May Lee-Yang (Photo by David Joel)
By TOM LAVENTURE
AAP staff writer
Minneapolis, Minn. (March 2, 2011) – Playwright, writer, poet and performance artist May Lee-Yang was a sensation at the 2010 Fringe Festival with her play, Confessions of a Lazy Hmong Woman, selling out every performance. Now as an upgraded production through the National Performance Network Creation Fund, co-commissioned by OutNorth Theater in partnership with Kaotic Good Productions, the play returns for a run at Intermedia Arts.
Intermedia Arts resident artist Robert Karimi directs the new version with May Lee-Yang performing with cast members, Phasoua Vang and Souvan Samuel Lee.
Performances will be held 8:00 p.m., Friday-Sunday, March 4-6, and March 11-13, 2011 at Intermedia Arts, 2822 Lyndale Ave South, Minneapolis, MN 55408. Tickets $10 and |$12 door. Call or email 612-871-4444 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit www.IntermediaArts.org and www.lazyhmongwoman.com.
May Lee-Yang is fast becoming a powerful and colorful voice in local theater. Her theater-based works include Sia(b) (Mu, CHAT, Kaotic Good Productions), Ten Reasons Why I’d Be a Bad Porn Star (Illusion Theater), Stir-Fried Pop Culture (CHAT), and The Child’s House (Intermedia Arts). Her writing has been published in Bamboo Among the Oaks: Contemporary Writing by Hmong Americans, The Saint Paul Almanac, Water~Stone Literary Review, Jade Magazine, and others.
She is also the Executive Director of Hmong Arts Connection (HArC) based in St. Paul. She received her B.A. in English from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.
Asian American Press caught up with May Lee-Yang and asked her a few questions about the production.
AAP: From the play description, I can interpret the title, A lazy Hmong woman, to be a satirical spoof on the expectations of women within Hmong culture and of Hmong women’s view of themselves and of how the Hmong culture works within the American setting. How much can you tell us about the premise without saying too much?
May Lee-Yang: The show is a comedy but I’m not sure if I would consider it a satire. The premise of the show is, “How is it possible that a person can be lazy and a Hmong woman? How can this person exist?” Interestingly enough, this is a real question I get all the time. To answer it, I explore my relationship with the different women around me: my mother, my aunt, my sister, my sister-in-law, and even a nameless person whom I just title “The Perfect Hmong Woman.” Within the show, we even explore Hmong folktale concepts of “good” Hmong women.
AAP: On the other hand, the description of the women in play, rebelling against domestic chores could also be seen as the negative impact of American society – turning otherwise hard-working Hmong women into daytime TV watching couch potatoes. Is this also an element of the play?
MLY: When I did this show previously, someone non-Hmong actually said, “When I saw the show title, I was saddened because Hmong people are some of the hardest working people I know.” It should also be noted that Hmong people can have a sense of humor too and the title is meant to be ironic in many ways. Do I really think I or my character in this show is lazy? Not at all. I think we all do work; it just looks differently in different cultures.
In some senses, you could say that the lead character, BEE, is rebelling against Hmong culture. But even more than that, she’s just being her authentic self, and it doesn’t always match the profile of being “a good Hmong girl.”
AAP: What went into the reflections on relationships and expected cultural and societal roles of Hmong men and women? Was this from experience alone or did a lot of work going into defining where the 0.5 and the American-born generations are regarding cultural values and norms?
MLY: Though the play allows you to see me weaving in and out of my identities from age 5-present, if you were to ask me to give you an era during which this play breathes, I’d say it’s 1995, St. Paul, MN.
The play grew from my memoir-in-progress and through the process of creating this piece, I’ve had to confront my own perspective of Hmong men and boys. There may be male stereotypes reflected in the show yet my mantra has been, “Sadly, these were real words spoken to me by real people.”
I explore my relationship with men – namely, my brother and potential love interests – as well as a nameless Hmong man who represents how I saw Hmong men as a kid: that is, I remember my older sister getting countless suitors and it baffled me that all these older guys were after a teenaged girl.
I can imagine this show affecting people differently depending on their age and family dynamics. For example, most Hmong people my age get the inside jokes and cultural nuances while, for teens like my nieces and nephews, this world seems completely alien.
AAP: With that said, the play description mentions inter-racial relationships. What issues arise from this and how are they dealt with in the play as comedy, but also in leaving room for reflection and discussion?
MLY: Well, the play doesn’t really explore interracial relationships (as in miscegenation). However, because the play lives in a bicultural world, there is always the awareness that there is something else outside of the Hmong world and that something always influences the characters. For example, early on, I talk about the arrival of my sister-in-law. My mother tells me that it is the job of the sister-in-law to cook, clean, and take care of the family but the real sister-in-law that arrives doesn’t quite fit the bill. In fact, she brings in new ideas: eating take out instead of cooking, calling her by her first name instead of her title.
