes the author isn’t dead; he wants the story to be understood for what he believes it is. In the process he discounts the audience, the individuals taking in the story and, potentially, being affected by it. There is one right way to understand it, and the play itself is a contextualization of the story rather than the story itself.
But again, as an audience member, I simply have no way of knowing what is or is not true. I suppose it’s equally possible that Nguyen is a complete hipster nihilist, that none of it’s true, that all the meta irony just sets up the audience to take in and deal with a story that’s pure fiction, to truly focus on how we consume the story. So which is it? Is this Adaptation, a complete rejection of truth, and succumbing to the pure vapid pleasures of story-telling and the ability of the artist to use artifice to move the audience, or is this Ararat, Atom Egoyan’s amazing film whose irony reveals the inability of artifice to actually represent experience, focusing the audience, through its artifice, on what it cannot actually find a language to say?
The short answer is: I don’t know. And that’s probably why I left both deeply thoughtful–yes, moved–but skeptical, all at the same time. So I’ll reiterate: you should see Vampire Cowboys’ The Inexplicable Redemption of Agent G. But I do think that for all its heroic attempts to deal with so many complex issues, it’s flawed. But fuck, props–mad props–to Qui Nguyen for aiming so high. People who want to write off the Vampire Cowboys as nothing more than hipster or geek crap miss by a long shot. Even if Agent G is flawed, it proves, by the end, the capacity for performance of this nature to ask deeply problematic questions. And I fully accept that I may be wrong. But I don’t think so. My story is, er, the right one.