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Qui Nguyen Making Noise with His Authentic Artistry

Throughout his storytelling journey, playwright, screenwriter and director Qui Nguyen is proud to have discovered the value of staying true to self. 

When he was 8 years old, Nguyen says that he dreamed of three potential career paths that ultimately laid the groundwork for the artist he would become. He wanted to be an actor, a rapper or a martial arts instructor.

"Obviously, as I grew up, I realized I had huge stage fright and can't be other people than myself, I love rap but I don't have the tongue dexterity to spit rhymes very fast, and finally, I'm just too out of shape to be a martial artist," said Nguyen. "But what I can do is put all the things I love the most in my plays."

As a playwright, his credits include Vietgone (2015), Poor Yella Rednecks (2019) and Revenge Song (2020) among others. He also co-founded the New York-based Vampire Cowboys, an OBIE Award-winning troupe formed in the early 2000s that specialized in "geek theatre" incorporating action/adventure themes and dark comedy with a comic book aesthetic. She Kills Monsters (2011), one of his most popular works for the troupe, is still a top draw for high schools and colleges. 

"All my plays, such as She Kills Monsters and Vietgone are genre-based," Nguyen explained. "They are all reflections of what I loved as a kid, regardless of how intricate the stories are or how mature the themes may be. At the end of the day, I just wanted to make something that I, as a 10, or 11 or 12-year-old, would have loved seeing such as great comedy, great fights and music I loved to listen to the most, which was hip-hop."

All three components are pivotal aspects within the entertaining foundation of Vietgone, the true story of how Nguyen's parents, Quang and Tong, met in a refugee relocation camp in 1975 Arkansas during the Vietnam War. The play speaks volumes for him because it reveals the essence of his artistry as well as the importance of his grandmother's imprint.

"This is my origin story not only as a human being but as an artist as well," Nguyen said. "I don't think I would've become a writer if it wasn't for my grandmother, who told me when I was very young, maybe 8 or 9, why she told me so many stories. She said when she escaped Vietnam, she left very fast without packing her bags, carrying jewelry or money, or (bringing) photos from home. All she had was her stories. And honestly, I think stories are the only thing anyone has of value."

Nguyen's goal is to cover the Vietnamese diaspora as a trilogy. Poor Yella Rednecks, the sequel to Vietgone will be followed by an engrossing story of survival centered on his cousin from Vietnam who was adopted by his parents in the late 1980s. 

"I grew up with him and I love him — he is my sibling," Nguyen said. "The first play is about my dad, the second play is about my mom, and the third play is about my brother. And all of them are essentially about my grandmother."

Photo of Sami Ma (Tong) and Hyunmin Rhee (Quang) in Vietgone by Mikki Schaffner.

Outside the realm of theatre, Nguyen, based in both Los Angeles and Cincinnati, has also found success in TV and film. In addition to writing for Marvel Studios, his Disney credits include co-writing Raya and the Last Dragon (nominated for a 2022 Academy Award for Best Animated Feature) and writing and co-directing Strange World. He is also the recipient of a 2016 Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing in a Preschool Animated Program (Peg+Cat).

Last fall The New York Times noted, "Nguyen's distinctive style is marked by fluency in various emotional tones and pop-cultural vernaculars." Ever since Vampire Cowboys became the rare theatre troupe to have a booth at Comic Con, Nguyen has been comfortable allowing himself and his work to exist authentically, reaching cross-generational audiences ready and willing to try something different.

"I've built a career around doing things on my own," Nguyen said. "If you're not going to be attached to a big institution that has history and a lot of season ticket holders, you have to make noise. You have to shine brighter. You have to be shinier. You have to give people a reason to choose you."

Vietgone continues in the Rosenthal Shelterhouse Theatre through June 2.