Twin Cities guitarist and rhyme slinger Oscar Pagnaroth Un never imagined he would be working in a playhouse, much less one as vaunted as the Guthrie Theater.
In fact, before he was hired as a rap consultant for "Vietgone," Qui Nguyen's innovative hip-hop-inflected mix of memoir and music that kicks off the Guthrie's new season Friday, he had never even set foot into the leading regional company.
Now, he's in awe of it.
"Wow, it's almost a foreign experience," said Un, who goes by the stage name Sao Mao and is the go-to person for anything that has to do with music. "We're trying to tell this important story in a rhythmic and melodic way — to give people a diverse experience with moments of comedy, drama and music."
As Lin-Manuel Miranda was banging on the doors of the theater world with "Hamilton," using hip-hop to tell the nation's origin story, Nguyen was right there with an origin story of his own, employing similar storytelling devices. "Hamilton" premiered January 2015 in New York, while "Vietgone" made its debut in October 2015 at the South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, Calif.
But the two properties use music differently. "Hamilton" is almost operatic in structure, with rap infused throughout. In "Vietgone," the play pauses and a full-on rap concert busts out onstage.
"We don't often get to see ourselves in these bright, bold colors while being fierce, fully angry, fully loving, sexy and not exoticized," said director Mina Morita, artistic director of the Bay Area's Crowded Fire Theater. "And it's nice to have a story like this that's about resilience and has superheroes and fantastic fights."
Qui, co-founder of the Vampire Cowboys Theatre Company in New York, wrote the brash, irreverent memoir about his family's journey. "Vietgone" is a love story about two people who're trying to survive a war and find a place they can call home. After Saigon falls in 1975, refugees Quan and Tong land in America, where they take in far-out exotica such as waffle fries and cheeseburgers. The couple's experiences give audiences new eyes.
"Vietgone" "recontextualizes how we view the immigrant-outsider-refugee story, turning our notions of who these people are on its head," said Mark Valdez, artistic director of Mixed Blood Theatre, where he staged "Vietgone" in 2017. "And it empowers and centers people who're on the margins and traditionally viewed as objects of pity. Instead, they're heroes."
It also gives us a perspective we rarely see about the Vietnam War.
For Un, coaching actors with their cadences and melodies has allowed him to show some of the theatrical possibilities of hip-hop, which many limit to its most bracing elements.
"There are many nuances inside hip-hop, like pop hip-hop, conscious hip-hop, etcetera," said Un. "I show [the actors] how to sound like they're about to cry inside a phrase or to rap triumphant or confrontational. We're bouncing around like a ball with rising action, drama, comedy — it all happens in short bursts."
"Vietgone" celebrates America as both a place with a rowdy mix of different people and an idea captured in tapestries, murals and song, Morita said.
"Many people have come to America either as immigrants, refugees, captives and [the nation] is home for all of us," said Morita. "We all belong here. And we can, with solidarity and effort, create a space where we can truly show up as ourselves — where we can be vulnerable, faulty, grow and fulfill our potential."
Who: By Qui Nguyen. Directed by Mina Morita.
Where: Guthrie Theater, 818 S. 2nd St., Mpls.
When: 7:30 p.m. Tue.-Fri., 1 & 7:30 p.m. Sat. & Sun. Ends Oct. 16.
Tickets: $20-$79. 612-377-2224 or guthrietheater.org.
Protocol: Masks are encouraged for Tue.-Sat. performances and required for Sunday shows.