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home : articles / columns : news / articles Thursday, November 20, 2014

5/1/2005 Email this articlePrint this article 
'Stir-Fried Pop Culture' Play Aimed At Hmong Community

Hlee Lee

On April 24, MU Performing Arts Center featured a Hmong writer in their New Eyes Festival. New Eyes Festival features Asian American performances through staged readings and presentations of new works and works in progress. The public was invited to attend the presentations and readings in order to give feedback to the writers.

This year, FIRE, a spoken word group from the Twin Cities, member and artist May Lee held a staged reading of her play ‘Stir-Fried Pop Culture. Lee had been working on the play on and off for four years. She started it when she was at the Play Writer’s Center for Many Voices Residency Program.

“I always wanted to see it come to life. I was in a position where I wasn’t doing a lot of artistic things,” Lee said. Her friend, Penny Yang, was the one who got Lee to put enough touches on the play for a staged reading. “A lot of things came up so we thought, why not just workshop it before we actually stage it?”

The opportunity came when HAIL’s (Hmong American Institute for Learning) Bryan Thao Worra approached Lee about representing the Hmong community in the New Eyes Festival. Lee had previously worked for Paj Ntaub Voice and continues to volunteer and write for them.

The play itself contains vignettes around one theme, asking the audience how much they think they know about culture.

“As Hmong people, we talk a lot about what we think is culture. Sometimes it’s not true. I want people to think, ‘does this have any relevance or do we fit into stereotypes ourselves?’” Lee said.

At the staged reading, the studio was small and the audience contained many friends of Lee. MU Performing Arts Center is located in Minneapolis, in such a secluded area and a difficult address that searching online would only get you lost, one would assume that people who wanted to attend probably got lost and went home.

Those who were present at the reading were very excited and very impressed. The reading had six actors and actresses. Xiongpao Lee, a member of FIRE; Shoua, a poet and member of HAIL; Angela Vang, a 16-year-old student in acting school; Penny Vang, a good friend of Lee with history in culture studies and recently opened up her own business called Fabulous Photos; and Peter Yang, also known as Lee’s other half.

The vignettes in “Stir-Fried Pop Culture” included a scene where William Hung who spoke perfect English but faked an accent to get on TV and sold out; the issue of Hmong people having American nicknames; young Hmong people trying to answer questions about their heritage and family background; a Hmong Cinderella, cooking; and even includes an orphan boy who is used to sort of mock other Hmong plays.

“A lot of this stuff…don’t take any of these characters seriously because they’re all idiots,” Lee said during the discussion after the reading.

When a Caucasian woman from the audience asked Lee about her poetry, Lee replied, “I tend to write more realistic stuff in my poems. Plays let you get funky. I think in my poems, I tend to be more political in some ways.”

As for her play, she said, “It’s not supposed to be authentic because a lot of the scenes within this play…they’re all different mediums: plays, shows and interviews.”

Lee has a vision for her play; she knows what she wants to see in her final staging. One problem Lee had, though, was deciding how to end the play.

“I really had a hard time trying to figure out how to end this play. We [Peter and I] have this theory that maybe he [William Hung] doesn’t really act like this; he does because Americans want to view Asians this way. So I thought it would be interesting to bring him into this fold to talk about the fake,” Lee said.

A Caucasian man, identified by the name of Leo, from the audience told Lee that he had seen many Hmong plays before, but none like hers. “I was really intrigued by this piece, I’ve seen other Hmong pieces. This one was very provocative. Others I’ve seen show Hmong tradition in a positive light. I had really not seen anything like this before,” he said.

Lee responded by talking a little bit about other Hmong plays and why her play was different, and why she intended that. She said that from the time when she was 18-year-old to now, at 26, all the Hmong plays were basically the same. They didn’t involve Hmong life in America.

“Can Hmong people get past the Vietnam War? Can we write about the Hmong American culture?” she asked.

“Hmong people try to portray themselves as good people everywhere. It’s hard for them to deal with the real issues,” added Peter Yang.

A woman from the audience told Lee that she felt offended by the amount of swearing and said that she was “turned off” by it. The swearing comes a lot during the scene where the orphan boy is talking to other Hmong people, a 16-year-old girl, about sex and sexuality.

“To me personally, maybe the swearing could be cut off or toned down,” she suggested. She said she didn’t feel comfortable with a Hmong man calling a Hmong woman a ‘b—h’, but said that maybe it was just because of the stage in life she was at.

In response to this, the actors explained that they only received three days to prepare for their roles and thanked Lee for giving them artistic freedom. They added, that maybe Lee didn’t intend the message of the Hmong boy being abusive.

Another audience member said, “it’s written with a kind of insider’s perspective. A Hmong person would get it, but would a non-Hmong person get it?”

Lee explained that taking aim toward the Hmong community was inten-tional. She said she was tired of Hmong theatre being for people where weren’t Hmong at all. Lee intends to keep her play and her art aimed at Hmong Americans.

“If you don’t understand, you go look it up. As a colored person, I see that they want footnotes. No, that messes up the flow! I’m older now and I’m not apologetic about writing for a certain audience. I would really like to challenge people to write the way they want,” Lee said.

“In white culture movies, they don’t stop to say, ‘do people understand what I’m saying?’” Peter Yang added.

A Caucasian audience member said, “I thought the piece was wonderful. I’d love to see it on stage sometime. It really gave me insight into the Hmong community. I’d like to see it go deeper.”

Another audience member said that the characters seemed really sarcastic, she felt confused about how she should feel about what was being said. She also said that she would have liked to see a glimmer of innocence and optimism in the play.

“The person is being overly dramatic. It’s not supposed to be realistic. There are truths, but it’s also ridiculous,” Lee said.

All the advice and sugges-tions made that night were taken in by Lee in hopes of improving her first shot at playwriting. Though it took her four years to show other people her words, she left that night very proud.

“It’s the best Hmong play I’ve ever seen out there. You’re way ahead of others out there,” an audience member said to her at the end of the night.

Reader Comments

Posted: Friday, April 7, 2006
Article comment by: Savanh

kuv xav sau ib zaj dab neeg hmoob puas yuav tau ?

Posted: Friday, February 10, 2006
Article comment by: xia lee

Wow...I'm impressed that there's actually something like this out there. I mean I'm from California and most of the events I always read is from Minnesota or some other state up there. I would like it if there was a chance it could take place in California. I'm really happy to see our Hmong society changing for the better.

Posted: Monday, January 9, 2006
Article comment by: mary

this is an upscale for us. keep it up!

Posted: Thursday, January 5, 2006
Article comment by: Tom Yang

In the article , it has said that we as hmong talk about our culture but dont actually knows it... by mean do anyone besides us know our own culture. in this particular sentences i beleive that theories is what we known and that no one would understand our culture.. i beleive that if this play has come into play it'll be a great one...

Posted: Wednesday, November 23, 2005
Article comment by: blia

wow... i never thought that Hmong people would never have the courage to actually do anything compare to what I have read online... and so far as a Hmong girl I am very glad that us Hmong people are succeeding somewhere. I wish you all who try so hard to get the Hmong community going Great Luck in the future and hope someday I could do the same. ~blea (california)

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