American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.) is presenting Qui Nguyen’s Poor Yella Rednecks, March 30 – May 7.
After the rollicking success of Vietgone in 2018, Nguyen returns to A.C.T. with the second chapter in his kickass, hip-hop trilogy about a Vietnamese family who swap war-torn Saigon for rural 1970’s Arkansas. The lovers from part one, Tong and Quang, are now married…that’s the good news. The bad news is that with low-wage jobs, a son struggling with English, and rumors of old flames, the challenges are only beginning. Nguyen reunites with director Jaime Castañeda to draw from rap, leap into martial arts, and dig deep into his own family journey. Funny, sexy, and subversive, Poor Yella Rednecks confirms Nguyen as a groundbreaking American voice.
The cast for Poor Yella Rednecks includes Will Dao, Christine Jamlig, Jenny Nguyen Nelson, Hyunmin Rhee, and Jomar Tagatac. Ben Chau-Chiu, Amanda Le Nguyen, Jed Parsario are the understudies.
Hyunmin Rhee makes his debut at the American Conservatory Theatre A.C.T. with Poor Yella Rednecks, but he is no stranger to the role of Quang. When I heard that he was starring as Quang in the Guthrie Theatre’s production of Vietgone last Fall, I travelled with Jason Ma to see the show and we were not disappointed. I can’t wait to bring my family in San Francisco to see this much anticipated sequel.
His recent regional works include Jung in Kim’s Convenience at the Westport Country Playhouse, Albert in Mike Lew’s Tiger Style! at TheatreSquared, Oklahoma! and The Merry Wives of Windsor at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. In New York, he has appeared Off-Broadway in Damon Chua’s The Emperor’s Nightingale with Pan Asian Repertory Theatre and The Waiting Room (Primary Stages Workshop). Television credits include The Helpsters (Guest Star) on Apple TV Plus, FBI (Co-star) on CBS, and others.
Hyunmin is getting ready to travel to San Francisco to begin rehearsals and agreed to answer a few questions via email.
Lia: What excites you most about revisiting the wild and wacky world of Qui Nguyen and the role of Quang?
Hyunmin: I think what excites me the most about being in the world Qui has created as Quang is to just have fun and get crazy. Not only with the ever-freeing and raunchy words that he’s offered through the script, but being able to relinquish Quang’s and the story’s emotions as a whole through dance, rap, and fight sequences. Asian American actors rarely get to have these kinds of opportunities..to be “wild” and unapologetic about it. And to be able to do it back to back? That’s what excites me. To be able to be free and crazy.
Lia: Have you worked in the Bay Area before?
Hyunmin: This is actually my first time working in the Bay Area. I visited pre-pandemic with my parents and enjoyed its nuances and vibe. So super grateful to be able to go back and be fully immersed in what the Bay Area theatre community offers. And humbled to share what I can offer to the community there as well. I won’t be so lonely though. I have a good friend in Will Dao whom I’ll be sharing the stage with in PYR and also, Mina Morita and her husband, Adam, whom I had the fortune of meeting while working in Vietgone at the Guthrie. All of them are like my family and I’m super glad to be able to reunite and spend some time with them. Speaking of Mina, she’s back in the Bay around the same time to direct English at Berkeley Rep! So SF peeps, please go and support yours truly! Mina is one of the best leaders, directors, and human and she will turn up the heat for sure. I mean…she’s a Bay Area person through and through…so I don’t need to say more.
Lia: In 2022, you worked on The Emperor’s Nightingale in New York, Tiger Style! in Arkansas, Kim’s Convenience in Connecticut and Vietgone in Minneapolis. Do you have a favorite of the characters that you portrayed?
Hyunmin: This is a tough question. Because each of their stories that I had the humbling opportunity to be a part of brought their respective joys and beauty. But if I had to choose, it’d be Quang in Vietgone. Quang was my favorite character that I was able to portray because characters like him are very unusual in the Asian theater scene. But Quang broke all those barriers for me…with he’s confidence, fierceness, boldness, unapologetic presence on stage, all the way to his vulnerability. I was able to carry all that and just take up that crazy ass space at the Guthrie.
