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By LAURA HEDLI
Sometimes it takes years to find a way into a story, especially when it's personal.
Qui Nguyen's grandmother died the day he began graduate school at Ohio University. To honor her memory and his family history, he wanted to write about his cousin Hung, who escaped from Vietnam by boat when he was a young boy. Not yet secure in his own voice, Nguyen took the advice of professors and peers: Capture the essence; scrap the boring parts; make the characters young adults instead of children; tell a traditional, serious Asian-American story. The result was Trial by Water, Nguyen's first off-Broadway production.
When Nguyen's parents and Hung came to see the show, the playwright was surprised at their reactions. "They didn't recognize it as our story. Hung didn't recognize it as his," Nguyen says. "At that moment, I just felt like a complete failure."
A decade later, Nguyen hopes The Inexplicable Redemption of Agent G tells the real story. Now at Theater Row in co-production between Ma-Yi Theater and Nqueyn's own Vampire Cowboys, it's the third installment in what has become known as the "Gook Story Trilogy," and for the most part, it's a fictitious series finale in which Hung returns to Vietnam for the first time with his fiancé. In keeping with Vampire Cowboys' "geek theatre" style, the production features sword fights, campy humor, and riffs on genres like Westerns and spy films. There are also several dance-offs and a cheeky parody of Katy Perry's pop song "California Gurls."
In many ways, Nguyen says Agent G is more experimental than previous Vampire Cowboys shows.
"Vampire Cowboys came about because I was rejecting what I felt like I was being pressured into writing as an Asian-American artist," he explains. "Now everybody wants to commission me to do an action-adventure story about 'fill in the blank'---whether it's about superheroes or monsters or zombies or dragons or what have you. Now I have a reputation for this, and this thing that I was very proud about, it's also confining in a strange way. [Agent G] is kind of a way to shake both those things up."
Nguyen also keeps things off balance by toying with the question of identity. He's written himself into the story, for instance, and he's also added his wife, Abby Marcus. Every couple of scenes, play-Abby questions the authenticity of play-Nguyen's voice. Hung and the other characters often stop mid-action, questioning the playwrights' choices. All five actors juggle multiple roles, and after tossing on a wig or a yellow, furry "Gookie Monster" costume, they become someone entirely new.
As it happens, the actor who plays Nguyen (Temar Underwood) is black, and that's an intentional choice. Nguyen is Asian-American, but he grew up in Arkansas in a primarily middle-class, African-American neighborhood. His upbringing especially influenced the play's final scene, in which Hung's story is told in a relatively straightforward way. In an earlier draft of the play, this scene was a one-man monologue, but after Richard Peña, Ma-Yi's artistic director, encouraged Nguyen to revisit it, it became a rap.
"It's not coming from this ironic place," says Nguyen. "That's actually a part of me as an artist that I always wanted to [explore]---to be able to write rhymes and make them as sincere as possible. At least, that's more real to me than sitting there and telling it."