December 6, 2022

“Refugee Nation” Leilani Chan & Ova Saopeng. Photo by Michael Burr. Performance at UCLA Ackerman Grand Ballroom 2/1/2010.

By TOM LAVENTURE
AAP staff writer

Refugee Nation, the acclaimed stage production exploring the impact of war, refugees, global politics and citizenship began as a national tour five years ago and is making its first Minnesota stop for a two week collaboration with Pangea World Theater, the Lao Assistance Center and Intermedia Arts. The production was created by Ova Saopeng and Leilani Chan and will include actor Lidet Viravong who portray the son and also step in for some action scenes for expectant mother Chan. The play is set in America and in Laos where unexploded ordinance remains an issue to this day.

It also deals with the refugee experience, assimilation, generation gap, and mental health using drama, film, music, and audience interaction, and personalizes these issues through a genuine Laotian American perspective.

Leilani explains that Minnesota was a focus of the playwriting process in 2005 when they were gathering oral histories of Lao American refugees. She said that the play deals with the challenges of being refugees but that it has a lot of good spirit and comedy.

The Legacies of War National Traveling Exhibition has traveled to ten U.S. cities and to Dublin, Ireland, and made its Midwest debut at Intermedia Arts on September 30, 2010. The exhibition runs through October 24, 2010 with film screenings, community workshops, and discussions throughout the month.

Performances run from October 8-17, at Intermedia Arts, 2822 Lyndale Avenue South, Minneapolis. Tickets are $10 advance, and for students and seniors, or $12 at the door. Purchase tickets online at www.IntermediaArts.org, or by calling 612-871-4444. Find out more about the production online at www.refugeenation.com.

Leilani Chan took time to answer questions.

Asian American Press: Are there local cast and crew with the production or is it all Leilani Chan and Ova Saopeng?

Leilani Chan: The cast of three are all visiting artists from California. Leilani Chan and Ova Saopeng are the pillars of the production, as the writers and original cast members, with Litdet Viravong as a new addition to the cast. The Director, Rena Heinrich is also based in Los Angeles. Crew members were hired locally from the Twin Cities theater community. Kathy Maxwell, Jenny Moeller, Ian, Jake and Mike are all skilled and talented technicians of the stage.

AAP: What can you say about the process of writing Refugee Nation?

LC: Writing Refugee Nation took many stages of development from: gathering stories, to crafting the themes, exploring it on it’s feet, and finally scripting the play. We work in a very non-traditional process.  We have developed the work in stages.  Initially we interviewed Laotian refugees and their descendants in Minneapolis and in other cities across the country.  We developed scenes that could be presented in theaters in L.A. and New York.  We also created scenes that could be presented at the Lao New Year Festivals where hundreds of Laotian gather in San Diego, San Francisco.  This process has introduced theater to an immigrant community that does not typically go to the theater. Now that we are back in Minneapolis we hope the southeast asian community and the theater going public can come together to see the full show at Intermedia Arts.

AAP: Are your characters composites of many people or of specific individuals?

LC: Both, some characters were based on specific individuals because they had very detailed and dramatic stories. While others needed to be pieced and woven together from various individual stories to make a complete character. In creating a work that is community-based the challenge is that there are so many stories. How do we choose what to focus on? So we would narrow down our topics to specific issues or themes that gives us the ability to explore deeply.

AAP: What is it that has made this production work and able to tour?

LC: Refugee Nation really is the Laotian American story but within those experiences are universal themes of war, family, assimilation, identity and history we all can relate too. It speaks to all people who’ve made America their home having fled their home country because of war or persecution.

AAP: Has this performance evolved or stayed the same? Is it tweaked for the Minneapolis audience?

LC: It continues to evolve and take shape with every city we tour. Some of the scenes are definitely tweaked to connect with the local audiences. Minneapolis audiences will surely be surprised.

AAP: Do the performers breathe a different life into the characters and does that alter the story at all?

LC: Yes, each actor truly fills the roles with their own individual unique flavor but the structure and story still stays true to itself.

AAP: What is the difference having a collaborative process with Intermedia Arts, Pangea World Theater?

LC: Having two amazing arts organizations working together is always a win-win. Combined resources and support by these two organizations have made it possible for Refugee Nation to be presented at a very high level aesthetically and artistically.

AAP: What role does the Lao Assistance Center play in the production?

LC: Lao Assistance Center has played a crucial part in bringing the production to the twin cities. LAC is the community partner that has helped expand audiences for the show and connect the artists with the local community.

AAP: In your view, what is the impact of this play and how has it helped to solidify the Lao community nationwide-if that is the intent?

LC: When we see families of several generations come to see the play, we are so delighted because it begins the dialogue. The fact that we can be a bridge to connect generations and ingnite conversations up between the generations about the past and present, the old and the young, the experienced and the curious is an amazing result of what art and theater can do. Additionally, Refugee Nation has helped to raise the visibility of the Lao community through an educational, entertaining and engaging medium for all people to experience.

AAP: Is the issue of UXO and modern day Laos discussed in the production?

LC: Yes, Legacies of War, a national non-profit that advocates and educates about the UXO situation in Laos began the same time as Refugee Nation. Actually, Legacies of War helped to commission the development of the play. We have been partners that continue to share and explore the current times of modern day Laos and the diaspora that exist.

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