A conversation with James Ryen

Quang in Seattle Rep's 'Vietgone'

James Ryen calls the circumstances that led him to ‘Vietgone’ as “very serendipitous.” After his wife accepted a position at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the timing just happened to work out for him to audition for that season of shows, including the Qui Nguyen-penned production about a pair of young Vietnamese immigrants that flee to the U.S. in the mid-1970s. 

The Queen Anne & Magnolia News spoke with Ryen about his role as Quang, and the production, which runs through Jan. 1 at the Leo K. Theatre. 


What has your experience been like in your first appearance at the Seattle Rep?

Ryen: It’s been great. Seattle Rep has a very good reputation as being a well-respected regional theatre, and as an actor in theatre, it’s kind of one of those places that you definitely want to work, so I’m glad to mark that box off my bucket list.


Looking back at some of the past roles you’ve had, are there any that you find particularly helpful as you take on this production?

Ryen: I don’t know if there’s anything in my past history that’s specifically helpful regarding this one, but you know, just the work experience. You’re always going to learn on every production that you’re apart of, so I think just having that experience of being in the game for some time that just lends itself to being able to kind of approach the work in different ways if something isn’t quite working out for you, or the ability to work with different directors, different actors, different theatres. 


What are the challenges of working in historical fiction, and a production that ‘s not necessarily a true story, but based on actual events.

Ryen: The biggest fears that I had going into this production, was No. 1 the raps, and No. 2 the accent, the Vietnamese accent, just because you want to be authentic. You just want to treat it with authenticity, you know that there’s going to be people with Vietnamese backgrounds or experience in their lives, and you just want to be sure you treat that with authenticity, accuracy, and being honorable to those people.


What makes this play unique compared to other ones you’ve been in?

Ryen: Well, the mix of contemporary and historical features is definitely different from other plays I’ve done. The way that Qui writes, I mean he really involves a lot of his own life besides the plot line of his parents being the main focus of the story. He’s very much into anime and comic books and hip hop and all of those elements are a part of the script, and just the way that it treats Asian and Asian Americans as characters. They’re the focus, they’re not the sidekicks, and they’re seen as heroic and funny and sexy and witty and charming and vulnerable and complex, which is not something that we typically see for Asian and Asian American characters in theatre or film and television.


In 30 seconds, what’s your elevator pitch to people to come out and see this play?

Ryen: It’s going to change your mind about what you thought about the Vietnam War, regardless of what side you were on. It’s going to make you think. It’s going to engage you probably to a side of history that you haven’t really considered before, and it’s going to, I hope, open up your mind and heart to a current situation that’s relevant to what’s going on right now regarding over 65 million displaced refugees in the world today.


Do you think that adds a certain elements on timeliness, to know that there are these refugee crises going on as this play runs?

Ryen: Most certainly. The goal of any theatrical piece is to have people think, and the fact of what’s going on in our current world and that situation gets so many. One interesting point for us is our assistant director is actually from Syria, so her family’s displaced that she hasn’t seen in quite some time, and just having her in the rehearsal room as we went through some portions of this play just made it extremely relevant and real, not only for us as actors but also with the post-show discussion that we’ve had with people admitting that, yeah, it’s making htem think about what’s going on in the world a lot differently, but also making it more relevant and more real.


What’s been your favorite part of participating in this production?

Ryen: I would say my favorite part is hearing from the audience members, those that said, “I protested the heck out of this war, and you made me think about it in a different light,” and those that said, “I was in Vietnam. I served. And thank you for telling this part of the story,” so hearing those comments from both sides, that they are appreciative of the story, that it was relevant to them, that it mattered to them, and seeing that this play did not portray either side in a negative light, and also gave them a chance to think about those refugees that were coming over in a different way.


What does that mean to you personally to get that kind of response from the audience?

Ryen: It means a lot. My whole family’s military, so that’s the world that I’ve grown up in and am very familiar with, so to hear that from veterans is very meaningful to me, but also, as an actor of color, it’s great to have such a diverse audience react to the play and know that they haven’t seen actors of Asian descent in roles like this, like I mentioned before, to where they’re the leads, and they’re carrying the story, and it’s just providing more opportunities for actors of color to have their voices heard, their stories heard, and not just be sidekicks and side characters.