I think my character, BEE, is frustrated with parts of the Hmong world but she always gives it a chance. In that way, I think we leave room for discussion and reflection. I don’t think I ever once say, “Hmong men are lazy or Hmong men don’t work hard.”
At its core, it’s a play about someone just wanting to live in her own skin and the conflict that comes when people tell her that she’s not “normal”.
AAP: How has this production changed from your Fringe Festival debut to the production as it is staged Intermedia Arts Presents? What does director Robert Karimi bring to the production? Did you have to explain any cultural components to ensure the story was kept in the correct context?
[Robert Farid Karimi is an interdisciplinary playwright, poet, multimedia humorist, and storycook originally from the San Francisco Bay Area and a UCLA graduate. A Creative Capital recipient, a National Poetry Slam Champion, and a Def Poetry Jam poet, he has been performing for over 20 years. Karimi (kaoticgood.com) also creates, develops and directs ensemble-based interdisciplinary performances, such as Hmoob-land, which combined anime, pop culture and documentary theater to explore Hmong stereotypes; and Playing With Our Food, an organic youth performance workshop about what we consume.]
MLY: The show originally premiered at Out North Theater in Anchorage, Alaska in April 2010. Since then, we’ve shown it in Milwaukee as well as the Telebrations Festival in Minneapolis. I knew I wanted to do the show for Minnesota audiences and the MN Fringe Festival offered a great opportunity. One of the biggest differences with the Fringe Festival and the Intermedia Arts production is that we have a space that is our own. This means, we can have a set. It means we have time to play within the space. Textually, everything is still the same but we’ve had more time to ground ourselves within the characters and the stories.
I’ve worked with Robert Karimi on a few other projects and I value his innovation, vision, and willingness to collaborate with artists. As director, he doesn’t have the attitude that what he says goes. Rather, the creation of every piece is about collaboration, conversation, and learning.
Since Robert and I started working together in 2007 or 2008, he has learned a lot about Hmong people and I, in turn, have learned a lot about Filipinos from the West Coast (Please note: This is a joke because Robert is an Iranian-Guatamalan-American). We always have conversations to contextualize the stories but we also know we are creating theater, and though a lot of my work deals with Hmong themes, my work is not about presenting an scholarly researched and academically-correct interpretation of Hmong culture. It is about personal interpretation, which includes a healthy dose of love, irreverence, and commentary.
AAP: What can you us about the cast and their roles, yourself, Phasoua Vang, and Souvan Samuel Lee?
[Now living in St. Paul, Phasoua Vang was born in Omaha, raised in Visalia, Calif., which is where she got her first acting role as Momma Pig in her first grade play, The Three Little Pigs. Her recent performances include West Side on the South Side (West Side Theater), Hmoob-land (Kaotic Goods Production and CHAT), Stir Fried Pop Culture (CHAT) and Hmong Tiger Tales (Mu).]
[Souvan Samuel Lee, a 21 year-old Hmong, and the eldest of five kids, is currently a third-year undergraduate student at the U of MN majoring in Political Science. He also enjoys the performing arts but has only recently overcome stage fright and started in theater after working with Jan Mandell’s Central Touring Theater.
MLY: Though I’m the writer of the show, Phasoua Vang is really my partner in crime on the set. I’ve worked with her on previous projects and I have to say that, if you want to see her acting chops come out, come see this show. When I’ve seen her work before, I remember her being given the roles of the quiet girl, the good girl, etc. Within this show, she weaves in and out of different characters within my life and you get to see her versatility as an actor. She’s quite talented and has reminded me that people can do amazing things, if only given the opportunity.
I met Souvan Samuel Lee last summer when he did my Fringe show with me. There is guest role in the show that can either be done via voiceover or a live a person, and I thought, “A live person would be so much more fun.” Souvan is a student at the University of Minnesota and has great charisma and character and is definitely someone to look out for in the future.
AAP: What is the next project for you?
MLY: I was very fortunate to receive funding from the MN State Arts Board Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund to do a Hmong-language version of the show. As soon as Confessions closes at Intermedia, I will be holding auditions for five additional actors to join our cast. They’ll spend the next several months essentially getting a crash course in performance art. Then, in December, we’ll do Confessions of a Lazy Hmong Woman – The Hmong Remix. My husband may even write the lazy Hmong man’s story as a second act. In addition to theater, I plan to hibernate for a while and finish a collection of short stories about the lives of Hmong women.