By SAYMOUKDA VONGSAY
AAP staff writer
Hmong American, May Lee-Yang, has been a household name in the Minnesotan arts community for over a decade, known as a playwright, poet, prose writer, and performance artist.
Lee-Yang was born in Ban Vinai, a refugee camp in Thailand following the Secret War in Laos. Nine months after her birth, her family resettled in St. Paul, Minnesota where she lives to this day. Her work often explores the lives of Hmong women and living in a bicultural world.
Lee-Yang received her B.A. in English from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities and has since become a driving force in the Asian American performing arts community. She has been hailed by Twin Cities Metro Magazine as “on the way to becoming one of the most powerful and colorful voices in local theater.”
Her theater-based works include Confessions of a Lazy Hmong Woman (Out North Theater, kaotic good productions, Intermedia Arts, 2010 MN Fringe Festival, touring) Sia(b) (Mu Performing Arts, the Center for Hmong Arts and Talent-CHAT, and kaotic good productions), Ten Reasons Why I’d Be a Bad Porn Star (Illusion Theater, 2011 MN Fringe Festival, 2011 National Asian American Theater Festival), Stir-Fried Pop Culture (CHAT, touring), and The Child’s House (Intermedia Arts).
Her writing has been published in Asian American Plays for New Generation (Temple University Press), How Do I Begin? A Hmong American Anthology (Heyday Press), Bamboo Among the Oaks: Contemporary Writing by Hmong Americans (Borealis Press), Water~Stone Literary Review, Jade Magazine, and others.
She has received grants and fellowships from the Minnesota State Arts Board, the National Performance Network, the Midwestern Voices and Visions Residency Award, the Playwright Center, the Loft Literary Center, and is a winner of the 2011 Bush Leadership Fellowship.
Lee-yang is a co-founder of The Unit, a collective of emerging playwrights of color, and sits on the planning committee for the 2011 APIA National Spoken Word Summit. In her 9 to 5 life, she works as the Executive Director of Hmong Arts Connection, a non-profit based in St. Paul.
Vongsay: What else do you wield with your hands other than a pen?
May Lee-Yang: Remote controls, forks, rice, many men’s masculinity.
V: Where is your happy place?
MLY: In bed, reading on my Kindle, 80s music in the background, nothing on my calendar for the next day.
V: In the spirit of ‘wait 20 minutes before swimming,’ what should a writer NOT do before their pen hits the paper?
MLY: Censor themselves before the work is written. If you are afraid to write even before words exist on the page, you may never finish writing. Just create first then deal with the critic later.
V: This past year, you won a Bush Fellowship, which is quite prestigious. What are you going to do with all that money and time?
MLY: I was fortunate enough to be one of fifteen who received a fellowship in 2011. I have this audacious idea of literally building a theater that tells stories from a Hmong lens. I can go deep and say that Hmong people have been homeless and that homelessness extends to me as an artist. But, from a very practical point of view, I (and other artists) need space to explore and create new work. We need space so that we can build stability and community. It’s very hard to build community around theater when you are always moving from location to location.
V: Tell us about your newest project.
MLY: I’ve spent the last year working on a Hmong language version of my show Confessions of a Lazy Hmong Woman. For the longest time, people have said, “I really enjoyed this show. I wish I could bring my parents.” So, now that the show is in Hmong, I hope people will bring their parents and other family members.
V: For people who are not familiar with it, please tell us what the show is about?
MLY: I’ve often been told that Lazy Hmong Women do not exist. We are expected to be obedient, kind, hardworking, and nice to any man who may come to court us. When I revealed to people that I didn’t fit in this category, people asked, “How is this possible?” The play is an exploration of how the Lazy Hmong Woman came to exist and, along the journey, you get to meet the people who impacted her.
V: Other than language, how is this show different from the English version of Confessions?
MLY: The original version was a two-person show. For this version, I hired a cast of six actors, and this show really was an opportunity for them to get their feet wet in theater. Additionally, to make it easier for families to attend, we are providing free childcare for all performances. RSVPs are appreciated but not necessary. We’re working with various organizations to make sure that their clients, such as elderly Hmong people, have access to the show. Lastly, to make the show accessible to non-Hmong-speaking people (as well as Hmong who don’t speak the language), we’re providing a limited number of headsets with English interpreting.
V: What is something that would surprise people about the show?
MLY: It’s a comedy — yes, Hmong people can be funny. We make no references to the War in Laos — oh, wait, we do but it’s quite funny. The point is, people often expect a “Hmong play” to be about the refugee experience. This show is very much about the Hmong American experience.
Confessions of a Lazy Hmong Woman: The Hmong Remix is playing February 3-12, 2012 at Neighborhood House, 179 Robie Street, St. Paul, MN. For more information, go to www.lazyhmongwoman.com.
Tickets are $12 in advance, $15 at the door. Group rates are available. To purchase tickets online, go to http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/219114 or contact [email protected] or call 651-233-9952.
Vongsay is a Jerome Foundaiton/Mu Performing Arts’ New Eyes Theater Fellow (MN) and winner of the Alfred C. Carey Prize in Spoken Word Poetry (NY). Get to know her at www.refugenius.com.