Listen: DC3B Lao Hmong play

MPR’s Doualy Xaykaothao interviews local playwright May Lee-Yang and poet/playwright Saymoukda Duangphouxay Vongsay about “Hmong-Lao Friendship Play.”

The two southeast Asian playwrights are based in the Twin Cities. The women, one Lao and one Hmong, have been friends for years. But they recently decided to team up on a production for the first time. Their play, performed at Penumbra Theater in St. Paul, explores their heritage and the connections that define them and their families.


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[MUSIC PLAYING] DOUALY XAYKAOTHAO: This is MPR News. I'm Doualy Xaykaothao, in for Tom Weber. And now, a story of friendship between two Southeast Asian playwrights based in the Twin Cities. The woman, one Lao and one Hmong, have been friends for years, but they recently decided to team up on a production for the first time.

Their play will be performed at Penumbra Theater in Saint Paul at the end of the month. It explores their heritage and the connections that define them and their families. As we began our conversation about the play, I asked them first to tell me the story of their names.

SAYMOUKDA DUANGPHOUXAY VONGSAY: So the Lao pronunciation of my name is Saymoukda Duangphouxay Vongsay. I also go by Mouks. And also, if you want to call me Queen, that's totally OK.


SAYMOUKDA DUANGPHOUXAY VONGSAY: Queen. And in Lao, it means string of pearls.

MAY LEE-YANG: So my name, the name that my dad gave me when I was born is Maiv Muam Nkauj Lig Lis. And so the English version is May Muam Nkaug Lig is not as sexy. And people just call me May Lee-Yang now. Because May is my first name. Lee's my last name. And Yang is my husband's last name.

DOUALY XAYKAOTHAO: Your play is about your friendship. It's about two best friends who find each other. Two refugees from Laos, a highlander and a lowlander. So I mean, what does that even mean?

SAYMOUKDA DUANGPHOUXAY VONGSAY: So for Lao people, there's Lao lum and then Lao suung. And May would be considered Lao suung, which is high Lao. But my family is from Vientiane and Champasak, that area.

DOUALY XAYKAOTHAO: That's the capital.

SAYMOUKDA DUANGPHOUXAY VONGSAY: And your parents are-- what village--

MAY LEE-YANG: From the mountains.


SAYMOUKDA DUANGPHOUXAY VONGSAY: There is no village. It's just a mountain.

MAY LEE-YANG: Well, you know, I learned something from being friends with Mouks. Mouks is like, there's Laos, and then there's the Hmong version of Laos--


MAY LEE-YANG: --where we really don't care about what else is around us.

DOUALY XAYKAOTHAO: Right, because the Hmong who lived in the highlands were actually never sort of documented. So they governed themselves in these very hard to reach remote areas in Laos. And yet, both groups never really crossed paths.

And here you both are. This is the 40th anniversary of the first family from Laos that arrived to Saint Paul. And we're celebrating. You're celebrating through many events, including these theater productions. So really, when we talk about playwrights, writers, people of color-- it's a small community. But for Lao, Hmong Americans, it's even smaller, isn't it?

MAY LEE-YANG: Oh yeah, totally. I mean even finding words to say theater in Hmong is challenging, because you can say [LAO], and people will be like, well, that's a Lao word. We want to use authentic Hmong language. And you use the term [HMONG]. And they're like, well, that could mean dancing or singing or a host-- a lot of things.

So a lot of times, we're creating-- we are like the people who are creating new word. I mean, Hmong theater didn't exist the way it looks anyway. It didn't exist until 1994 when [INAUDIBLE] theater was first formed. And it later evolved to become the Center for Hmong Arts and Talent Chat.

SAYMOUKDA DUANGPHOUXAY VONGSAY: Well, Laos has had a rich tradition of theater. But for Lao people, a lot of people aren't very much into the Western way of how theater is done. So it's been difficult to cultivate an audience to come to my play, because they're just like-- What? We have to sit and not talk? That's weird.

People like chatting. And they like talking about what they're seeing on stage. And when they react and it's visceral, they're loud about it. So--

DOUALY XAYKAOTHAO: It would be rare to actually have a theater that would be filled with Southeast Asians or folks or families, right?

MAY LEE-YANG: Yeah, well, I mean I've been really fortunate. I mean, when I first started doing theater, there weren't a lot of Hmong people who came to see theater. I remember-- oh my gosh, five years ago, somebody said to me-- I had a show. No one came. And somebody said, well, I think it's because Hmong people don't come see theater.

And I was really angry and annoyed. And anyway, so then I went off and did my own thing. And I started doing a show called Confessions of a Lazy Hmong Woman. And I decided to just do all the marketing, get audiences. So basically, I was doing audience engagement and outreach.

And we had sold out shows. And then I went on tour. And then my career as an artist thrived.

DOUALY XAYKAOTHAO: What does that mean, lazy Hmong woman?

MAY LEE-YANG: Yeah, so I was joking about how when I was growing up, I was a lazy Hmong girl. And so people were like, well, how is that possible? Because if you're a Hmong girl, you had to have done housework and all of this stuff.

And so I started thinking about my life. And I hate how I suck at housework. I don't really like-- I love to eat, but I don't really like to cook. I worked really hard. I think I worked really hard because I always had a job. And I did well academically. I just didn't want to do housework.

You know, I think a lot of it had to do with my relationship with my parents. And because my parents said to me when I was a teenager, if you're going to be lazy, you better do well in school or have a backup plan because if you marry a Hmong guy, he's going to send you back.