But I can’t end without saying that the most MEANINGFUL character I’ve portrayed…definitely has to be Jung in Kim’s Convenience. Jung is me and I am Jung. The two scenes that I had throughout the whole play, the scenes with my mom and then with dad at the end… I didn’t have those exactly conversations with my own parents, but they mirror so much of my upbringing. He’s the character that hits closest to home when it comes to being relatable. Not only being Korean, but dealing with Korean American first gen to 1.5 gen differences. It was so close to home and it was beautiful.
Lia: What was it like to perform in the last three shows in the different parts of the country?
Hyunmin: It just happened out of nowhere! I mean, even before the pandemic, I couldn’t even begin to fathom travelling as much as I have let alone play major roles in them at these respective theaters. But crazy how life hits you sometimes. And I am super grateful and proud of how 2022 unfolded. Praise Jesus for all the open doors. It was exciting to meet new people who’ve become family and to have been able to share what I’ve always wanted to share in these different parts of the country. Only downside would be that I had to be away from my wife and daughter frequently. My daughter is growing up and changing ever so quickly…and it’s always difficult for me to have to miss a beat. And to place the responsibilities that come as parents all on the shoulders of my wife is…I mean I feel so grateful for her continual support…but so sorry at the same time for having to leave her to do parenting on her own.
Lia: What inspires you?
Hyunmin: My wife. cliche, but the answer is my wife over and over again. For someone who’s not in this industry and yet has so much clarity as to what actually takes place in the theater world, to what is needed to make it happen in this crazy industry…to dialing it down to supporting me to the fullest to continue being in it…she’s awesome. Even through all of these blessings that I’ve had of travelling and performing in different parts of this country, there were times where things got stagnant and difficult as an artist and human. And knowing that my wife has my back always is what inspires me to keep looking ahead and to allow myself to tap into these characters freely in their stories.
And also, the fellow artists and hard working stage hands off the stage that I’ve had the honor of meeting along the way. We are all in this together. And you get to feel that togetherness as we build these shows and just the passion and fire I’ve felt from them whether it was at New York through Pan Asian, in Theatresquared at Arkansas, Westport Country Playhouse in CT, or Guthrie in MN…it was absolutely inspiring. More than that, regardless of where I land, there will always be a family waiting to be built together as we build these shows. There’s an ongoing love and sacrifice for the arts that I was truly able to experience through this past year.
And lastly, friends and supporters of the arts that I’ve met in this past year in YOU and Jason Ma. I ain’t kissing ass. I’m hundred percent honest when I say this. Jason came out all the way to Arkansas to watch Tiger Style!...that’s where I met him. And then both of you came out to Connecticut to watch Kim’s...and THEN both of you made it all the way out to Minneapolis to watch Vietgone! And for you to have gone through all that you went through with flights being cancelled last minute…then going to find another flight just in time for you to get into Minneapolis to catch the show. What more can I say?
And all the while showing love and support to not only Asian American artists, but all artists of color especially in the city by showing up and broadcasting what shows they’re in. You inspire me. You are so giving and you don’t expect anything in return…other than wanting all of us to be OK and for us to continue to thrive. So thank you, Lia. I always tell you this…but I don’t know what I have done to treasure a friend like you.
Lia: What is it like for you to be an Asian American theater maker at this time?
Hyunmin: Humbling and proud. As we see this industry gradually changing, it’s still very much so predominantly white. And not just in the field of actors, but also other aspects of theatre, right? We’re talking front office personnels to stage management to stage hands, etc. in these regional theatre companies…I strongly feel as though more BIPOC theater makers can fill up those spaces. So yeah, it is humbling and if I may, super necessary, to be an Asian American theater maker at this very moment let alone being able to do it in a way where it’s outside of the norm of how Asians are usually portrayed on stage.
Also, if I may share one experience I recently had.
I’ve been attending the EPA open call auditions recently for work in the city after I get back and also to continue to keep the rust off as we transition more and more into the in-person auditions. And from just the couple of times I went in, I was one of the two Asians at these calls. Majority white actors and actresses in these waiting rooms. In addition to that, I actually came across a post from a mutual friend of ours, Viet Vo, who posted about this current situation on instagram and said to myself afterwards, “yup, I was there just yesterday and I was the only Asian American actor in the audition. At least around my appointment time.”
