By BRYAN THAO WORRA
AAP staff writer
MINNEAPOLIS (Oct. 22, 2015) — May Lee-Yang and Saymouka Duangphouxay Vongsay are award-winning writers, performance artists, and real-life best friends. This month, they collaborate on a new play about their relationship with each other. Asian American Press sat down to an interview with them.
Q: What is “Lao-Hmong Friendship Play or Hmong-Lao Friendship Play?” What can audiences expect to see?
SDV: Lao-Hmong Friendship Play or Hmong-Lao Friendship Play is a musical comedy that keeps getting interrupted by obnoxious refugee lifehack tips, a flying guillotine, prairie life daydreams, a beauty pageant, and a slew of hot Asian men.
Q: Why does the play have two titles?
SDV: It’s a commentary on several things. For instance, I learned from my collaborator that there is a Hmong version of Laos with its own governance structure. My grandfather was a provincial governor and her father was also a governor “in the mountains” she says. The play title is also an observation on the two communities’ hesitation or reluctance for collaboration to meet a common goal. We saw this bit of tug-of-war during the planning of the veterans monument in regards to the naming of the memorial. We both processed some complex feelings about that. It’s just one example. For us, this project has been collaborative from conception to execution and that shows in our performance. You can even discern which one of us took the lead on a certain scene because our personalities and interests are so different. You can also see which scenes held up both of our voices as playwrights and performers.
MLY: We believe in equity. Also, we couldn’t decide who should go first, so this was our compromise.
Q: You recently had a Minneapolis show. So why do a St. Paul one as well?
SDV: Accessibility. Also, May said that if we do the show in Saint Paul, the Hmongs will come.
MLY: These days, I can’t just do a play. I need to think about: Is it affordable? Are we at a location people can easily get to? We know that there is a Hmong and Lao population in Minneapolis, and a huge Hmong population in St. Paul. We wanted to make sure our show was easy to get to.
Q: We saw that you released a rap video recently. Tell us more about that.
MLY: “Refugee Slang” is a trilingual rap video inspired by Big L’s “Ebonics” song. Being refugees, Mooks and I spoke about being put in ESL classes growing up. Instead of looking at our bi- and tri-lingualism as a negative, we wanted to celebrate where we come from.
SDV: I’m a hip hop head. I grew up with hip hop and consider myself a steward of the culture in some ways. At twelve years old I heard NWA’s “Express Yourself” and really liked it. I was bullied because I was a sickly kid with tuberculosis who had to go to ESL sessions every day. I eventually fought back because Dre told me to when he rapped: Cause some don’t agree with how I do this/ I get straight, meditate like a Buddhist/ I’m droppin’ flava, my behavior is hereditary/ But my technique is very necessary. In my prepubescent mind, the necessary technique was to hit back.
Writing the lyrics to “Refugee Slang” came easy because it mirrors Big L’s own lyrics and cadence in “Ebonics,” a song demonstrating the versatility and reconceptualization of the English language by rappers like Big L. Plus, I wanted an excuse to make a rap video to promote the play.
Q: Since this play is about Hmong and Lao friendship, what have you learned about each other’s cultures?
SDV: I grew up in Saint Paul and have made many friends from the Hmong community. I’d like to think that I’m pretty educated on Hmong culture – its various traditions, beliefs, and customs. I competed at Hmong sports tournaments for years and known as a Hmong Volleyball Legend. I also have Hmong uncles, aunts, cousins, nieces, and nephews. I cofounded a Hmong spoken word collective a decade ago and have been christened an honorary Hmong person.
MLY: One significant thing I learned was that Hmong people been calling Lao people by a derogatory term and we didn’t even know it. My whole life, we’ve used the word, “Nplog” to describe Lao people, and it was only this summer that Mooks told me, “Um…the elders said that term’s kinda offensive. It’s like the Lao version of ‘meo’.” Apparently, other Hmong people were in the same boat as me, but now that we got the memo, we’ll start calling Lao people Lao.
Q: What do you hope this play will do?
MLY: I hope people will have a good time. A lot of times, we forget that theater should be engaging in the sense that it should be fun and something you enjoy. I also hope the play inspire people to talk and learn about people who are different from themselves.
SDV: I expect audiences will have a good time and that at the very least, everyone will leave with the understanding that the term for Lao people in Hmong, nplog, is the equivalent of meo. Even some Lao people aren’t aware of how derogatory being called nplog is and how insulting it is to call a Hmong person meo.
Q: If people were not Hmong or Lao, should they still come see the play?
MLY: Uh…yes! It’s been amazing how people have found ways to connect with the play regardless of who they are and where they come from. They connect to the comedy, the pop cultural references, and, of course, the theme of friendship.
Hmong-Lao Friendship Play or Lao-Hmong Friendship is presented by Lazy Hmong Woman Productions and will play at Penumbra Theatre, 270 Kent Street N, St. Paul October 29-31, 2015. Advance tickets are $12, $15 at the door with group discounts. For more information, go to www.hmonglaofriendshipplay.com or www.laohmongfriendshipplay.com.