STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: What does it mean to be an American? Well, here's one thing it means. In America, you have the freedom to give your own answer to that question and argue your case for it. We're hearing answers this week as part of our project A Nation Engaged.
One answer comes from playwright Qui Nguyen. His new play is called "Vietgone." That's Viet and gone, G-O-N-E. It's based on the true story of his parents, refugees from Vietnam, who fell in love in 1975 in Arkansas. NPR's Kat Chow of our Code Switch team met Nguyen after one of his shows in New York.
KAT CHOW, BYLINE: We're backstage in a little room at the Manhattan Theatre Club. And I ask Qui Nguyen to describe the play.
QUI NGUYEN: I usually describe it as a sex comedy about my parents, which is an awkward thing to say.
CHOW: He's not joking. The play is raunchy. There's even sex in a refugee camp bunk bed. But for Nguyen, it's also personal and political.
NGUYEN: It's a story about my parents. It's a story about Vietnamese refugees coming into America in a time that is very similar to now, when there was a war that people didn't know a lot about. This was my chance to tell that story from the perspectives of the Vietnamese.
CHOW: And it's told in contemporary language, including rap.
(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "VIETGONE")
MAUREEN SEBASTIAN: (As Tong, singing) Greeted by hate signs, not high-fives.
RAYMOND LEE: (As Quang, singing) They dislike us.
SEBASTIAN: (As Tong, singing) This is where we'll build a new life.
LEE: (As Quang, singing) They despise us.
SEBASTIAN: (As Tong, singing) A new home grown from an Army base.
LEE: (As Quang, singing) In a country not known for loving peeps with a yellow face.
CHOW: The play is about searching for a sense of home and belonging, something Nguyen knows firsthand. After his parents fell in love in that refugee camp and started a family, Nguyen was raised in a small town in Arkansas, one of only a few Asian-Americans there.
NGUYEN: What does it mean for me to be American? I mean, I think, for me, it's being part of a country that has all sorts of different people with a whole bunch of different backgrounds and the opportunity to share and learn from them.
And the reason why it took me so long to write something like "Vietgone" was because every time - I always thought of myself as a 16-year-old kid sitting in that audience. And I remembered any time seeing, like, a documentary about Vietnam, it always made me feel like the other. It always made me feel embarrassed because it was always taken from this perspective that made me feel so not part of the American fabric. And so when I went to write this, I wanted to make sure that the Vietnamese characters never felt like the other.
CHOW: Nguyen says his play is especially resonant considering the presidential election.
NGUYEN: I've just wrote a play about refugees in 1975. And I think that right now, you know, we are looking at a situation with Syria that is very similar. There's a lot of people in our country that are scared. But, you know, I'll say that - as well as, you know, Mexican immigrants. My parents are immigrants. I want a president who doesn't demonize that, you know?
CHOW: For writer Qui Nguyen, he says he wants his work to be a reflection of society. And he wants the next president to help shape a society that's welcoming to everyone.
Kat Chow, NPR News.
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