By TOM LAVENTURE
AAP staff writer
The Mu Performing Arts production of a groundbreaking hip-hop martial arts epic “Kung Fu Zombies Vs. Cannibals” is set for performances from Oct. 12-27, 2013 at The Southern Theater, 1420 Washington Ave. S., Minneapolis, MN 55454.
Playwright Saymoukda Duangphouxay Vongsay celebrates her first major production that is directed by Randy Reyes with fight choreography by Allen Malicsi.
In a post-apocalyptic world, zombies have taken over and cannibals hide in the mountains. Based on the five Buddhist tenets, follow two Lao women as they struggle to maintain their personal moral code in a world gone wrong.
The play features epic martial arts battles and a hip hop spun live by DJ Kool Akiem. Recommended for Ages 14+ for adult language, and violence.
Tickets are $10-$22. Come dressed as the undead for a $5 ticket discount. Call 651-789-1012 or visit http://www.muperformingarts.org/production/kung-fu-zombies-vs-cannibals.
An AAP interview with Saymoukda Vongsay
AAP: Are children the lead cast members?
Vongsay: We have a pair of sisters, Ayden Taylor Her. Ayden will be making her Mu debut playing the mysterious 6 year-old hero in Kung Fu Zombies vs Cannibals. Her older sister Taylor is a Mu veteran. We’re very lucky to have two young actresses who are trained in martial arts and acrobatics and have experience as performance artists through Steppingstone Theater.
AAP: If so, does this help to illustrate their experience through encounters and decisions that emphasize the tenets?
Vongsay: Ayden’s character experiences a monumental change. Her understanding of what is good and bad shifts as the play progresses. I won’t give away how so but we all know that during those formative years the people who surround us, passing down their values and life philosophies – it sticks with you until you encounter new perspectives.
AAP: Is this the same as the precepts? “Abstain from taking of life; of taking what is not given; avoiding sexual misconduct; abstain from false speech; and to abstain from fermented drink.”
Vongsay: Yes. The story is framed by the Buddhist precepts which take on different interpretations by the characters in the play. Regarding cannibals, the precept to abstain from fermented drink, is reinterpreted as do not put toxins in your body. And if you’ve been conditioned to think a certain way, raised to hold very specific philosophies, it doesn’t feel right or it doesn’t feel wrong. It is what it is.
AAP: You have been a zombie fan for as long as I have known you. Why are zombies more popular than ever?
Vongsay: My fascination with zombies stem from the Buddhist practice of cremating the dead. I was intrigued by that and the questions that I was living with were, Could there be Buddhist zombies? Are there zombies in Laos? What is the Lao word for zombie? I was cautious about assigning any specific ethnic group in Laos as having zombie tendencies.
AAP: Are zombies metaphoric or just a tool to help illustrate “the world gone wrong” as a good contrast for your story or character?
Vongsay: The zombies represent multiple things, they’re complicated undead people. I can divulge one zombie metaphor – morality. How do you interact with the zombie community? Do they deserve compassion and understanding or a decapitation? These are questions we should ask ourselves if when the zombie apocalypse happens.
AAP: Do the zombies perhaps takes out any unintended political or military or historical context that could be implied by people who are sensitive to such things?
Vongsay: Every political and social commentary in this play is premeditated. The play questions intention, responsibility, and forgiveness. As political refugees who resettled in a country whose military was responsible for making Laos the most bombed country per capita in history, I’ve often wondered about the questions that my grandparents and parents lived with.
AAP: How does blending Laos mountains, children, martial arts and hip hop all come together?
Vongsay: There’s a place carved out in my heart for these things. Childhood connotes innocence and even mountains could be impressionable as old and strong as they are. The martial arts and hip hop components make the play fun. The story having a hip hop aesthetic is very intentional. I couldn’t imagine this world with fierce warriors, zombies, and cannibals without having the sound and score composed by my partner Kool Akiem. There’s also a soundtrack album in the works that features some of my favorite artists. Unlike the theatrical production of KFZ, the soundtrack album project is not funded by the Jerome Foundation or Mu Performing Arts. We’ve started a crowd funding campaign to underwrite the costs and have been extremely lucky with the amount of enthusiasm and support we’ve gotten. The KFZ concert and album party will be on October 27th at The Nomad in Riverside Minneapolis. Desdemona, Fres, Carnage, Mayda and other artists featured in the soundtrack album will be performing. The album is also available online at www.SaymoukdaTheRefugenius.com if you can’t make it out that night.
AAP: How much work was done to take you original story idea and transform it from the readings to the stage as a Mu production?
Vongsay: Not to deter aspiring playwrights but you’ll have to be completely committed. To this day I still breathe, sleep, and eat the characters, their stories, and the world that they have to navigate. What began as a 10 page flash play turned into an 80 page beast that can not be satiated. As many revisions and alternate versions that its had, I’ll always find something I want to change, big or small. Rick Shiomi and Randy Reyes did the dramaturgy for Kung Fu Zombies and they’ve been instrumental in helping me understand the world I wanted others to fall in to and believe could be real.
AAP: Has it changed your story?
Vongsay: The very first version had two Asian male protagonists. Rick urged me to explore the story with female leads and I’m so thankful I listened. Being a feminist, I’m fixed on reinforcing positive portrayals of APIA women, especially of Lao women from a Lao woman’s perspective.
AAP: Has the experience helped your ability to tell a story for the stage as opposed to writing?
Vongsay: I’ve grown tremendously as a playwright because of Theater Mu’s New Performance Program. Prior to participating in the fellowship, I’ve only written about a dozen flash plays and they were as varied as a mix-tape. There isn’t one particular subject I feel married to. I’ve written about asianphilia, conspiracy theories, death, religion, social networking, ghosts, gentrification, and so on and so on.
With KFZ being my first full length play, I found that the challenges were in finding each character’s narrative and how their story serves the play. I had to be thorough and know the world that I was creating – from the main heroine’s backstory to what the insect mentioned in scene 4 had for breakfast. That was tough. But with anything that is your baby, you love it unconditionally despite any flaw that may surface.
AAP: Anything to say about casting and direction, lighting and music, or that stuff?
Vongsay: We were specifically looking for actors that had martial arts training because we wanted them to be able to hit the ground running on their first day working with Allen, our fight choreographer. Randy has said that KFZ is the most ambitious play that they’ve produced. It requires a significant cast size, live music, video projection, and stage combat and he’s assembled an incredible crew – lighting, scenic, props, costume, sound designers and animator/projection artist. We’re thankful to the staff at Mu, to Eric and Don who are tirelessly working on the administrative side of the production. It’s a bumpy world we’re all trying to figure out – how each team member can do the best job that they can without sacrificing another team member’s work. To me, KFZ is already a success.