People had a stereotype about what they thought a Hmong woman should be. And I wasn't any of that stuff. People always said, you're weird because-- it's not a big deal today, but 10, 15, 20 years ago-- it was weird that I-- I was married and I went on tour as a theater artist, that I had guy friends. To even be making a living as a Hmong-- as an artist is considered weird.

DOUALY XAYKAOTHAO: For me, when I saw the play, I thought it was such a funny example of how two people sort of found each other, and then kind of somehow were attracted to one another in some odd but--

MAY LEE-YANG: I was scared of her when I first saw her.

SAYMOUKDA DUANGPHOUXAY VONGSAY: I was hot. I was so hot. I was a hot gangster girl.


I mean I'm still hot now, but not a gangster girl anymore.

DOUALY XAYKAOTHAO: Well, yeah, I mean, that's the thing is that-- well, you obviously-- and you have hot men in your play, too.


DOUALY XAYKAOTHAO: What's that about?

SAYMOUKDA DUANGPHOUXAY VONGSAY: Well, we as Asian women are very sick of being objectified. And we saw a Huffington Post article saying that Asian women are at the top of the-- what's it called-- the sexual--

MAY LEE-YANG: Sexual chain.


MAY LEE-YANG: I don't know if that's true or not. I mean, I don't know if that's the term they use, but that's the term I use.

SAYMOUKDA DUANGPHOUXAY VONGSAY: So this was something that we were both pretty angry about. And so we decided, you know what, you know what we're sick of? We're sick of our Asian men not being seen as desirable or being seen as handsome.

MAY LEE-YANG: I have this thing on Facebook where I just-- it's the hot Asian man movement, which is we provide images, representations of hot Asian men from all-- different ethnicities. People who are local, as well as national and international. And it's been really empowering.

DOUALY XAYKAOTHAO: Your friendship is really what this entire play is about. And it's almost like a Lao person educating a Hmong person about one another, except that it's really soaked in American cultural elements, because it's not simply about tradition. I mean, you have a Madonna song in there.

MAY LEE-YANG: Right, right. There's so much pop culture. And I think it's just a reflection of who we are.

SAYMOUKDA DUANGPHOUXAY VONGSAY: It's because we felt that it's more fun to watch a play about two friends than it is to watch a play about a country, right?

MAY LEE-YANG: I mean it was education in a different way to-- I think it was I believe in trying to create work that's engaging. Because I think that's the core of who we are as people and as friends as well.

DOUALY XAYKAOTHAO: Why writing? It's not what so many Asian-American youths are pushed towards.


MAY LEE-YANG: Well, for me, it's-- part of it was escapism. I always-- whenever people ask me why I became a writer, I always-- my story is the same because it's a real story. When I was a kid growing up in the '90s, my parents thought-- were afraid that we were going to get recruited into gangs.

So they kept us at home and I didn't have much to do. So I ended up watching a lot of TV, playing a lot of video games, and reading a lot of books. And so on all of these are forms of escapism, and all of them are forms of storytelling, I think. And so after a while, I realized, I want to write my own stories.

It's-- life is hard. And it's a way for you to enjoy it-- whether through books or movies or writing or theater, it's an interesting-- much more interesting way to examine and reflect and get through our lives.

SAYMOUKDA DUANGPHOUXAY VONGSAY: I think I just-- hey, to be honest, I'm just good at writing, just to tell you the truth. I think it's fun. And it's like May says, it's one way for you to put the stories out there that aren't told. And if it's your story, there's power in that because you're creating it yourself and you're putting it out yourself.

And I think one of the hardest things is to get young people, like young Lao people to want to write because it's not as sexy. They don't think it's as cool. And--

MAY LEE-YANG: Well, a lot of people--

SAYMOUKDA DUANGPHOUXAY VONGSAY: --their parents are telling them there's no living in that. There's no--

MAY LEE-YANG: Well, a lot of people don't realize they have interesting stories to tell too. Like I think there's this myth across all cultures I think that to write, whether it be fiction or memoir or whatever, you have to have fascinating things happen to you.

Some of my favorite things I've read or seen has been writing by regular people who would say they are not writers, but one of the things they have is they have a story. And there's something amazing about the rawness of hearing a senior citizen tell a story or like a third grader write about-- I don't know-- processing death in their family. Basically, they have no filter. They're not there because they're trying to create beautiful words. They're there because they're trying to tell an interesting story.

DOUALY XAYKAOTHAO: So what's next for both of you?

SAYMOUKDA DUANGPHOUXAY VONGSAY: Well, I have I have a stage reading of my play, Kung Fu Zombies Versus Shaman Warrior, which is book 2 of the Kung Fu Zombie verse anthology of stage works. That's coming up December 20th. And that play is going to address how mental illness in the Lao community is perceived as demonic possession or bad luck or bad karma. And I just want to break that down and let people know that that's not the case. And I want people to be able to feel OK to talk about mental illness and mental health.

MAY LEE-YANG: Yeah, well, I think my next theater project that I'm-- the script I'm trying to finish before the end of the year is about domestic violence within the Hmong community. I'm going to be having conversations with people-- men, women, survivors-- and I'm going to be writing a play that in my head is I see what it looks like and it's very experiential, but I need to actually do a research.

DOUALY XAYKAOTHAO: Saymoukda Duangphouxay Vongsay and May Lee-Yang, thanks for coming in.


MAY LEE-YANG: Thank you for having us.



DOUALY XAYKAOTHAO: Their play is called the Hmong-Lao-- Lao-Hmong Friendship Play. It's running at Penumbra Theater in Saint Paul next weekend.



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