Hear me out, there are so many inspiring artists who are and have been at the forefront of making a change and I’m absolutely nowhere near who they are and what they do. But we gotta continue to put ourselves in that grind, that fire, to keep change going. Again, my example is a bare minimum to what other Asian American actors are doing to change the course in this industry, but I thought it was important to just lift my voice here.
Lia: What is on your wish list of future projects that you would like to tackle?
Hyunmin: Theatre and live stages will always be my first love in acting. Nothing can and will change that. But I want to tackle TV and Film. Be a recurring role in a TV show. Then hopefully as I build, I can move onto being in Films. I want to put it out to the universe that that’s what I want and will do.
Poor Yella Rednecks performs at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater (1127 Market St., San Francisco) March 30-May 7, 2023. Press nights for Poor Yella Rednecks will be held on Wednesday, April 12 and Thursday, April 13. Single tickets (ranging from $25-$60) are available now at the A.C.T. Box Office at 415-749-2228 or online at act-sf.org. Ticket prices are subject to change without notice.
Directed by Jaime Castañeda, the creative team for Poor Yella Rednecks includes Tanya Orellana (Scenic Designer), Jessie Amoroso (Costume Designer), Yi Zhao (Lighting Designer), Jake Rodriguez (Sound Designer), Yee Eun Nam (Projection Designer), James Ortiz (Puppet Designer), and Shammy Dee (Composer).
In connection with Poor Yella Rednecks, A.C.T. will offer numerous InterACT events-many of which are presented free of charge-that will give patrons opportunities to get closer to the action while having an entire night out at the theater. Visit act-sf.org/interact to learn more about subscribing to these events throughout the season.
LIA CHANG is a Chinese-American actor, a multi-media content producer, an award-winning filmmaker, and a photo activist and documentarian, who lifts up and amplifies BIPOC communities and artists and the institutions that support them. Lia is also the host and Executive Producer of BACKSTAGE PASS WITH LIA CHANG, an Arts and Entertainment and Lifestyle series that airs on Sundays at 6:30pm on FIOS 34, RCN 83, Spectrum 56/1996 and MNN2.
Lia moved to New York from her home in San Francisco when she was 17 years of age and made her stage debut as Liat in a national tour of South Pacific with Barbara Eden and Robert Goulet. She spent many years working extensively Off-Broadway, including Signature Theatre’s revival of Sam Shepard’s Chicago. Her film work includes Wolf, New Jack City, A Kiss Before Dying, King of New York, Big Trouble in Little China, and The Last Dragon. The decades of being viewed by others through the narrow lens of “Asian actor” in the industry brought Lia to a turning point, and she picked up her camera, determined to create awareness by documenting the work and the lives of her BIPOC colleagues, resulting in the creation of thousands of photographs and pieces of video. Her photo archives are housed in the AAPI collection in the Library of Congress’ Asian Reading Room under “Lia Chang Theater Portfolio collection,1989-2011” and in the “Lia Chang Photography Collection” in The Billy Rose Theatre Division of the New York Public Library.
Lia’s awards include the 2000 OCA Chinese American Journalist Award, the 2001 AAJA National Award for New Media and the 2022 Prospect Muse Award. She is also an AAJA Executive Leadership Graduate, a Western Knight Fellow at USC’s Annenberg College of Communications for Specialized Journalism on Entertainment Journalism in the Digital Age, a National Press Photographers Association Visual Edge/Visual Journalism Fellow at the Poynter Institute for New Media, and a Scripps Howard New Media Fellow at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.
More recently, Lia co-founded Bev’s Girl Films, which makes films that foster inclusion and diversity on both sides of the camera. She executive produced and starred in the indie films Hide and Seek (AA Film Lab’s 2015 72 Hour Shootout Best Actress Nomination), Rom-Com Gone Wrong, and When the World Was Young (2021 DisOrient Film Audience Choice Award for Best Short Narrative).