Hmong-American stories on stage

Friday, January 21, 2011

Sun Mee Chomet and Saikong Yang in a scene from Katie Ka Vang's "WTF"

'Here's the thing that bothers me about the Asian-American stories we often see onstage," actor and playwright Sun Mee Chomet said last week. "So many of these plays are immigration stories about people escaping through rice paddies or dodging bullets. Those FOB [fresh-off-the-boat] stories are interesting, but at some point we're just Americans, and our plays should be about living here with all its joys and heartbreaks and secrets."

Chomet is getting her wish. She stars in Katie Ka Vang's "WTF," a contemporary look at a group of Hmong Americans. It tackles taboo subjects in the Hmong community, including intergenerational conflicts, polygamy and drug addiction.

The play, which premieres Friday at Mixed Blood Theatre under the aegis of Mu Performing Arts, is Vang's first full-length work.

"It's been both an exhilarating and nerve-racking experience," said Vang, who started writing "WTF" two years ago. "For me, the biggest hurdles haven't been that I'm airing laundry. I'm not trying to write for the Hmong community -- to be a spokesperson. My challenge has been stylistic. I'm a poet who's just trying to write a little love story about two people who, despite all odds, end up together."

Vang uses hip-hop and spoken-word aesthetics in "WTF."

The nine-character play centers on two twentysomethings: True, played by Chomet, and Sunday, her best friend from childhood. True is reeling from the death of her mother, who was her father's third wife. She is one of 16 siblings. Sunday's parents both struggle with addiction.

Vang may not want to be a spokesperson, but because there are so few works from the Hmong tradition -- and because she has been building a reputation in performance circles -- it's an almost futile struggle.

"There really is no Hmong literary tradition to speak of," said Chomet, who served as a dramaturg on the play. "You can look at that as a tragedy or as an opportunity. Katie is courageously creating that canon."

History of displacement

The Hmong were engaged by the Central Intelligence Agency to fight secret wars in Southeast Asia. When the conflict wound down, they fled the battlefields and mountains, and many arrived in the United States in the mid-1970s. Today, there are about 250,000 Hmong in the United States, with one of the largest populations residing in Minnesota.

Vang, 31, is part of that diaspora. Born in Santa Ana, Calif., she was partly educated in Colorado, where she faced challenges that bicultural kids confront.

"My parents were refugees or immigrants," she said. "I was the only one out of my parents' seven children born in this country. My family grew up Christian, but many of my friends practiced animism, shamanism, spiritual calling. There is no one narrative that defines all of us."

Vang moved to the Twin Cities in 1999 to be closer to her two older sisters and their families. Since then, she studied marketing management at Concordia University. She also became a fixture on the poetry and performance scene, releasing a chapbook, "Never Said," and doing one-woman shows.

While she has been honing her voice as a poet and playwright, she had other ambitions as a child.

"I always wanted to be a singer, to be in music," she said, remembering how she once was the lead singer of a Christian rock band and served as a youth choir director for a church in Colorado. "The best way to say it is that I've always wanted to tell stories."

Vang has won grants from the Jerome Foundation, which gave commissioning support for "WTF," and the Minnesota State Arts Board. She is part of a national leadership initiative sponsored by the Theater Communications Group and helps to develop artists as a part-time job at the Center for Hmong Arts and Talent.

'Limbo generation'

"Katie is part of the limbo generation," said Mu co-founder Rick Shiomi. These "children of immigrants struggle with balancing their parents' tradition while bending to a new culture. Katie has captured that intergenerational tension in a really fresh, compelling way in substance and style."

For her part, Vang said the play is a way to explain herself, and to show "how we create ourselves in a contemporary society when the blueprint that we have, that our parents have, no longer works.

"When the Hmong came over here in 1975, it wasn't the end of their story," she said. "It was a beginning."

Chomet said that she is excited to be part of the play, and to witness the literary birth of a new playwright.

"'WTF' is not just a new play by a new playwright," added Chomet. "It's about a member of a misunderstood, stereotyped community stepping bravely into her power, her own voice."

Rohan Preston • 612-673-4390

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